How can Blockchain technology be used to help those most in need when humanitarian disaster strikes? These and other questions were at the heart of the first Humanitarian Blockchain Summit hosted by the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs, Fordham University, New York, in partnership with the University of Northampton, UK, both members of the global AshokaU network of Changemanker Campuses united in pursuit of social innovation.
The summit brought together academics, technology experts and practitioners to discuss the future of blockchain technology in humanitarian operations against a backdrop of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Areas of discussion included practical ways of facilitating the ethical adoption of humanitarian blockchain solutions in response to technical, legal, and governance issues, new cross-sector partnerships to encourage technical collaboration and explore non-traditional funding sources and building a digital community of developers interested in monitoring the social impact of humanitarian aid. A video of the proceedings can be found here.
The assumption behind the conference is that blockchain technology, implemented ethically and with ingenuity, has the potential to revolutionise humanitarian aid. Whether it’s the transfer cash to disaster victims, coordination of delivery of supplies, streamlining humanitarian financing, or making humanitarian projects more gender-inclusive, blockchain technology can help.
The summit comes at a time when humanitarian aid is being viewed cynically by sections of the public. UK foreign Aid distribution currently stands at 0.7% of GDP, which in 2016 was £12.7 billion. Despite the UK being just one of a handful of OECD counties to have met this UN-inspired target it remains controversial, with accusations ongoing that money is being wasted or misspent through corruption. There is also a sense that the current system has become self-serving, with the major beneficiaries the aid organisations themselves. Audit processes set up to measure outcomes add more layers of administration and cost. And, in the worst of all possible outcomes, long-term dependency on aid can end up rewarding poverty.
This is where blockchain comes in. The technology has the capacity to ensure more secure delivery of aid through supply chain tracking, transparent procurement, impactful humanitarian financing and safer protection mechanisms. As the technology underpinning cryptocurrencies, blockchain could allow aid to be administered through digitised tokens that represent money. Provided stakeholders in the chain have done what they promised, the tokens are cashed in for local currency by recipients directly. A blockchain solution could cut transaction costs so more resource ends up where it is needed most, while the improved transparency would help stop corruption.
Encouragingly, some humanitarian organisations are already looking at ways blockchain can make aid delivery more efficient and transparent. Examples include Aid:Tech who provide e-vouchers on a blockchain to Syrian refugees in camps, Handshake who are designing a system for fair and legal labour contracts for migrant workers to prevent exploitation, and Disberse a UK fund management platform that uses blockchain to finance aid development. The Centre for Citizenship, Enterprise and Corporate Governance, a spin-out from the University of Northampton, has also been exploring innovative blockchain solutions in supply chain procurement and education that link directly to the United Nations SDGs.
These pioneers are at the start of what could be the most radical shake-up of aid funding in a generation. However, the technology used in this way is not without problems. Blockchain is currently unregulated by international law, meaning data managed on a global, cross-border, decentralised network could be at risk in territories with poor corporate regulation - often the very places where aid is needed urgently.
When disaster strikes in the shape of flood, famine or earthquake, humanitarian feet on the ground must always be the first recourse. Money in the form of foreign aid and charitable donations inevitably follows. But it would be complacent of charities and NGOs to assume people will continue to give indefinitely at present levels. Blockchain provides a fresh opportunity convince an increasingly sceptical press and public that humanitarian aid can be made transparent enough to justify their continued support.