U of T students head to Jordan to study iris-scanning ATM initiative for refugees

Employees from Cairo Amman Bank showed students how the iris-scanning ATMs work. From left to right, Elizabeth Assefa, Rawan Habanbeh, Adam Sheikh and Dojanah Jaafreh

Getting cash assistance to refugees can often pose a problem for social service organizations, with issues ranging from debit card loss to fraud.

The UNHCR has partnered with Cairo Amman Bank and other organizations to launch the world’s first refugee, cash-assistance program that uses iris-scan technology. A group of students from U of T traveled to northern Jordan to see how iris-scanning ATMs are making it easier for Syrian refugees to access the cash-assistance program. 

The trip was part of the Munk School’s Reach Project, an initiative led by Professor Joseph Wong, a political scientist in the Faculty of Arts & Science and associate vice-president and vice-provost, international student experience. The project focuses on researching cases that demonstrate successful delivery of social services to hard-to-reach populations, and the Jordan program is a good example of that.

“A lot of that has to do with giving refugees more autonomy,” says Marin MacLeod, a second-year master's student at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “Giving cash is more efficient than giving items because refugee families know better than anyone what they need.”

Elizabeth Assefa, a recent graduate from the Munk School of Global Affairs' master's degree program, has also worked with refugees in South Africa. Previous cash-assistance programs that relied on debit cards presented problems, such as card loss and fraud, she said.

The students found that with the iris-scan technology, approximately 95 per cent of cash donations are going directly to refugees.

“It makes it easier and more cost-efficient to identify and transfer the cash to those who are most vulnerable,” Assefa says. 

Supported through a partnership with the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, the Reach Project began in 2015 with students – both grads and undergrads – travelling to Brazil and then to South Africa in 2016. Four trips have been planned this year to India, Thailand, Rwanda and Jordan, where students study best practices that can be used in other settings.

Read about students travelling to India for a Reach Project


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