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Finances & Money Frugality

Food Stamps via Text Message?

A story out of Reuters says the U.N. will begin sending food vouchers to Iraqi refugees via mobile phone text messages that they can redeem at local shops.

The “virtual vouchers” worth $22 per family every two months will supplement traditional aid which rarely includes perishable goods, WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella said, announcing the pilot project supported by the mobile company MTN.

“They will be able to exchange their electronic vouchers for rice, wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, oil and canned fish, as well as cheese and eggs — items that cannot usually be included in conventional aid baskets,” she told a Geneva news briefing.

I’m sorry, but do you see something wrong with this? I’m sure I don’t see all the details in the article, but I think there’s something basically wrong with

1) Not having enough money for food, thus needing food aid

2) Having enough money to pay for at least a texting plan

I say #2 that way because I’m not going to assume these refugees have $100/mth calling plans, but more likely old fourth-hand cell phones with texting plans worth a few bucks a month, just to keep in touch with home (give them the benefit of the doubt).

Does anyone have more insight into this story, such as first-hand experience of what a refugee’s life is like? What are these refugees paying for their cell service? Where are they charging up their phones (i.e. how are they paying for electricity)?

On the other hand, I’ve known a few people in the past who have pricey cell plans, but use food stamps or free food pantries. Isn’t that just a fundamentally wrong ordering of priorities?

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Clever Dude


  • yeah, if they are buying staple foods with vouchers and living on $22 every 2 months how are they affording a cell phone? someone please answer, i’ll do a little research myself and check back to see if anyone has figured this out. doesn’t make any sense.

  • I havent been to Iraq yet, but I have lived overseas for more than 5 years and what we Americans dont see is how inexpensive cell phones are. When I lived overseas, it was actually cheaper for me to own a cell phone than a conventional telephone. My cell phone plan was pay as you go. Also, texting cost me NOTHING! Texting should cost nothing in the US as well because it is a small piece of data sent sent on the control channel which your phone is constantly getting info from.

    And yes, I did use my cell phone to make calls back to the US and it was much more affordable for me to call the US than for the US to call me (land line or cellular).

  • Yes, priorities are out of order all across America. Several years ago I went to Salvation Army to register for a ‘Coat for Kid’ when my son was about 13. Keep in mind we live in Cleveland. When we had to show up for last day of registration we were the only people there without cell phone, brand-new designer jeans, sneakers and, believe it or not, most everyone had new leather jackets already. Why would people have leather jackets on their toddlers? And if they already have all this new, expensive stuff why are they registering for anything “free”? Then we had to go downtown several weeks later to pick up jacket. Once again we saw leather jackets, designer jeans and sneakers and cell phones galore. We were given a used jacket that would have been suitable for spring or fall but certainly not winter. We saw other families getting brand-new jackets, parkas that would be great for winter. They also got games and what-not for Christmas presents. We, who really were in need after spending all my life as a tax payer, getting something not really even useful. Oh, did I mention that we were one of very few white families there? Do you think that made a difference to what we were given or even why we didn’t have the expensive items that should be seen as “extras” when all necessities are paid for? This erks me every year when the Coats for Kids drive begins, knowing that people use the system because they know it’s there so they don’t have to spend their own money for necessities and have enough money for designer clothes and cell phones. Same situation where my mom used to work at a free clinic. People with cell phones who can’t pay for general medical care and gold jewelry to the extent I don’t even understand asking for “free” medical care. Now, I see commercials for cell phones paid for by taxpayer funds. When are we going to wake up and figure out the difference between wants and needs, necessities and extras?

  • I don’t have any specific insight into this particular situation, but I do know that it’s not unusual for technologies that we consider fairly frivolous to have a much different function in other parts of the world.

    For example, I’ve read descriptions of slums/shantytowns in developing-world cities where people don’t have running water, but they have satellite TV. At first glance, that seems like a problem with priorities too, since we rich folk think of satellite TV as a means of entertainment. But to the people in that situation, it’s how they stay informed about what’s going on in the world. It’s especially important if the local media aren’t necessarily trustworthy.

    Also, there are hand-crank chargers that let you charge your phone without electricity. I have one. Maybe these people do too.

  • Yeah I’m gonna go ahead and make the assumption that a cell phone in Iraq is probably very cheap and very necessary for daily life. Don’t forget that many “developing” countries are completely skipping over the concept of wired phone lines and jumping straight to cell towers for residential users. I believe I heard somewhere that South Korea did this.

    Also, if your block is bombed and the phone line running out is cut, you are cut off from everything. But as long as there’s a cell tower somewhere near, you are connected. Cell’s make perfect sense in a place like Iraq.

  • @Gypsie and Graham, I figured as much, but wasn’t familiar with pricing overseas. I still don’t text on my personal phone because it’s 20 cents for incoming/outgoing, but at least now I have a Blackberry for work that I use for texting. It’s a shame it’s not all cheaper over here.

  • You imply that there’s something wrong with being able to pay for electricity but not being able to pay for food. Are you saying that if you ever fell on hard times, you’d cut off your electricity before you accepted food assistance from any source? Or does this only apply to people in other countries?

  • I know that Palestinians use cell phones a LOT because phone lines can be cut by extremist settlers and because things like road blocks & checkpoints (and spending 3 hours at a checkpoint for no real reason) mean that it’s very important to keep in touch so friends, family, and business associates will know where you are and when you’ll be wherever they’re expecting you.

    Given the instability in Iraq, I expect that Iraqi people are probably finding cell phones more and more useful for similar reasons.

  • So really, what I should be ranting about is the high price of cellphones here in the U.S.

    @Johanna, if I intended to imply anything, I would have just said it. If it’s a choice between eating or having lights, I’ll choose food. If I need electricity to cook the food, well, then I’m out of luck.

  • Working in the cell phone industry, I have had many customers both from overseas and going over seas. There is far less regulation overseas and the carriers have been there and established longer than the US. In a lot of areas it is easier (and cheaper) to have the towers for cell phones vs. running phone lines. 90% or more of service is prepaid and they even promote disposable cell phones. I agree with prior posts that they are probably the best way to keep in touch and cost far less than our services in the US.

  • I want to second that cell phones are a lot cheaper and a lot more common due to that and many factors over seas. Here are two examples from a business trip to China I just Got back from. I had to estimate (and I overestimated) the cost of my divisions use of some local phones during the trip for 10 phones over ten days we figured it was less than $150 this included using these phones to call back to the USA. Second one of the US workers of my company was telling about how her domestic was amazed to see how an e-mail could be on a computer and printed out for her to have a had copy, but here domestic of course had a cell phone. Someone else mentioned that many 3rd world countries are skipping landlines and going straight to cells. I can say I’ve had better coverage in the middle of a field in China than I get in many cities in the US.

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