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You Can Now Help Feed Refugees with Your Phone

The WFP has launched an app that lets users donate 50 cents to feed a child refugee from Syria for a day.

The Syrian refugee crisis has reached historic proportions, with an estimated 9 million people displaced by civil war since 2011. Those fleeing face not only the danger of war but a perilous journey and an uncertain future in foreign lands. As nations figure out how to deal with an influx of migrants, some refugees end up hungry. Now, thanks to an app, you can feed refugee Syrian children half a world away with a tap of your phone. Steve Jobs wins again.

READ: The WFP Wants to End Global Hunger in 15 Years

The World Food Programme (WFP), the food assistance wing of the United Nations, launched an app for iPhone and Android today called ShareTheMeal, which lets users donate 50 cents to feed a child refugee from Syria for a day. The goal is to raise meals for 20,000 children for one year.

The free app links to a credit card or PayPal account (financial processing fees were negotiated down), and the WFP takes it from there, delivering a day's worth of food to a child located in either the Zaatari or Azraq refugee camps in Jordan. ShareTheMeal says the food "may include a sweet breakfast with porridge, enriched with special nutrients and maize with beans or peas for lunch. Every child has her or his own portion."

It's an innovative funding approach in large part aimed at a new generation of donors. For young people who are more likely to crane their necks downward at their phones than up at a TV, the days of the telethon fundraiser are a thing of a distant past.

"So many people in that generation are more comfortable with handheld apps than they are with URLs on a desktop," says Steve Taravella, a senior spokesperson for the WFP. "So we were looking for a way to engage young people, help them feel part of the solution."

ShareTheMeal points out that the 2 billion smartphone users worldwide outnumber hungry children by 20 to one. With a donor threshold of just 50 cents, nearly anyone can donate. There are options to donate a week's, month's, six month's, and year's worth of meals, and a progress bar shows how close the program is to achieving its goal of feeding 20,000 children for a year. Users are able to share what they've given via social media.

"One of the components is that we do want to create a sense of community among those who see the importance of giving," Taravella says. "So we hope that people will become part of networks with their friends and encourage each other, and even compete with each other."

A trial run of the app in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland resulted in more than 120,000 users raising $850,000 to give more than 1.7 million meals to children in Lesotho. Taravella says it's too early to know much about their user base, but as the app's name might suggest, donations spike around lunchtime.

"I think people are making the association between their ability to give themselves a meal and the inability of many others to get a meal at that time of day," says Taravella.

The focus is on Syrian refugees for now, but once the funding goal is complete, the app will shift to focus on another population in need. Its micro-funding, "hive philanthropy" approach is similar to that of the app Instead, which encourages users to make small donations to nonprofits by suggesting things like brewing your own coffee and donating what you would otherwise spend on coffees at a café.

The WFP's larger goal is to eradicate hunger by 2030. Apps like ShareTheMeal that are both convenient and affordable could help toward that goal.

"WFP has been working for five decades to feed hungry people, and sometimes tools or approaches that work for a certain number of years stop being as effective as they could be," Taravella says. An app is new territory. "In the immediate term, we would define success as a positive response to this app as one more tool in the humanitarian world to help agencies fight hunger."