Imagine a situation where you can’t prove to the world that you even exist. You are alive but you can’t prove your physical existence. Sounds horrible , Right! But according to the World Bank there are more than a billion people in the world that have no means to prove their identity.
Without legal proof of your identity you officially have no rights. You can’t do many things like you can’t vote , you won’t have access to government services, you can’t drive etc. The people who come in this unverified category generally include refugees, the homeless, trafficked children and the people who have slipped in the society without developing any institutional affiliations.
The food assistance branch of the United Nations: World Food Programme (WFP) which is the world’s largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and promoting food security is now betting that an ethereum based blockchain technology is the key to deliver aid efficiently to refugees and slashing the cost upto 98% in comparison to the traditional methods. World Food Programme is one of those rare examples that has delivered tangible results for the society through its blockchain experiments
Started in early 2017, the program named Building Blocks, has helped the WFP distribute cash-for-food aid to over 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. The program aims to cover all 500,000 refugees in the country by the end of 2018. If the project succeeds, it could eventually speed the adoption of blockchain technologies at sister UN agencies and beyond.
“We need to bring the project from the current capacity to many, many, more,” says Houman Haddad, the WFP executive leading the project. “By that I mean 1 million transactions per day.”
The programme, Building Blocks was started to save money on daily basis. The WFP helps feed 80 million people around the globe, but since 2009 the organization has shifted from delivering food to transferring money to people who need food. According to UN this approach could feed more people, improve local economies, and increase transparency. But it also introduces a notable point of inefficiency: working with local or regional banks. For the WFP, which transferred over $1.3 billion in such benefits in 2017 (about 30 percent of its total aid), transaction and other fees are money that could have gone to millions of meals. Early results of the blockchain program touted a 98 percent reduction in such fees. There are many other benefits like faster transactions, increased privacy for beneficiaries and quicker reconciliation of accounts because the agency is running on its own payment network instead of waiting for periodic reports from payments firms.
The WFP integrated blockchain into its biometric authentication technology, so Syrian refugees can cash in their vouchers at the supermarket by staring into a retina scanner. The WFP currently distributes food vouchers within Jordan’s refugee camps via supermarkets located in the camps. The cashiers are equipped not with cash registers, but with iris scanners, which both identify the customer and settle their entitlement payments by verifying the data with various UN databases. These transactions are recorded on a private Ethereum based blockchain, called Building Blocks. Because the blockchain eliminates the need for WFP to pay banks to facilitate transactions, Building Blocks could save the WFP as much as $150,000 each month in bank fees in Jordan alone.
WFP executive Houman Haddad says the blockchain-based program will do far more than save money. It will tackle a central problem in any humanitarian crisis
The WFP solution is designed to scale. It uses a “fork”of the ethereum codebase that’s been modified by the engineering firm Parity to be private so transactions aren’t exposed. It means that ethereum miners - the people who add new supply of the cryptocurrency aren’t required to validate those transactions. The Building Blocks technology was first tried in Pakistan but the system was built on public ethereum blockchain making the transactions slow and fees too high. The current version of Building Blocks used in Jordan runs on a permissioned or private, version of Ethereum and the central authority decides who can participate and WHF can process transactions faster and more cheaply.
WFP plans to expand the technology throughout Jordan very soon. This practical use of blockchain has led blockchain enthusiasts imagine a future in which refugees can access more than just food vouchers, accumulating a transaction history that could stand in as a credit history when they attempt to resettle.
In addition to helping the aid group save on bank fees and making sure that aid goes directly to refugees, a blockchain-based system can help refugees build a more permanent identity. Right now, when refugees enter a camp run by UNHCR, they’re issued documentation, but there’s no way to extend your UNHCR identity once you leave. But by recording these transactions on the blockchain, which keeps an indelible record, there’s the possibility the system could function as identification in a new country.
WHF aims to achieve a point in future where refugees could control their own cryptographic keys to access their funds. This element may be crucial to making aid more easily and widely available because the keys would unlock data that’s currently stuck in different aid agencies, including medical records from the World Health Organisation, educational certificates at UNICEF, and nutritional data from WFP.
A number of organizations are already working on aspects of this idea. In Finland, the Finnish Immigration Service offers refugees a prepaid Mastercard developed by the Helsinki-based startup MONI that also links to a digital identity, composed of the record of one’s financial transactions, which is stored on the blockchain. Even if the refugees don’t have a passport and the documents necessary to open a Finnish bank account, a MONI account lets refugees receive benefits directly from the government. The system also allow them to build a credit history that could make it possible to get institutional loans down the road.
Another example is in Moldova, where the government is working with digital identification experts from the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) to find out new ways to use blockchain to provide children living in rural areas with a digital identity, eventually making it more difficult for traffickers to smuggle them across borders.
A New York City based startup called ‘Blockchain for Change’ has developed an Android app called Fummi that allows homeless people have access to food pantries and shelters and manage their digital identities.
ID2020, an alliance of large companies like Accenture and Microsoft, with UN agencies, non-govermental organizations and governments, is developing a technology that will help undocumented people secure elements of identity, from ranging from driving licenses to voter registration. The mission is a big step towards the UN goal of providing a legal identity to everyone, starting with the 1.1 billion people who lack an officially recognized proof of their existence.
Blockchain enthusiasts believe that, ultimately, tracking identity on the blockchain will eventually allow people to exercise more control over their personal information. But in the rush to apply blockchain technology to every problem, many point out that relying on the ledger may have unintended consequences. The outcomes of early web should be a lesson for blockchain enthusiasts when they promote blockchain’s potential. We have the power to set the direction, there might be dangers but the potential is enormous. Finally, The question with Building Blocks or any similar system is whether it will put ownership of digital IDs in the hands of the people being represented or they will simply become an easier way for corporations and states to control people’s digital existence.