Beyond the Hype: Blockchain for Humanity

Photo credit: UNHCR

 

This article was originally published on Tech’s Good.

October 27, 2017, New York City – Imagine a world where humanitarian aid can reach people affected by crises exponentially faster, where refugees can store their health, education and identification in an uncorrupted system, and where migrant workers can have safer working conditions through smart contracts. This is the world blockchain technologists and humanitarians envision — one with more sustainable and dignified responses to humanitarian crises.

Blockchain technology offers the humanitarian world a more direct option for information and currency transmission during emergencies with increased speed, traceability, and safety. This innovation has a promising future in humanitarian work, but not without possible challenges and risks.

The Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA)’s Blockchain for Humanity initiative aims to promote cross-sector partnership to explore blockchain-based solutions for better policies in the humanitarian sector. Our upcoming Humanitarian Blockchain Summit will gather humanitarians, technology experts, scholars and social innovators to discuss the dynamic future of blockchain for relief efforts.

Beyond the Hype

But what is blockchain and what is behind all the hype?

Many people are familiar with blockchain-hosted crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin or blockchain softwares such as Hyperledger and Ethereum, but few know about the many potential applications of or technical details behind the technology. Collin Thompson of Intrepid Ventures does an excellent job of hashing out the system’s intricacies in a 2016 Medium series.

This video produced by The Guardian also highlights the inner workings of Bitcoin, one of the first forms of cryptocurrency on a blockchain.

The most crucial element of the technology is that every transaction on a block incorporates a previous block, forming a chain of blocks (hence the term blockchain). This feature makes the blockchain highly secure and very difficult to hack. It also allows for the instant transfer of funds or information without the need for an intermediary, like banking services or currency exchanges. This makes the transaction of currencies or information more efficient, affordable, and secure.

The Humanitarian Revolution

In humanitarian contexts, cryptocurrencies can enhance financial inclusion, ensure remittances are more accessible across borders, and facilitate immediate payment for lifesaving aid. For example, Bitnation, a humanitarian agency in Europe, allows donations to reach refugees through Bitcoin. Each donation is directly credited to a refugee’s debit card allowing them to withdraw cash without dealing with banks, that are often restrictive.

Humanitarian organizations are justifiably interested in other ways blockchain could enable more efficient humanitarian action and transparent aid delivery. If done with collaboration, ethics, and ingenuity, blockchain can revolutionize humanitarian response. Some agencies are leading the way:

ID2020 and Microsoft are creating a system allowing people to register their identity documents on a blockchain database. This project aims to to provide digital IDs to millions of undocumented or stateless people who lack access to basic government and financial services. This could have a life-saving impact for crisis-affected people, who frequently struggle to begin their lives anew without proper identification.

Aid:Tech in Lebanon provides e-vouchers on a blockchain to Syrian refugees in camps, allowing them to purchase goods in a localized refugee-economy and increasing the likelihood for self-reliance in the camp.

Handshake is designing a system for fair and legal labor contracts for international migrant workers, in an effort to minimize the prevalence of exploitation and insecurity while ensuring human rights and fair wages for work.

Governments have started to implement this technology in their own programs, storing information on the blockchain. Some examples include the management and organization of:

Additionally, blockchain has the capacity to ensure more secure delivery of lifesaving supplies through supply chain tracking, more transparent procurement of aid, more impactful humanitarian financing through impact bonds, and safer protection mechanisms through data encryption.

Tech for Good, Never Harm

Needless to say, the potential for blockchain as a tool for social change is overwhelming. However, so are the possible complications and challenges that may arise in using the technology within marginalized communities. Critical reflection and examination is essential if we are to ensure the technology serves the needs of the people before interests of companies and the questions are many, including:

  • If the data transacted on the blockchain is immutable, do people have the right or the ability to remove themselves from a blockchain system?
  • How can private and sensitive information (such as ethnicity, religion, gender, or other identification types) be left out of the hands of people who may intend to do harm?
  • In case of breach or abuse, what jurisdiction applies and who is accountable to ensuring data privacy?
  • How can crisis-affected populations have agency in interacting on the blockchain?
  • What measures or ethical standards could be put in place to ensure that vulnerable people fully understand the technology, and potential consequences of their interaction with it?

The blockchain, as a cross-border network, is not yet regulated by international or national laws. As long as data is managed on a global decentralized network, the protection and security concerns are numerous — especially in places with more autocratic governments, less corporate regulation, and populations already in peril.

Zara Rahman, fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, pointedly exemplified the protection risks of data registration currently facing Rohingya refugees. Modern-day crises, especially those fueled by ethnic violence, should compel humanitarians to employ technological interventions with the utmost caution.

By collecting evidence, piloting projects, sharing information, and analyzing the true impact of blockchain projects, we can begin to safely and effectively address these questions and outline new ethical standards to guide the use of technology in crisis. By staying true to the humanitarian principle to “do no harm” above all other objectives, we believe the humanitarian community can reach new heights with blockchain while simultaneously protecting those most vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and suffering amidst crises.

Humanitarian Blockchain Summit

The IIHA’s upcoming Humanitarian Blockchain Summit at Fordham University in New York City aims to spark a conversation about the potential for blockchain and humanitarian impact while keeping these ethical concerns at the forefront. The summit will allow humanitarian organizations to present the process, outcome and challenges of pilot blockchain projects while also providing space for dialogue among humanitarian and technology experts on future scalability and challenges.

Ultimately, we hope the Summit will be more than an exchange of ideas, but the start of an ongoing process for the development of a complete policy framework based on concrete results and with direct applicability to the humanitarian sector.

Some of the many partners coming to the table include the United Nations Office of Information and Communications Technology (UNOICT), the Centre for Innovation at Leiden UniversityCivic HallConsensysID2020HandshakeUnited Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations WomenCentre for Citizenship, Enterprise and Governance, and World Identity Network, among others.

Blockchain technology provides an opportunity to an interconnected world to truly incite systemic change that may not only increase the impact of humanitarian response, but perhaps lessen the severity and likelihood of crises in the first place. Creating policies, collaborating across sectors and interests, and prioritizing humanitarian ethics and principles is essential for ensuring blockchain truly serves humanity.

Registration for the Humanitarian Blockchain Summit at Fordham University in New York City is now open.

Lara Lopis, IIHA Innovation Intern, Master’s student in Science and Technology Policy — University of Sussex 2018

Angela Wells, Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs Communications Officer, awells14@fordham.edu

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