Both start-ups and large organisations looking to tackle global poverty are discovering the incredible potential of blockchain technology. A brief look at some notable projects highlight just how quickly the sector is set to evolve.
What is social justice?
Strongly interwoven with the concept of social protection is that of social justice. This is because every person looking to avoid or escape from poverty is essentially seeking a just world – A world in which every human has an equal chance of health and happiness. Achieving this outcome, however, has historically been far from straightforward. The individuals most prone to poverty are often those with the lowest levels of educational attainment, the most restricted access to collateral assets, and the least geographical mobility. For years, those working in social protection have sought a breakthrough technology to level the playing field. Fortunately, blockchain technology has arrived on the humanitarian scene.
The emergence of blockchain technology
A blockchain essentially functions very much like an Excel spreadsheet, although uniquely, all data stored is done so publicly (meaning everybody can see all changes to the database) and permanently (so transaction histories cannot be edited before somebody notices) (Berryhill, Bourgery and Hanson 2018, p. 7). Importantly, these two key features, in promising to make the delivery of humanitarian aid more transparent, speedy, and effective, will almost certainly make it more just too. After all, if more aid is going to more people with more haste then greater levels of health and happiness for these people should follow.
The actors trialling the use of blockchain technology in the delivery of humanitarian aid vary drastically in both organisational size and structure. This means that alongside small seed-funded tech start-ups are large established charities and cumbersome international organisations. Equally as disparate are the approaches taken by these actors.
Just like a coding language, such as Python, can be utilised to produce numerous unique applications, so too can blockchain technology itself. Over the past few years, this flexibility has led to the creation of services previously unthinkable to the humanitarian sphere. Below, this article will outline just a handful of these social justice-enabling creations, taking the field by storm.
The Rohingya Project
Born out of a desire to help the stateless Rohingya people, a Muslim minority who for decades have been illegally denied citizenship in Myanmar, the Rohingya Project is pioneering the use of digital identity cards (Rohingya Project, 2019). It is hoped that these will eventually allow the over 700,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh to retain their identities, as few are able to take IDs and other forms of official identification with them (Thayer and Hern, 2018).
These IDs can then be used to access vital services such as healthcare, education and banking in the countries the refugees flee to. In a broader sense, if successful, the Rohingya project could spell the end of centralised authorities like governments or banks owning peoples’ identities, with these instead being stored independently on the blockchain and owned by the people themselves.
This mobile application provides online access to monetary assistance, work opportunities and high-quality educational programmes, with its target market consisting of resource-deprived individuals, such as refugees and those experiencing poverty (Exsulcoin, 2019).
For example, through utilising blockchain’s inherent advantages (such as its secure and public nature) individuals can use Exsulcoin to easily propose, vote for, and finance refugee-led projects across the globe (Tech Recaps, 2018). This means that intermediaries such as NGOs no longer have to follow costly and time-consuming procedures to achieve similar outcomes, increasing the amount of assistance actually available for these individuals and boosting access to social justice.
Meaning ‘coin’ in Nepali, the Sikka platform enables highly accessible, resilient, and accountable cash transfers to financially marginalised and vulnerable communities in times of crisis. These can be received via a basic phone’s SMS capabilities in the form of tokens and redeemed for ‘cash, goods and services at local vendors or cooperatives’ (Coppi and Fast 2019, p. 13).
Behind the scenes, a tedious and costly verification process, which was once conducted manually by intermediaries such as banks, has been replaced with a fast, transparent, and decentralised one allowing for transactions to be fully tracked on the blockchain’s immutable ledger (record of transactions). After the completion of a small initial trial in early 2018, it was found that Sikka reduced the cost of distribution per aid beneficiary by an impressive 78% (Coppi and Fast 2019, p. 14), paving the way for its future development.
It is encouraging to note that blockchain technology’s applications are hardly restricted to those outlined above, as many other innovative humanitarian use-cases will no doubt be discovered by entrepreneurs and organisations in the years to come. Avenues for further exploration range from facilitating the delivery of payments based on pre-determined parameters to ensuring traceability across a product’s or organisation’s entire supply chain. Just how many of these concepts are ultimately explored depends largely on the willingness of individuals and firms to fund them.
Yet more positive news concerns the fact that there appears to be no shortage of interest in financing humanitarian blockchain projects. This is evidenced by the fact that no fewer than 15 United Nations agencies were carrying out blockchain initiatives (to varying extents) as of 2017 (Starkie 2017, p. 3). With the development of blockchain technology advancing at such a rapid pace, and much of the funding for its humanitarian applications already committed, the fulfilment of social justice is looking promising.
Berryhill, J., Bourgery, T. and Hanson, A. (2018). Blockchains Unchained: Blockchain technology and its use in the public sector, OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, No. 28. [online] Paris: OECD Publishing, p.7. Accessible: https://oecd-opsi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Blockchains-Unchained-G…
Coppi, G. and Fast, L. (2019). Blockchain and distributed ledger technologies in the humanitarian sector, [online] ODI, pp.13-14. Accessible: https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/12605.pdf [Accessed 3 Aug. 2019].
Exsulcoin (2019). Exsulcoin | We build products that help people learn faster and better. [online] Exsulcoin.com. Accessible: https://exsulcoin.com [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019].
Rohingya Project (2019). Rohingya Project – Unlocking Potential. [online] Rohingyaproject.com. Accessible: https://rohingyaproject.com [Accessed 2 Aug. 2019].
Starkie, H. (2017). Usage of Blockchain in the UN System. [online] Office of Information and Communications Technology, p.3. Accessible: https://unite.un.org/sites/unite.un.org/files/session_3_b_blockchain_un_… [Accessed 1 Aug. 2019].
Tech Recaps (2018). 11 Blockchain Startups to Watch in 2018. [online] Medium. Accessible: https://medium.com/@coinrecaps/11-blockchain-startups-to-watch-in-2018-c… [Accessed 1 Aug. 2019].
Thayer, S. and Hern, A. (2018). Rohingya turn to blockchain to solve identity crisis. [online] the Guardian. Accessible: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/21/rohingya-turn-to-blockchai… [Accessed 1 Aug. 2019].