If you are here, you must have heard of blockchain.

You are not alone. Humanitarian and development organizations have heard of it too.

Like almost every other sector on the planet, humanitarian action, development, and social sectors in general are said to be soon disrupted by the enigmatic technology everyone has heard of but only a few have seen in action. Blockchain evangelists talk like utopia is upon us; the reality is, of course, more nuanced. Maybe profound change will happen, maybe not, but it doesn’t matter for now – what matters is that blockchain technology seems to offer the opportunity to improve current systems, perhaps even change them radically, and these opportunities should be explored and assessed objectively.

Welcome to blockchain4aid!

Here at blockchain4aid we want to understand not how blockchain technology can “disrupt” humanitarian action and development, but how it could enhance them. We look at all the initiatives we come across and consider what exact use blockchain technology can have for emergency preparedness, in the middle of disasters, during refugee crises, as a tool in solving development challenges, and so on.

The landscape changes every day. New initiatives come up so fast that it can be difficult to keep up with all of them, and it is even more arduous to discern between valid ideas and those that will never achieve significant results. On paper, the majority of initiatives look good, or at least well intentioned – but that is rarely enough.

We are building a map of initiatives, actors involved (be they international organisations, NGOs, companies, governments, academia), conferences around the subject, and papers published. It’s a work in progress and you can see it here, a sort of cartography of an expanding world. So far we have looked at public information available for approximately 45 initiatives and have another 20-something under review. They vary widely in scope, format, and progress: there are pilot projects and networks created to test blockchain use in humanitarian or development contexts; conferences and summits about blockchain in humanitarian action, development, social good and similar areas; there are companies created explicitly to serve social purposes and for-profit companies with an eye towards social impact; there are academic initiatives studying the blockchain environment, proposing frameworks for analysis, for decision making, and for regulation; there are tools to find your way through the labyrinth of blockchain… the field is very lively, and incredibly interesting!

At the moment though, the majority of projects are in early stages and only few have scaled up after pilots; results (both positive and negative) are not published extensively; no evaluations have taken place yet, and it is still difficult to analyze initiatives in detail; there seems to be a certain reticence to share precise, factual information, and little data is available for independent verification.

In the Atlas, you can see where projects are taking place. We have included here only initiatives under implementation that have a clearly identified humanitarian/development aim, and in which a humanitarian or development entity (an NGO, a UN agency or a member of the RedCross/Red Crescent Movement) is involved; they are grouped by sector. We will continue curating it with new initiatives as we discover them, a sort of treasure map of blockchain-based solutions for humanitarian and development workers.

We have developed some other features that we hope will be helpful to both aid workers and technologists to navigate each other’s worlds and in relation to blockchain:

  • Dossiers. These are fact sheets compiling relevant information and references on companies and / or initiatives, with a brief summary of the positive and negative aspects of the subject.
  • Resources. A collection of websites, papers, demos, courses, and other tools that we find useful to navigate the complex worlds of blockchain, humanitarian action, and development.
  • Glossary. Short definitions of technology and aid words, in case you’re not familiar. If you hover over words with a dotted underline you can see their definition from the glossary.
  • Analysis Framework. This is a tool intended to analyze blockchain initiatives comprehensively and consistently over time, focusing on aspects of interest for humanitarian and development actors. So far we have applied it to WFP’s  Building Blocks project, and we plan to use it on others soon. We welcome your suggestions to improve and expand it; let us know your views here.
  • Blockchain 101. A series of articles aimed at explaining in simple terms technical aspects of blockchain. If you are interested in how the technology works, but don’t want to get a degree in computer science, this series is for you.
  • Aid 101 (forthcoming): A series of articles to unpack humanitarian action and development for non experts.

Our intention is to build upon these tools and provide over time more information and analysis, host opinions and debates, and thus help the two communities of aid workers and techies to come together for the benefit of everyone. If there is any feature that you would like us to consider, let us know in the comments or write us at [email protected] !

The humanitarian and development blockchain landscape

Every day, new use cases appear and we are still far from even imagining all the possibilities the future holds. Think back at when you started using emails, many years ago. Would you have ever imagined, at the time, that one day you could have free mobile audio and video communication, that you would be able to take someone else’s car to get to the airport, stay at a stranger’s place during your holidays, that you would share your photos instantly, or send money through your mobile phone? None of this was widely possible 25 years ago, but today through different combinations of mobile technology and internet, it is. The same applies to blockchain: we cannot imagine yet what blockchain alone and blockchain in combination with other technologies can (and will) do, but we can certainly expect some surprises, including in the aid world.

Blockchain initiatives and use cases have been classified in multiple ways, depending on what aspects were stressed, and in fact many analyses organize existing projects differently (see here, here and here). We have grouped them on four main categories, though new ones might arise in the future:

  • Financial transactions;
  • Non-financial record tracking;
  • Identity management;
  • Other use cases.

For the moment the most advanced use cases are those related to financial transactions. This is expected since blockchain was born as a technology supporting Bitcoin, arguably the first true cryptocurrency. In the case of aid, there are a number of applications: cash-based programming, social protection, remittances, individual and institutional funding (from individual donors to charities and NGOs or to institutions, individual peer-to-peer funding, or loans and donations), fundraising platforms, funds and assets distribution monitoring, time and cost reduction of financial transactions, all kinds of payments (including to suppliers), support to small scale international commerce, financial products for the unbanked, traceability to fight corruption, forecast-based financing, escrow and staged payments for impact investing, and financial reconciliation – just to name a few.

For example, the World Food Programme uses a blockchain-based system in its Building Blocks project in Jordan to distribute entitlements to Syrian refugees, while at the same time reducing the cost and time of accounts reconciliation; Oxfam is testing the use of blockchain to ensure transparency and fair trade payments of small-scale rice producers in Cambodia; UNDP has launched a pilot project with the Serbian city of Nis, using a blockchain-based platform for remittances; Start Network members use blockchain technology to transfer funds among their offices.

Another major use case for blockchain is non-financial record tracking. This can be done for many different things: tracking of goods in supply chains, to reduce the length and cost of certifying provenance and ensure authenticity; tracking of pregnancy progress and associated maternal health entitlements like ante-natal care visits and medicines; tracking of school attendance, recording educational achievements and certificates; verifiable claims for any kind of service; public-record keeping. In fact, record keeping is pertinent for all kinds of records both internally in humanitarian and development organizations, and externally. And it facilitates audits.

PharmAccess and Aid:Tech use blockchain to monitor ante-natal care of pregnant women in Tanzania; the Amply app, initially supported by the UNICEF Innovation Fund, is used in South Africa to register kids’ attendance to early childhood development centres and verify teachers’ claims for payment of their services; the CCEG Blockchain Educational Passport aims at tracking, certifying and using learning credits.

A third common use case for blockchain is solutions for identity management. Compared to the rest, identity management is a truly innovative application, especially in the case of self-sovereign identity, but it is also the most controversial and perhaps the most difficult to safely and ethically implement in the humanitarian and development sectors. It is also strictly linked to other use cases, for example financial transactions, as these can only be completed through an established identity within the blockchain. Through blockchain, solutions can be imagined to provide digital identity for refugees, for IDPs, for children and adults lacking birth certificates or other essential documents; to prove affiliation to aid organizations without showing documents, through zero-knowledge proof. At the same time, sensitive and personal data, stored on- or off-chain, must be protected and individuals must have agency over them, understand why they are collected, how they can be used, and all the implications of associating them with a blockchain, in the short and in the long term. There is a risk that data could be managed incorrectly, that it could be obtained through malicious means, or sold, or given to hostile parties; these are unacceptable risks when it comes to the vulnerable communities humanitarian and development actors work with. Organizations collecting data have the responsibility to do so with the appropriate safeguards, and should lean on the conservative side when it comes to data management, since we do not know yet how this field will evolve. The results could be dreadful if data is not handled correctly, in particular due to the immutable character of blockchain technology. Recording of personal data has substantial and wide implications, and extremely serious consideration should be given to the design of these platforms and their implementation, more than any other existing use case. Some blockchains are public, and therefore personal data should not be stored in them; even if data is encrypted, all encryption has a shelf life, and there is no guarantee that any specific system will be maintained up-to-date in perpetuity, potentially exposing sensitive individual information in the future. Even more importantly, the long term implications of associating personal data with blockchain are not completely evident yet, including for experts. They are even less clear for people who might not have sufficient technological literacy and knowledge to understand blockchain properly, and who therefore would not be able to give truly informed consent.

There are several attempts to capitalize on the decentralised and immutable characters of blockchain with the purpose of creating identity documentation for people who have lost it or never had it: the Zero Invisible Children (ZINC) project wants to register birth certificates on blockchain, to ensure an electronic record of children’s legal identity; the World Identity Network plans to use a blockchain solution to prevent child trafficking in Moldova, by establishing digital identities for children and a platform for their management; multiple initiatives look at using blockchain to establish or record identity for refugees.

Other use cases that are emerging are information and knowledge management, access to energy for off-grid communities, joint decision-making in emergencies, preservation of information and reports against censorship and for human rights protection. Many more will arise over time.

In addition to actual blockchain-based initiatives, there are some most interesting efforts that complement them, like Georgetown’s Beeck Center’s Blockchain Ethical Design Framework,“a tool to integrate values and ethics into the blockchain technology design and implementation process”, and HumanityX’s Blockchain for Humanitarian Aid Decision Tree, “a guide to explore the potential and limitations of using blockchain for humanitarian aid”. These initiatives show a healthy interest to frame blockchain solutions within the principles of the sector and to avoid potentially harmful or ineffective experiments, thus protecting populations, something deeply ingrained in humanitarian ethics.

Some reflections and a few questions

Some trends have emerged while examining the current status of blockchain in the aid sector. We offer our preliminary reflections here, and welcome all your comments and views!

Many of the major humanitarian and development actors are exploring blockchain. These experiments might not be publicized much, but almost everyone is doing it: the UN, the RC/RC Movement, NGOs, the academia. This means that there will be progress and there will be consequences, at the very least because of the sheer amount of initiatives being developed. Other technological innovations in the past did not raise the same attention and curiosity, and while some of it is the result of the massive hype blockchain has provoked, underneath there is substance. We will see things happen!

Several initiatives by for-profit companies, even if they have a social dimension, ultimately have a for-profit purpose. This can become an issue as the business model of companies is – naturally and expectedly – radically different from the business model of humanitarian organizations, and these two opposed modes will eventually clash. For example, could data collected through humanitarian activities be sold (even if only to finance these same activities)? If that happens, what is the limit to selling any other type of data? Is it ethical to do so? Who has the responsibility and the final word, companies or aid organisations? What tools do we have to manage this polarity? Standards and ethics code like the Beeck Center’s Blockchain Ethical Framework might be useful in this regard, and corporate social responsibility might offer valuable insights; with time new thinking might emerge to address this problem. Nevertheless, it is our view that vulnerable populations that are the “core business” of humanitarian organizations must be protected and not be harmed, inadvertently or not, by rushing to use blockchain solutions.

It is painfully clear that some tech companies entering the aid sector show a marked tendence towards solutionism or technologism, seeing “technology as a saviour” and wildly underestimating the complexity of humanitarian and development challenges. No technological tool will solve in a minute what has not been solved in decades, and technology by itself will not solve problems that are inherently human in nature. Development and humanitarian challenges are complex, and they require complex responses.

So far, few initiatives have been started by the people on the receiving side of aid; it will still be a while before blockchain-based solutions are regularly designed for example by refugees or communities affected by disasters; at the moment humanitarian and development organizations are a necessary intermediary. However, bottom-up solutions are always most useful, because they do solve problems that the people who designed them had to face. Tykn is one example of an initiative created by a former refugee. Once blockchain acquires a more user-friendly character and it becomes more accessible to non-experts, we will see a flourishing of initiatives coming from individuals and communities to respond to their specific needs. It would be excellent if some humanitarian organization started facilitating this process, for example in a similar way to the co-design approach used for OxChain.

In aid, there is an inherent unbalance of power between vulnerable or affected populations, and organizations providing assistance and protection. Could blockchain – as a tool that fosters individual control, generation of value, self-sovereign identity, and so on – change the balance of power between recipients and providers of humanitarian/development aid? In other words, could it be an instrument for real empowerment?

In conclusion

We can only conclude that this is just the beginning. Blockchain technology has the potential not only to improve structures, mechanisms and current practices, but it might engender real change, maybe even a paradigm shift in the aid sector. However, we should exercise caution and have a healthy dose of realism to counter the excessive hype blockchain causes: we are very far from the full realization of any of its promises – we are not even close to starting down that road, in some cases. For any of these high-minded goals to come to fruition, both aid and technological actors will need to make an effort to understand each other’s main goals, context, and functioning. We hope this website will be a useful addition precisely for such dialogue.

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