While 2018 has not come to a close yet, speaking at AidEx 2018 and talking  with a number of attendees gave us a much clearer picture of what the current understanding of “blockchain in aid” is. Here are four lessons from our first conference, and some reflections for 2019.  

1. We need more clarity

One topic that came up time and again is the lack of clarity regarding how to “use” blockchain (and DLTs more in general), and its advantages as opposed to approaching issues through more traditional means. This is not surprising, and very self-affirming for us, too: spreading this knowledge is our mission. There is a solid understanding that DLT should not be used willy-nilly, but this is often based on reactions to the technology and its supporters, as opposed to a true understanding of its limitations. Our plan has always been to have a stronger focus on actual projects and initiatives rather than droning on about the technical aspects, so in addition to blockchain 101 to illustrate some technical aspects we can now zero in on the humanitarian and development use  of blockchain. A series on blockchain and the SDGs, anyone?

2. We need more evidence

Besides the fact that there aren’t yet many initiatives using blockchain in a humanitarian or development context (here you can see some we have mapped), the few that exist are closely guarded and somehow protected from external scrutiny. While it is ok not to expect evaluations before the end of a project, we find there has been limited desire so far to discussing openly the details of implementation and the possible issues – or even failures. Some of the panelists at AidEx rightly point out that this might be due to the funding mechanisms within the humanitarian sector, and the lack of incentives to disclose difficulties: but this is clearly counterproductive in the long term and for the sector in its entirety, as it would be more useful to share progress and failures, and learn from each other’s experiences. Donors, innovation labs, calls for proposals and the like share a responsibility to ensure that information and data are shared.

3. We must focus on the basics

The applicability of DLT to humanitarian action & development is limited to a few specific areas still (mostly related to financial transactions and to some extent to logistics and supply chains) and will remain so for a while. Maybe 2019 will see an explosion of innovative and truly well planned projects, who knows? What we look forward to is the fruition of the various pilots and proof of concepts that are currently under wraps, all sharing their results from which we can extrapolate interesting tidbits (that is, assuming we won’t see much “lessons learned”-style reports, but one can hope).

4. We need better questions

This is more of a personal reflection for me (Christian) as an outsider to humanitarian action and development: the effectiveness of speaking to aid workers on their own turf, as opposed to reaching out from my own (technology-focused) background, is clear. Even when repeatedly stressing the importance of not taking the implications of using blockchain lightly, people are a lot more engaged when things get put into humanitarian terms
(surprise!) – can DLT be useful in cash-based assistance? If so, how? What about emergency preparedness? Does it help in making sure that beneficiary data is kept secure? How are we keeping in mind protection concerns while testing blockchain? Can DLT be truly transformative for both local and international NGOs? By asking better question we can find much more useful answers.

We look forward to a stronger focus on analysis – both absorbing what other experts and researchers produce, and writing our own. In the meantime, we’re excited to participate in the 2018 Humanitarian Blockchain Summit, and then onward to next year!

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