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Colombia: food assistance via vouchers

29-09-2006 Feature

The ICRC helps people in Colombia who have had to abandon their homes and means of subsistence because of the conflict. Since the end of 2005, the ICRC has been operating a voucher system in Bogotá. The system enables beneficiaries of its assistance programme to buy food directly in shops, helping them to integrate more quickly into the urban environment and eliminating the sense that they are begging, a problem for many families who receive aid in the form of food parcels.

Over the last nine years, the ICRC has brought humanitarian assistance to almost a million people displaced by the armed conflict in Colombia. Every year, fighting, violence or threats force thousands of people to abandon their homes and means of subsistence.
According to the ICRC’s 2005 Annual Report, displacement particularly affects people from rural areas who flee to the cities. Not only do they lose their property but they are also plunged into a new environment. Often, they find it hard to adapt.

An ICRC voucher. Each voucher bears the name of the person entitled to use it.    

In many cases, whole communities abandon their homes and move to the poorer areas of the bigger cities. When this happens, ICRC teams go to meeting points and hand out food parcels.
In addition to these mass displacements, groups of several families flee their homes for the cities, either on account of violence against a family member or because of threats. When they arrive, they are faced with the task of trying to rebuild their lives.
Automatically, they go to the offices of the ICRC or the Colombian Red Cross. If they meet certain criteria, they receive aid “in kind” consisting of standard parcels containing enough food for one person for two weeks.
The ICRC provides this type of aid for a maximum of three months, except in the case of single parents, handicapped people, orphans and people over 65, for whom the limit is six months.
In November 2005, the ICRC began trials in Bogotá of a new system whereby people can exchange vouchers for food in shops near where they live.
After monitoring the scheme for six months, the ICRC could conclude that this was a popular idea.
The vouchers allowed these displaced persons to enrich their diets with fresh vegetables and meat, which were not included in the standard ICRC food parcel. In addition, exchanging the vouchers in shops near where people were living reduced travel costs.
Furthermore – and most significantly as far as the ICRC was concerned – using vouchers reduced the feeling of begging that many people had experienced when they were receiving aid in the form of parcels. A further advantage was that shopping locally is an opportunity to integrate into the social processes and life of the community, accelerating the return to a situation perceived as “normal” and making the transition to ur ban life less traumatic.
The ICRC is hoping to extend the programme to other cities where there are suitable shops and supermarkets.

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