How blockchain technology is helping refugees and relief organizations

By Melissa Jun Rowley

Imagine having no identity or personal data records after you are forced to flee your home and everything familiar to you. More than 65 million refugees seeking asylum or trying to reintegrate into society, face this scenario day in and day out. As difficult as it is for refugees, blockchain technology could help make establishing identity easier. In Lebanon, host country of the largest per capita refugee population in the world, blockchain-enabled social change is already happening. 

At its core, blockchainis a digital ledger that records transactions in an immutable way, and therefore can serve as an ideal platform for storing personal records and transferring and allocating humanitarian aid in the most secure way possible. The blockchain startup, AID:Tech, and the Irish Red Cross are leveraging blockchain for this purpose. In addition to fostering autonomy for refugees, the organizations are using blockchain technology to create transparency and trust in the non-profit sector. 

In 2015, AID:Tech CEO Joseph Thompson worked on the ground in Tripoli, Lebanon with the Irish Red Cross to test a project which would allow  refugees to purchase goods without any restrictions. This was done by harnessing blockchain and vouchers with QR codes assigned to each refugee. Designed to give people the same advantages as cash, each voucher contained a credit value of $20. While they looked like regular vouchers, they were far from it since blockchain technology made it impossible to defraud. 

“The people participating in the project were given a plastic card that resembled a debit or credit card, and they were able to make purchases of their choice,” says AID:Tech cofounder and Chief Operating Officer, Niall Dennehy. “It was seamless.” 

Here’s how it worked. The merchants selling the goods would scan the QR codes on the vouchers. The refugee’s photo would appear, and they could see the verified identity of the refugee and their credit balance.  Later, the Red Cross, whose team could see transactions taking place in real-time on the ledger, would compensate the merchant. 

What if someone doesn’t want to be identified? 

“The Red Cross team couldn’t see who the individuals were,” says Dennehy. “That would be something were keen not to do, especially in a place like Syria because we would not want the regime to get their hands on such sensitive information. We stored that information off the platform.”  

While the blockchain initiative in Lebanon was a one-off project, Dennehy and AID:Tech have a bigger vision to enable anyone with a digital identity to own and control their own data, as well as monetize it. 

As refugees navigate the difficulties of integrating back into society and needing to do things like open a bank account, build credit history, and store health records, personal data ownership could go a long way. Credit scores for populations returning to their countries are going to be crucial. 

Along with storing financial and health records on blockchain, refugees can potentially use the ledger to establish records of their educational and professional histories, which often get lost when they flee their countries. 

How will projects like these scale?

Some argue that for projects like these to scale, refugees would need access to smartphones and the internet. Fortunately, many Syrian refugees have smartphones and consider them their lifelines. 

Smartphones aren’t all that’s needed. Dennehy says AID:Tech’s Lebanon 2015 pilot wasn’t the most scalable platform. “Weve learned from that experience that we need technology that’s really robust. We need to put a solid, cloud-based infrastructure in place.” 

AID:Tech has spent the last 12 months developing code and working on technology and innovation to iron out the kinks. 

“We feel now that we’re ready to scale,” says Dennehy. 

Along with establishing identity and data ownership, a network of humanitarian and development organizations could potentially use blockchain to keep a record of the services provided to a refugee population. The technology could be harnessed to ensure the network runs efficiently and transparently without dispersing resources. 

Blockchain Transparency 

The Irish Red Cross is also using blockchain to process donations. Ireland committed to taking in 4,000 Syrian refugees and required reaching out to the public to house these families. While the Red Cross funds this program, the organization is looking for local communities to sponsor refugees, and help with short-term funding. 

“That’s where blockchain technology will come into play, especially from the sponsorship side,” says Danny Curran, head of fundraising and commercial services for the Irish Red Cross. “We can set people up on blockchain and start to process a lot of the payments that way. It just makes perfect sense.”  

For humanitarian organizations looking to build trust in their donor communities, blockchain is hugely instrumental, as it eliminates the need for third party intermediaries.

“From my side, it’s about how quickly we can receive the donations, how transparent the transactions can be, and how effective it can be for the beneficiaries at the final end by using blockchain,” says Curran. “The possibilities for it are endless. We’re only scratching the surface.” 

It’s still early days for blockchain experimentation, and there is plenty of hype around the technology. But there is no denying how valuable its ability to create trust is, particularly in the charity sector, where trust has drastically declined in recent years.  

Although the Lebanon project was small, it showed the Irish Red Cross the potential of blockchain in a major emergency.  The transparency allowed the organization to receive donations, and donors could see exactly  where their money went. 

“We’re able to give donors more options to donate,” says Curran. “We’re scaling the technology carefully, so were ready to go for the next emergency. Well do it slowly to make sure the technology can deal with a dramatic influx of donations that often follow a global emergency. Blockchain can deliver a new level of the amount of transactions coming in all at once.”

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