Humanitarian aid has a specific goal in most cases – ongoing support and an improvement in the quality of life of those in need. Blockchain use has proven to be increasingly successful in the last few years among charities and Non-Government Organisations who provide ongoing humanitarian aid.
By employing a strategy that is ‘disruptive’ or which intentionally breaks the time-worn traditional methods, Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO)-types of humanitarian aid have proven to reach their intended destinations faster and with fewer obstacles to success. The previous top-down method necessitated decision-making and approvals working their way slowly through the layers of CEO, down through management, and down to efforts on the field. The time-lag in implementation is being chipped away by NGOs and charities who have begun to embrace the newer, faster, less-cluttered methodology of blockchain.
Many of these projects are still in their pilot phases as they work through any problem areas of operation, but some remarkable success stories have emerged that reveal the new directions that are likely to be taken by humanitarian aid agencies in the years ahead. Let’s examine who those organisations are and how successful they have been to date.
The United Nations (UN) leads the way in adopting blockchain usage. With the elimination of the need for a trusted third party to verify transactions, the United Nations World Food Program has successfully used blockchain technology for several years to provide transparency in the donation process. As funds are received and goods and services are provided, individual and corporate donors are reassured, knowing that their donations will reach the intended target with less administrative and processing costs. A further safety net is created with the tracking offered by the consistent availability of blockchain records. Food, medical supplies, and other essential aspects of support can now be tracked from warehouses to delivery. (ETH News, June 2017)
The World Food Program (WFP) has created ongoing relationships within countries that have an established base of operations. In locations where they are assured of a functioning local market, the WFP has begun to offer cash transfers to recipients more frequently. This allows the beneficiaries to purchase the goods and services that they actually need. The flow-on effect from these individual purchases is that local businesses are supported. (Insight-World Food Program, Nov. 2017) (World Food Program, n.d.)
The Innovation Accelerator – a creation of the World Food Program – has developed several impactful initiatives in the last few years which includes the following:
1. Green Kit – an energy monitoring system for use by the WFP in the field. The United Nations freely acknowledges that the WFP activities involved in delivering food and other essentials use the highest amount of energy of any United Nations program. The implementation of the Green Kit in 2015, allowed the WFP to drastically reduce the energy consumed on relief sites by remotely monitoring energy consumption and making necessary adjustments. Positive side effects have resulted in:
- less air pollution
- less noise on site
- less maintenance
- less reliance on expensive diesel fuel delivery to power generators in the field
- a 40-80% reduction in energy costs
2. Building Blocks – The stated goal is to make cash-transfer programs faster, safer, and less costly. Beginning in 2016, with field testing in 2017, and now moving forward toward full implementation, Building Blocks has provided over 10,000 Syrian refugees with financial assistance and daily-living support. What was meant to be a pilot project proved to be so successful that it has been extended indefinitely. Those who received aid were verified using biometric IDs – retinal scans — prior to receiving the aid that had been authorised.
3. Virtual Farmers’ Market (VFM) – a unique method of buying and selling food. This app-based platform for e-commerce is bringing together farmers in Africa who wish to sell their excess food production and buyers who desire these products. Access to the platform is free for the smallholder farmers who participate and a very small transaction fee is charged to the buyers. The pilot program began in Zambia in 2016, ran through the growing season of 2017, and is now gearing up to be expanded into other countries. (Innovation-WFP, n.d.) (WFP, Oct. 2016)
4. Aid:Tech is an innovator in the use of blockchain technology and won an award from the Irish Times in 2016 for their forward-thinking approach. Enabling Syrian refugees in Lebanon to receive digital ‘credit cards’ that were pre-loaded with funds for them to spend at shops within the refugee camps, Aid:Tech also employed scannable QR codes to cut down on the amount of fraud that might arise from counterfeit cards. (Charity Digital News, Aug. 2016)
5. A similar style of QR-coded photo ID card is being produced for Hypergive. Built atop the Ethereum blockchain and accessed through a phone-based app, the Hypergive platform is currently in its pilot phase and preparing for a global rollout. This card allows donations to be made via Paypal, bank transfer, or credit card, while tax-deduction receipts are sent to the donors. Funds are loaded onto the ‘account’ of a person in need of food and when they enter a shop or café nearby, their card is scanned, the photo is verified as being the person standing in front of the counter, the funds are withdrawn from the Hypergive charity’s database by a handheld QR-reader in a shop, and the card-holder can then leave with the food that they require.
Based in Canada, the Hypergive project is an example of an ongoing type of humanitarian aid that addresses individual needs. With the potential of being tied to a larger refugee organisation or charity in the future, this QR-coded photo ID card provides a means for feeding at least some of the growing number of hungry and needy people around the world. It is also clear that pilot projects such as this could be a template for the types of digital IDs that will be required in both humanitarian aid and disaster relief in upcoming years. (Hypergive, n.d.)
6. The Water Project is an organisation working toward providing access to clean water. Clean drinking water is a necessity for good health and cleanliness and it should be a basic human right, but in many parts of the world that are either affected by drought, or within undeveloped or remote regions of a country, clean water is not always readily available.
They have created a blockchain-based app for smartphones which allows you to make donations and then activate the monitoring function on the app and watch as your funds make their way through every stage from donation to implementation. This is a perfect example of the type of transparency that is increasingly available when humanitarian relief organisations use blockchain as part of their basic operational structure. (The Water Project, n.d.)
7. The stated aim of the NGO Akshaya Patra is to combat hunger in children. This organisation is the world’s largest provider of mid-day meals to hungry children. 1.6 million children per day are fed in India, partly through the money-saving and efficiency-increasing methods that are made available by using blockchain technology. This partnership has allowed them to track the food from preparation to delivery, ensure that the intended food deliveries were made on time, assess what was consumed, and determine what amount of food needs to be prepared for the upcoming day. (Akshaya Patra, n.d.)
8. The charity, BitGive, with their slogan – “Vastly improving philanthropic impact with blockchain technology.” – is well represented in positive media coverage from companies such as the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Entrepreneur. In less than 5 years, they have partnered with six major charitable organisations to deliver essential humanitarian aid to people on four continents. All of this has been accomplished for less than 1% in total fees and administrative costs due to their use of blockchain technology.
In addition to receiving donations for food, housing materials, and medical supplies, BitGive also funds an interesting program called Medic Mobile. This project provides mobile phones to medical staff working in more remote relief camps. These staff members are then able to register families for medical care, register children for vital immunisations, send immunisation reminders, and provide general health care to the villagers assigned to them. (BitGive Foundation, n.d.)
9. Another important organisation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, announced a new project at the end of 2017 – a blockchain-connected product called Mojaloop. This is a slightly different approach to humanitarian aid, but an important one nonetheless. This new software allows people in financially challenged areas of the world to create a seamless connection between the funds that are deposited into their linked account as salary from their employers and the essential outgoing payments such as school fees for their children. This is an important element of ongoing relief work – creating a firm foundation that proves that all lives have value and the less fortunate deserve encouragement, respect, and support (Gates Foundation, Oct. 2017).
Believing in the ability of blockchain to be a ‘disruptor’ of the status quo is still an ongoing process in the early stages of acceptance. In discussions regarding the viability of embracing this new technology, several tech writers and executives at NGOs have noted that there is still resistance among some of the ‘old school’ charities – a marked contrast to the more open-minded approach among the newer startup organisations.
Entrenched patterns of behaviour in the countries that are receiving the aid are also a significant set of obstacles. Government corruption is rampant in some of the neediest countries involved in relief efforts. If food, general care products, medical supplies, and housing supplies never fully reach the intended targets due to outright theft or redirection, there is very little that an honest charity can do to combat that mindset. For all of the explanations about the transparency of donations that are tracked on the blockchain, the end result may not have a satisfactory conclusion if the recipient countries themselves are preventing the charities from acting in the intended honest and ethical manner. A holistic environment of trust and honesty between all parties involved will need to be built before blockchain tracking can fulfil its true potential. (Accenture, Dec. 2017) (Coin Desk, July 2017)
Optimistic projections for future success will, in the end, be the result of tested and provable outcomes. A white paper from the Charities Aid Foundation points out that being able to prove that the desired outcome had been accomplished may be achieved by:
- receiving reports from reputable and trusted charities or groups who will verify the outcomes of the project
- using technology such as wearable devices or drones or connections to the IoT (Internet of Things) to verify outcomes
- offering rewards to the participants for reporting the information accurately
(CAF, May 2017)
- De Silva, Matthew (2017, June 17). United Nations World Food Programme Uses Ethereum To Aid Syrian Refugees. Retrieved from https://www.ethnews.com/united-nations-world-food-programme-uses-ethereum-to-aid-syrian-refugees
- World Food Program. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.wfpusa.org/
- What is ‘blockchain’ and how is it connected to fighting hunger? (2017, Nov. 15). Retrieved from https://insight.wfp.org/what-is-blockchain-and-how-is-it-connected-to-fighting-hunger-7f1b42da9fe
- Innovation Accelerator (n.d.) Retrieved from http://innovation.wfp.org/
- WFP Introduces Iris Scan Technology To Provide Food Assistance To Syrian Refugees In Zaatari. (2016, Oct. 6). Retrieved from https://www.wfp.org/news/news-release/wfp-introduces-innovative-iris-scan-technology-provide-food-assistance-syrian-refu?_ga=2.30063615.1575098402.1519687156-2091520616.1519687156
- Blockchain in humanitarian efforts leads to award nomination. (2016, Aug. 2) Retrieved from https://www.charitydigitalnews.co.uk/2016/08/02/blockchain-in-humanitarian-efforts-leads-to-award-nomination/
- Hypergive (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hypergive.com/
- The Water Project (n.d.). Retrieved from https://thewaterproject.org/donate-bitcoin
- Akshaya Patra (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.akshayapatra.org/
- BitGive Foundation (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bitgivefoundation.org/
- Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Releases Open-Source Software to Support Efforts that Expand Access to Financial Services in Developing Countries (2017, Oct. 16). Retrieved from https://www.gatesfoundation.org/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2017/10/Bill-Melinda-Gates-Foundation-Releases-Open-Source-Software-to-Expand-Access-to-Financial-Services
- Podder, Sanjay (2017, Dec. 11) Blockchain’s humanitarian potential. Retrieved from https://www.accenture.com/us-en/blogs/blogs-blockchain-humanitarian-potential
- Losing the Middle but Keeping the Heart: Blockchain, DAOs, and the Future Decentralisation of Charity. (2017, May). Retrieved from https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-policy-and-campaigns/losing-the-middle-keeping-the-heart–blockchain-daos-and-future-of-charity.pdf
- Stanley, Aaron (2017, July 20). Non-profits See Blockchain Vision, But Face Harsh Reality. Retrieved from https://www.coindesk.com/non-profits-see-blockchain-vision-face-harsh-realities