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UN aid debate: Give cash, not food?

The United Nations World Food Program meets Tuesday in Rome to discuss the global food crisis.

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SOS via SMS: In Kenya, Tarik Tealei Teresha picks up a mobile phone. Some aid groups now use cellphones to send cash transfers to buy food.

Rob Crilly

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The hungry people of Kenya's Kerio Valley had waited since dawn to be fed. They were not waiting for the thunder of aid trucks or the distant rumble of a cargo plane signaling a food drop.

Instead, they were waiting for the beep of their mobile phones and a text message that they could use to collect cash to buy local food. It's part of a trial using the latest technology to streamline the aid process in a way that does not distort local markets.

"I have got it, I have got it," screamed one woman holding her cellphone aloft.

Tuesday, world leaders will begin talks in Rome on ending a global food crisis that has provoked riots and put 100 million people at risk of hunger. The Kenya program reflects a growing shift among aid groups.

In a major endorsement of the approach, the UN's World Food Program, the biggest non-governmental distributor of food, is expected to announce later this month that it will begin distributing cash and vouchers instead of food in some areas, according to WFP sources.

In a little noticed address recently to British members of Parliament, Josette Sheeran, the WFP's executive director, described the plan as a "revolution" in food aid.

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