Banking on Blockchain: Blockchain for International Aid

 
 
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Words by Samantha Howard
Photos by Alex Johnstone
This story was first published in Mini Matters

As the global refugee crisis reaches a calamitous pitch, could developments in financial technology come to the aid?


With over 65-million people currently displaced around the globe, we are facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. And while international development funds reached nearly A$196 billion in 2016, according to the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 30 percent of it failed to reach its intended destination. So, where has the money gone?

The simple yet infuriatingly complicated answer is that corruption, overheads and interest are largely accountable for the billions of dollars in aid lost every year. This failing leaves many feeling that they can never truly make a difference. Until now. Until Blockchain.

Blockchain technology isn’t completely new. It’s the platform that launched the innovation of Bitcoin – the first decentralised currency – and is, essentially, redefining the way we share information. While that may sound somewhat hyperbolic, we promise it isn’t. So, what exactly is Blockchain?

In a nutshell, Blockchain is a distributed database, otherwise known as a distributed ledger. The information recorded into this ledger is duplicated and shared across thousands of computers and everyone nominated as an owner must agree on all transactions recorded. Here lies the beauty of the Blockchain – it’s impossible for any third party to censor or interfere with the information. It works as each ‘block’ on the ‘chain’ contains transactions or recordings that are encoded, which encloses the information of the block before it so linking the two of them together to form a ‘blockchain’. Each transaction has a unique key and is securely encrypted, meaning that everyone on the blockchain can see that a transaction has occurred but only the sender and receiver, who are directly linked, have the ability to alter the details based on a mutual agreement.

This means that transactions can exist without a middleman. Transparency can be permanent and we have an ability to participate and be equal unlike ever before. So, how exactly can Blockchain positively impact international development?

A major part of the reason we’ve struggled to break the cycle of global poverty is because of the significant proportion of individuals who have no formal identity. According to AID:Tech, a multi-award winning tech company using Blockchain to assist delivering aid to refugees, 2 billion people in the world today are living without access to formal financial services, and 2.4 billion people are living without a legal identity. Refugees, or those living in developing countries, with no formal identification documents miss out on the basic public, social and financial services that they are entitled to – including aid.

 
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Dr Jane Thomason is a social policy advisor, Blockchain commentator and member of the Devex Impact Strategic Advisory Council. The Council consists of representatives from global corporations and international development organisations whose leaders provide their vision and expertise on creating positive impacts on international development. “By providing individuals with an identity, the underprivileged are able to access humanitarian aid, which will significantly help people who need it the most,” says Dr Thomason. “This is particularly crucial for refugees who become displaced as a consequence of conflict. If you have lost your country and you arrive in another place, having an identity that is secured on the Blockchain allows you to have access to financial services. It is a fundamental human right to have an identity, and it is necessary for financial inclusion.” When a refugee arrives to a host country after fleeing from conflict, they need to be registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) database. If their identity isn’t registered, they are not officially classified as a refugee. This means they won’t have access to what they are entitled to, including shelter, food, money, healthcare and education.

Blockchain technology allows aid organisations to create a digital registry for refugees consisting of their personal details, date and time of arrival, occupation, family members, contact and permission to share the information. A special ID card is then given, which has a barcode that can be scanned in order to access their identity. IrisGuard is a technology provider from Jordan that has started using iris scanning as verification. They claim that 1.6 million Syrian refugees have registered as refugees using this technology.

Understandably, reservations exist for some who are concerned about security. Part of the evolution of Blockchain will be the necessary advancement of methods to deter hacking attempts or software flaws. Law enforcement will also need to be configured in the case of any security breaches. Fears aside, Dr Thomason believes “Blockchain is more secure than anything we have had before and it can help us with the problems I’ve spent my whole life working on.”

There’s no doubt that Blockchain has the ability to transform the financial landscape from the way we buy our music to energy trading, with the potential to change the way we store and share our personal information. The change it could bring to international aid could, however, be its most profound. Surely that’s what we want from new technology: the ability to truly change the world for the better.

 

By providing individuals with an identity, the underprivileged are able to access humanitarian aid, which will significantly help people who need it the most.

 

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Samantha Howard is passionate about international development, the world and the individuals in it. She writes about people, culture, music, life and travel for various magazines and is the editor of an online Melbourne music publication.