The Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), social robots, 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain: these are only some of the emerging technologies that are shaping the future of social, economic, political processes, practices and interactions.
From a closer point of view, some of them also have the potential to revolutionise the humanitarian assistance and development cooperation industry. Hence, by investing in new digital technologies, development organisations could be able to strengthen the efficiency of their programmes, reach a wider audience with fewer resources, and create new digital channels that optimise and personalise the experiences of their donors.
Blockchain technology is a relevant and proper sample test case.
After having outlined the rationale and the operating system behind blockchain technology, this analysis will explore more in depth the potential of its application to the identification and management of refugee cases in the European Union, through the self-identity, the financial identity and the distribution of cash assistance. Alongside positive and promising contributions, drawbacks and upcoming challenges will also be identified.
Blockchain: what, how, why
In 2009, Satoshi Nakamoto authored a scientific paper titled ‘Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System’, outlining a vision for a new kind of digital currency. According to this view, while traditional commerce between two parties normally relies on financial intermediaries like banks, credit card companies or payments portals, to authenticate and process payments and ensure trust to these proceedings, alternative methods could be conceived and elaborated to cut costs, time and inconvenience for economic and digital transactions.
The digital currency Nakamoto thought about relies on a system where trust is built on the basis that every transaction has to follow a set of rules that are governed by cryptographic proofs. In particular, rather than relying on a financial intermediary, the transactions made on this system are validated by a network of connected users who reach unanimous agreements about who owned or transferred value at any point in time. To achieve this, a combination of pre-existing computer networking and cryptography technologies is established in ways to create a platform that could act as a public database, that anyone could access but no single person could control. Through this record of transactions, the platform allows individuals and institutions to collaborate and share information without any third party intermediary, with trust and transparency, though.
More specifically, the records are interlinked in a way that each block of transactions constitutes a row and has a unique identifier linked to the previous one. This unique identifier common to both the previous and the new block creates unique mathematical links between blocks in the chain. Changing or deleting rows in the database is nearly impossible as it requires changing all records in the chain, and adding new rows to the data requires consensus between all those who codify–“mine”–the transactions. Once this consensus happens, the block is added to the existing blockchain. This mechanism ensures both data and user integrity. Within this framework supervised by trustworthy miners, creating a profile or providing personal information is not required, hence the privacy which is one of the key characteristics and principles of blockchains.
Transparency is safeguarded by the fact that all blockchain metadata and information is available to all miners and users in real-time. Furthermore, use of blockchains technology requires cryptographic tools and public/private keys by all participants, this warranting security. These cryptographic tool and blockchain-related softwares are potentially available to all, and users with adequate capacities can also help enhance and refine blockchain technologies, in addition to catching bugs. This can also facilitate the spread of blockchain innovations.
BFR: Blockchain for Refugees
Blockchain technology application is not limited to the transactions of a digital currency like bitcoin, rather encompasses government services like programmes related to e-government and smart government, provision of land titles, personal reputation management, freedom of speech, anti-corruption, electoral processes, intellectual property rights, new and grassroots forms of governance in terms of both virtual and global governments, but also self-identity services, access to financial services – banking for the unbanked – and provision of humanitarian assistance through cash assistance.
These functions could potentially endow the service providers to refugees and displaced people with innovative means that could revolutionize and innovate the procedures and the nature of delivery.
The UN Refugee Agency’s annual Global Trends study found that 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2016. Over 21 million of the displaced are refugees, who have traversed international borders to escape physical, economic and social discomfort and adversity, such as human rights violations, persecution, war, leave behind their home, livelihoods, possessions and social networks, while forced to rely on their host government, the international community and organisations to ensure that they are able to live in safety and have access to vital support and assistance.
This plethora of actors providing refugees and displaced people with value, information, assets and vital services are experimenting new ways to make this provision faster, more effective, efficient, sustainable and of more considerable impact.
For example, by putting in practice the mechanism described above, refugee personal credential, shielded within the block-series system, could always be verified and available, especially in case of displacement, war or persecution, oppression or persecution. Also, if a network of humanitarian and development organisations as well as governments kept record of the services provided to a refugee population within a blockchain technology system, it would make sure that the system operates efficiently, without duplication and without dispersing resources.
Among other hardships, both internally and externally displaced people face the challenge of providing hosting government and international humanitarian and development organisations with proofs of identity and legal identification. Indeed, approaching governmental authority may not be feasible because of fear of persecution, or applying for personal authentication and identification from abroad may signify incurring in denials and highly bureaucratic procedures. On the other hand, without any proof of identity, refugees find hard to get humanitarian assistance, seek employment and access financial services.
Refugees and displaced individuals could profit from a self-sovereign ID, being convenient and trusted, as well as personal, portable, and private; this self-identity should be unique to only one person, live with a person from life to death, be accessible from anywhere, and only given out with permission.
Through the use of blockchain technology, ExistenceID for example employs a secure digital identity system for safe storage and sharing of valuable identity documents. A private identity capsule rates users’ total identity so they can prove that they are real. Only users choose who and when can access different parts of their identity. At the same time, ExistenceID has zero knowledge of users’ personal account.
The same mechanism may apply to refugees’ personal details, where the individuals’ data is instantly and automatically duplicated into all of the computers connected on the blockchain, rather than the record staying with a single, centralized authority–the government of a State, for example. By automatically distributing the blocks of information across the whole network, the blockchain ensures that every user sees the most up-to-date information, and no single official institution can control how the information is recorded, audited or managed.
On another note, in support of the ID2020 initiative, Accenture, Microsoft and Avanade have built a sophisticated blockchain which connects existing record-keeping systems from private and public institutions into one database. The result is a rich set of portable, personal credentials that have been validated by multiple trusted parties, such as birth registration data from UNICEF; national ID numbers or voter documents issued by national registration authorities or electoral commissions; vaccination records; and refugee registration data from UNHCR. In practice, this means that someone arriving at a border crossing could use the information stored on the blockchain to prove he/she is coming from an area where they faced violence or persecution, and that they qualified for emergency assistance. In the same way, he/she could use these records to find an employment in the host country, or to find information on their medical history and ask for medical assistance.
Banking the unbankable
Nearly 2.7 billion people worldwide, mainly including refugees and displaced people, do not have access to credit and services by banks or other formal financial institutions. Lacking a credit history or verifiable economic identity, these unbanked individuals are excluded from the global economy. As a result, the poor stay poor, while billions of dollars in aid continues flowing to conflict zones, areas struck by natural disasters, and regions of extreme poverty, with no, or little solution in sight.
Among other expedients and measures, the world’s poorest people access to the global economy can be eased by providing them with a secure and portable digital identity. A blockchain-based platform could allow these people to set up a unique digital profile and then connect with their peers, aid organisations, governments, banks, and payment companies to accumulate data on variety of personal and financial transactions. The blockchain-based company, BanQu has been working to create such economic identities as part of wider efforts to foster a supply chain transparency tool. The application is designed to work on any mobile device, and is free to sign-up and use: anyone with a mobile phone is able to connect to the BanQu network and set up their economic identity. The platform begins to create a unique, digital profile by capturing the user’s persona and a combination of other immutable characteristics. From there, the user can connect to and interact with their ‘banked network’–including family, friends, service providers, and associated NGOs–who can use their own phones or BanQu’s website to record and authenticate any of the user’s personal and financial transactions. This might include property records, cash disbursements, purchase of inputs, health records, training records, or credit histories. As the BanQu user starts accumulating a transaction history and a registry of their assets on the BanQu blockchain, this information is used to build a traceable, vetted and user-owned ‘economic identity’ that can provide new or more targeted access to a wide range of formal services.
Humanitarian cash transfer
As the nature of humanitarian crises changes and more people are in need and for a longer amount of time, humanitarian assistance needs to be more effective, more efficient and more transparent. Aid, for example, could be more often given in the form of cash directly to people struggling to survive in crises.
Changes in technology, diversification of the nature of financial services, greater urbanization, and the emergence of government social safety nets are all creating unprecedented opportunities for humanitarian support to reach people in new ways.
Cash transfer to refugees and displaced people through blockchain technology follows this logic.
According to the traditional cash transfer process, as the bank receives the NGO or UN Agency disbursement and entitlement information, it notifies the refugee. Once the refugee carries out a transaction, this is verified by the bank at the point of sale. Afterwards, the bank reimburses the merchant and provides a summary report to the NGO of the UN Agency which provided for the initial funds.
The blockchain cash transfer process instead, NGOs, UN agency and other international organisations, rather than sending the bank sensitive information on each refugee, can create secure profiles for each beneficiary on ‘building blocks’, where they only need to record two pieces of information: the refugee’s entitlement, and a unique ID number given to each person or family. This ID number is linked to the biometric data stored in UNHCR’s refugee database, which means that beneficiaries are able to authenticate themselves at merchants by simply scanning their eyes, rather than having to reveal personal details such as their name or age. In practice, the responsible NGO or UN Agency creates profile for the refugee on Building Blocks (BB) and notifies refugee. He or she carries out a transaction which is verified by ‘building blocks’ at the point of sale; this record is instantly visible to the responsible NGO or UN Agency. As a final step, the merchant is reimbursed by the organisation who first created the refugee’s profile on BB.
This process transferring money without middlemen or fees is faster, safer and keener on respecting individuals’ privacy.
However, the logistics around this project are still limiting its extended application, as the eye scanning technologies may not be easily available for smaller-sized or low-budget organisations.
Furthermore, cash transfer could benefit from digital wallet initiatives like OmiseGO, a public Ethereum-based–one of the digital/cryptocurrencies–financial technology for use in mainstream digital wallets, that enables real-time, peer-to-peer value exchange and payment services agnostically across jurisdictions and organizational silos, and across both fiat money and decentralized currencies. All that glitters is not gold.
Despite its evident and promising potential, blockchain technology cannot be perceived as the silver bullet of the humanitarian “industry” for refugees–or as the silver bullet of personal, economic, political, financial transactions tout court.
Hence, blockchains is still an emerging technology, facing a series of limitations that might prevent its widespread adoption, first of all its scalability: bitcoin blockchain for example–the most widespread digital currency in the digital financial market–can only add a new block of transactions every ten minutes. This translates into a low volume of transactions per second, which is far from the volumes registered by traditional transactional networks. For example, Visa counts 24,000 transactions per second; PayPal counts 193; Ripple (CCC: XRP-USD), 1,500; Bitcoin Cash (CCC: BCH-USD), 60; Litecoin (CCC: LTC-USD), 56; Dash (CCC: DASH-USD), 48; Ethereum (CCC: ETH-USD), 20; Bitcoin (CCC: BTC-USD), 7. The size of the blocks is also limited in size and can accommodate a certain amount of transactions. Moreover, miners use sophisticated and expensive hardware to proof the transactions though complex algorithms. Consequently, only certain nodes in the network can effectively compete in this process, even though in theory all nodes have the software required to mine the network. Hardware and electricity costs may prevent miners from participating into the process. This is strictly linked to the range of environmental impact of blockchain mining activities. Its complexity reduces the democratization of the technology and its embedded regulating mechanism.
However, the fact that many actors in different sectors are ready to test and attempt the application of this encouraging scientific know-how gives the long-term vision for a revolutionary project that may improve the lives of the many, also considering that many steps have already been taken by the blockchain community to solve or at least mitigate the aforementioned challenges and risks.
Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)
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 Mining is the mechanism that allows the blockchain to be a decentralized security. It secures the bitcoin system and enables a system without a central authority. Miners validate new transactions and record them on the global ledger (blockchain). On average, a block (the structure containing transactions) is mined every 10 minutes. Miners compete to solve a difficult mathematical problem based on a cryptographic hash algorithm. The solution found is called the Proof-Of-Work. This proof proves that a miner did spend a lot of time and resources to solve the problem. When a block is ‘solved’, the transactions contained are considered confirmed.
 One is the public facing, used for transactions with others, the second is the one used to access a person’s own data.
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