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GAZIANTEP, Turkey – It's only a small piece of plastic but for Syrian refugee Huda al-Ali it is nothing short of a life-saver: the difference between putting food on the table or having her children go hungry. She is one of thousands of refugees living in Turkey using a debit card provided by the World Food Program to take care of her groceries.
"The card gave us everything," says al-Ali, holding her youngest daughter against her hip. "We benefited from it 100 percent, more than you can imagine."
The card isn't worth a fortune, just a little more than $100 per month for a family of five. But it has given al-Ali a measure of financial independence and the freedom to pick and choose how she feeds her three children rather than relying on handouts. She and her husband struggle to pay rent for the small commercial space where they live in the southern town of Gaziantep.
Known as e-food, this voucher system has emerged as an innovative and easily expandable tool of humanitarian aid at a time when the international community is struggling to achieve more with less. Closing the funding gap will be a key topic when world leaders and representatives of humanitarian organizations from across the globe converge in Istanbul on Monday and Tuesday for the first World Humanitarian Summit, focused on how to reform a system many judge broken.
The summit is expected to draw the participation of some 50 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as thousands of government officials and civil society delegates. It was called by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a bid to overhaul how the world responds to conflict and delivers aid to those caught up in crisis.
At a time when more than 60 million people — the equivalent of New York, London and Paris combined — are displaced worldwide, the stakes are high but the funds are short. Humanitarian aid organizations are seeking out new solutions that are high-impact, cost-effective and suitable to the challenges of the time. The summit offers an opportunity to share best practices whether responding to conflict, disasters or climate change.
The United Nations describes 2015 as the lowest funding year with the largest needs. Improving the efficiency of aid, mobilizing more funds and shrinking the pool of people in need of help by preventing and resolving conflicts will be dominant themes at the summit. Technology, many feel, offers the best way forward.
Mathias Eick of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) points out that many of those needing aid today live in areas with relatively decent infrastructure which eliminates the need for big convoys to deliver food and other essential goods. That's what makes the debit card that al-Ali uses so promising.
It has the triple advantage of being easy to roll out, empowering recipients to make their own choices and boosting local communities where the card is spent.
Turkey, in exchange for helping address the migrant crisis, is set to receive 3 billion euros from the European Union to alleviate the plight of Syrian refugees in the country. One of the goals, Eick told the AP, is to use these funds to expand the e-voucher delivery system to include non-food items, which would make it the biggest cash-transfer system in the history of humanitarian aid.
"This is the largest project we have ever undertaken," Eick said. ECHO provides funding to WFP for the e-voucher program in Turkey and has begun to provide humanitarian aid for the first time in Europe as a result of the migrant crisis. "We can now use modern technology to reach beneficiaries much quicker and more effectively."
Turkey, host to the largest refugee population in the world, including 2.7 million Syrians, is on the front line of the crisis. The majority of Turkey's refugees live in urban centers rather than in government-provided camps, a reality that complicates the process of identifying and addressing the needs of the most vulnerable.
Run in conjunction with the Turkish Red Crescent, the WFP's e-food program already benefits 150,000 people living in camps and 100,000 outside them. The goal is to massively scale up aid outside the camps to help 730,000 people by the end 2016 as funding streams into the country as part of a complex deal between Turkey and the European Union to curb the illegal flow of migrants.
Europe, which received more than 1 million migrants in 2015, has also been forced to rethink how it approaches aid delivery when the recipients are on its doorstep rather than in far-flung conflict zones.
"In many situations, like the situation here in Turkey, our research shows that it is the best system to use — it's the most effective, it's the cheapest and it's the way to give people their dignity," said Johnny Hogg of WFP. "We believe this technology has a massive part to play in ongoing humanitarian relief efforts."
Technology is also raising hopes when it comes to improving access to education for children and young people, who make up half of those displaced by conflict, said Rob O'Daly of the charity War Child.
One of his organization's programs in Sudan uses tablet computer games to help children learn basic skills like mathematics and reading. It allows education to keep up with moving populations.
But much remains to be done in the face of a system largely designed with the needs of adults in mind and that prioritizes food and shelter, he said. As of today, less than 3 percent of humanitarian funding is spent on protecting children at risk of recruitment by militias or sexual violence at insecure refugee camps as a result of conflict, he says.
Similarly, education aid receives less than 2 percent of emergency funding, according to U.N. figures. But one source of hope at the upcoming summit is the launch of a new global fund to educate children in emergencies, which will build upon existing programs to school Syrian children living in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
While many organizations will use the summit as a platform to raise awareness of their cause, the consensus across sectors is that the way conflicts are managed needs a systemic overhaul. Many hope the summit will pave the way for an "aha" moment — akin to the breakthrough Paris agreement on climate change — that rectifies the course of humanitarian aid before it is too late. The outcome will be a series of commitments providing a framework on how to move forward.
"What we are seeing in the last 10 years is that the world seems to tolerate the fact that the rules of war are no longer followed in major conflicts like Syria, where you see hospitals being bombed and schools being targeted," O'Daly said. "I am not seeing any concerted action by the international community to assert the rules of conflict and to actually bring the combatants to order. I think the system is unraveling."
Soguel reported from Istanbul