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Paper Plus cash voucher programming in camps in Jordan

Amid justified excitement in the sector about the opportunities and efficiencies offered by e-cash solutions, traditional paper vouchers’ reputation as slow-starting and data-poor has been challenged by NRC’s projects in Zaatari and Azraq camps in Jordan. Piloted in September 2014 and with a throughput of $150,000/day just four months later, NRC’s ‘Paper Plus’ system linked barcodes to a cloud database for instant verification. It has also delivered rich live data to support project responses to previously invisible opportunities and challenges in the complex camp environments.

NRC Jordan is the lead partner of UNHCR in providing refugees with shelter and NFIs in Zaatari and Azraq camps.

During 2014 NRC held a series of consultations with residents of Zaatari camp to better understand whether assistance provided by redeemable cash and vouchers would be preferred to in-kind support. The results of the assessments were clear; most people wanted more control about how to use the assistance assigned to them.

Although both WFP and UNHCR had large-scale account-based systems in development or already in use outside the camp, neither was at that time fully operational in the camps or able to accommodate funds from an NGO partner. Integrating NRC’s project with either of these systems would have been the preferred choice, however as they were not quite ready, we had to explore new options. Mobile phone-based money is undeveloped in Jordan and regular cash was considered to present unacceptable safety issues in the context of Zaatari camp in particular. A new, interim, solution was required.

The system

CodeREADr[1] is a combined cloud-database-and-smartphone-app service, used most commonly for concert and airline ticketing and asset tracking, and was not known to have been used in the humanitarian sector before. It is extremely flexible and can be set up to address many different needs.

For this use case we needed cashiers to be able to verify or reject barcodes on vouchers presented at checkout. CodeREADr was configured to query an online database of valid codes and reject those that were not in that database or which had been scanned before. Set up in this way CodeREADr requires an always-on internet connection, but this is not usually a problem for the WFP supported supermarkets in the camps.


Low-cost locally-procured Android handsets were provided to the supermarkets and their functionality locked down by NRC, reducing the opportunities for misuse. Voucher printing was low cost because extensive paper-based anti-fraud measures were not required. Indeed attempts at voucher copying have not yet been observed, and would immediately be detected and rejected by CodeREADr if it were to happen. The web-based administration panel allows staff to manage the database of valid codes, adding and removing them when necessary.

The overall system proved to be cost-effective, with a CodeREADr Pro license costing $40 per handset per month and other costs for commodity hardware and printing also low. For the UNHCR-funded Zaatari winter contribution voucher distribution the overall cost was between 0.5% and 0.8% of the project’s value.

Click graph to enlarge

Click graph to enlarge

Alongside reliable voucher verification, the most important feature of a CodeREADr-based system is the richness of live data it produces. Questions can appear on the handsets at any point in the scan process, potentially returning numbers, text, multiple-choice selections or photos and scans of other barcodes. This scan data appears immediately on the web admin panel and can be filtered and exported to Excel for further processing.

This has allowed NRC to gather and share an unprecedented variety of data on customers’ shopping patterns. We ask, for example whether the shopper is male or female, and we ask what category of item they are buying. Automatically recorded is the time of shopping, the handset ID, and GPS data. If voucher codes are associated with UNHCR-issued IDs at the time of distribution, which they are in Jordan, the result is a wealth of disaggregated data with which access and protection issues for vulnerable groups can be identified long in advance of a Post Distribution Monitoring (PDM) process. No personal information on an individual or family, including their ID numbers, needs to be stored on the CodeREADr system.

Click graph to enlarge

In a round of vouchers distributed in place of sanitary napkins, for example, we found that only 6% of female shoppers spent their vouchers on the napkins with the rest on other hygiene items and food. This was a concerning finding (although usage, not receipt, is the desired end) which could prompt agencies engaged in hygiene promotion to look again at their understanding of peoples’ needs, preferences and how they choose to get the items they want.

Project-based progress towards full utilisation of funds can be monitored by simply tracking voucher spending against the total number distributed. In the example (right) we can see that, with a week of the eligibility period remaining, 93% of vouchers are spent but that careful monitoring will be required to close out the grant successfully.

We can also use the data to track spending on key commodities and identify any supply-side issues there may be. In the chart below from the January 2015 Zaatari winter contribution vouchers distribution, it is easy to see a rush on food during and in the week following distribution (from which we understand that people may feel more food insecure than we thought). Another observation is the very intermittent purchase of gas bottles (which then forces us to question whether it is a supply side issue or consumer choice).

Click graph to enlarge

A project’s gender aspects (and other equal-access considerations) can be monitored as, with the right questions asked at checkout, the shopping preferences of any group can be looked at in isolation. Information on shop choice and preferred time of day to shop are available, in addition to the items chosen.

In Zaatari camp, due to the highly active informal market, the resale of vouchers and in-kind items has always been a feature of distributions. For the first time, and due to the data-collection capabilities of the CodeREADr-based system, we are able approximately to quantify it and understand for what the traders are then using the vouchers. This can then be complimented by case-by-case protection-based follow-up with the families who have sold their vouchers, or who may even have had them stolen.

As a general principle NRC in Jordan has made its vouchers as flexible, for the customers as possible, consistent with protection concerns. Vouchers can be used to buy any item on sale in the supermarkets (except tobacco products). Lower value vouchers are not tied to individual IDs, in order that recipients have the flexibility to send someone else to shop on their behalf, or even to legitimately sell their voucher if their own most urgent needs cannot be met in the supermarkets. Higher value vouchers have been ‘tied’ to the UNHCR assistance cards purely as a protection measure in order to reduce the risk of theft. This transfer of decision-making power from project managers to camp residents has been understandably popular.

Emerging challenges

As the modality has matured in the months since the launch of the pilot, so issues with the system have been identified and data emerging has required action in terms of changes in project design and follow-up from NRC protection staff.

Firstly, the system does not run itself. In order to provide teams in the camps with quick responses to queries about individual voucher code validity, damaged vouchers, human error in data management etc., a system administrator is essentially required to be available all the time. As this person must also be in a position to generate financial accountability (by activating voucher codes) a relatively senior member of staff must be in this position.

Secondly, errors can be generated in the scanning process by (very infrequent) app crashes, seemingly usually the result of internet connection instability. These have to be resolved on a case-by-case basis, and it is sometimes not apparent from CodeREADr data whether a particular voucher subject to an error has actually been accepted at a shop or not. It is necessary therefore to wait until the supermarkets’ invoices are received before a decision can be made whether to reactivate or replace a problem voucher.

With the previous in-kind distributions, information of what happened to an item after it was distributed was rarely available beyond a sample in PDMs. With CodeREADr data however we are able to understand much more about how vouchers are used. This includes information on the issue of resale of vouchers in Zaatari camp’s very well-established souq. Resale of in-kind items was never tackled because, on the seller’s side at least, it was largely invisible. However resale of vouchers can be identified and therefore requires a programmatic response. Several such issues have emerged, and NRC’s programme staff have had to accommodate the additional workload.


The ‘Paper Plus’ vouchers programme has provided NRC with a reliable, cheap, scalable and user-friendly system in the camps in Jordan. The more the project team came to understand the richness of the data that could be collected, the more valuable insights were provided into the camp population’s needs, preferences and protection issues. This has been a great support to the evolution of project design and a powerful advocacy tool.

It should be noted that several key enabling factors were in place in Jordan in 2014 for this type of initiative. Following a sustained period of advocacy from several parties, there was an emerging consensus in the sector and with the authorities that the time was right for a move to cash-based programming in the camps.

Sufficient funds were available from two of NRC’s key donors; UNHCR and ECHO. Also vital was the established distribution role NRC plays in the camps, resulting in trained and professional distribution staff and, perhaps more importantly, a relationship of trust with the camp population that NRC would deliver fairly. Local markets were developed and well-integrated, with good banking and telecommunications services available. These conditions will not all exist together in many of the environments where humanitarian actors engage. Nonetheless, the ‘Paper Plus’ vouchers may be considered an option to be assessed against alternatives.

The transfer of responsibility for purchasing choices has been appreciated by the camp residents. Credit must go to the camp authorities - the Government of Jordan (as SRAD) and UNHCR Camp Management - and to UNHCR and ECHO as donors, for supporting the innovative features of NRC’s voucher-based projects. WFP must also be credited with putting so many of the preconditions for cash-based programming in the camps into place, without which NRC’s projects would look very different.

This article was kindly written by Roger Dean, Cash and Voucher Coordinator, Norwegian Refugee Council – Jordan. 

[1] www.codereadr.com

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