Phone technology gives refugees a cash lifeline

Brian Dinga, his sister-in-law and her six children fled their South Sudanese home in September 2016 after his brother was shot dead in fighting. They trekked across the border into Uganda and were accommodated in the world’s largest refugee settlement, Bidibidi, where they struggled to make ends meet.

A donated mobile phone has given them a lifeline. Brian was identified by the non-governmental organization DanChurchAid as a vulnerable case and he now receives an electronic cash transfer via the donated phone to buy food for his family.

UNHCR is providing phones to refugee representatives so they can report on issues such as protection, water supplies and other services. UNHCR turned to the private sector for help and at the beginning of the year, it reached agreements with the Ugandan mobile network operators MTN, Africell and Airtel to provide connectivity.

Zein Annous, chief executive at Africell, said the company was “following the lead of the government’s generous policy towards refugees” by selling phones in the settlements at reduced prices and providing SIM cards free of charge. “Providing telecom services to refugees is a business but we also see it as part of our corporate responsibility,” he said. “We want to improve lives in a sustainable way.”

Working with the private sector to provide connectivity and improve the delivery of aid to refugees is one of the key themes among topics being discussed at a two-day conference in Geneva this week designed to find ways to strengthen the international response to refugees.

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