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How can new tools such as e-vouchers and cards help us to better support Europe’s most deprived?

This was the question ESN discussed on 19 February at the European Parliament (EP) with EU law makers, representatives of the European Commission and implementing partners of the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) together with the social vouchers’ issuer Edenred. Public authorities from Malta, Greece, Italy, Croatia and Belgium gave insights into current FEAD implementation and showcased how e-vouchers could be used to better support people affected by severe poverty and social exclusion.

A major change in the new ESF+ regulation is the possibility to use electronic vouchers and cards as a delivery tool for food aid and basic material support under the FEAD programme. Together with MEP David Casa (ESF+ Rapporteur) and MEP Brando Benifei (ESF+ shadow rapporteur), ESN members and other interested organisations discussed how these new mechanisms would work in practice.

MEP David Casa opened the debate by explaining that FEAD would retain its strength also under the new ESF+ with e-vouchers and cards allowing food aid beneficiaries to get their support in a more dignified way, offering them a choice for where and what to buy to meet their basic needs.

MEP Brando Benifei underlined that the new regulation would allow to improve, streamline and innovate the functioning of the services deployed by ESF+. He highlighted that e-vouchers could contribute to this process if concerns such as anonymity of users are properly addressed.

“FEAD currently reaches over 13 million people per year and these new delivery tools could be used to reach them in a more dignified way,” said Loris Di Pietrantonio, head of unit for ESF and FEAD at the European Commission. He explained that a survey at a FEAD network meeting revealed that 40% of FEAD stakeholders were willing to explore e-vouchers under the new ESF+ regulation but stressed that e-vouchers or cards should not operate like normal credit cards.

ESN Members from Malta and Greece presented challenges in the current FEAD implementation locally. Alfred B. Grixti, from the Maltese Foundation of Social Welfare Services (FSWS), and Evdoxia Ioannidou, FEAD Project Manager for Municipality of Athens, both highlighted issues with storage and distribution of food, the heavy administrative burden for public procurement and tendering, and the demoralising effects on beneficiaries of queuing at FEAD distribution points.

An example from France, implemented by the Red Cross in cooperation with Edenred, highlighted how food and material support can be provided through a vouchers system. ESN members from Italy and Croatia and Edenred Belgium showcased examples of e-voucher programmes already in place at the local level. Massimo Molgora, Responsible for Social policies at the City of Brescia and Zorana Uzelac Bošnjak, representative of the City of Zagreb argued that e-vouchers and cards can speed up food distribution, prevent monetarisation of paper-based vouchers, and provide anonymity and dignity for the beneficiaries.

 “Today’s event shows how much we can learn from local projects. E-vouchers may lower administrative burden for local and regional implementers of EU projects, free up more resources for the actual provision of social support, and contribute to the social inclusion of people experiencing poverty and social deprivation in Europe,” said Alfonso Lara Montero, CEO of the European Social Network.

This article was amended on 13 March. An earlier version referred to 30 million, rather than 13 million people.

Background info:

The Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) supports EU countries' actions to provide food and/or basic material assistance to the most deprived. In 2018 the European Commission proposed a regulation that merges FEAD and other social EU Funds into the so-called ESF+. This new fund will come into place with the upcoming new funding period starting in 2021.