Over 106,000 Syrian refugees residing in Jordan are utilizing blockchain technology thanks to the mission ‘Building Blocks’. Building Blocks is a project pilot being conducted by the UN’s World Food Program (WFP). The project began back in 2016 with the idea to help end hunger by utilizing blockchain technology.
Every year the WFP issues out over 9.3 million transfers of food vouchers. These food vouchers, which are traditionally cash transfers, are extremely important to supplying international aid. The benefit of distributing food vouchers to people instead of just food is that they have the freedom to purchase what they desire.
But there’s a problem. Every years millions of dollars that could be going to supplying aid are lost to transaction and bank fees. Additionally many families who receive these vouchers are often forced to wait days to receive the money due to bank processing times. Another implication of the bank fees and the processing times is that a large amount of a donors contribution to the humanitarian food assistance program is lost because of lack of efficiency, transparency and a large amount of vulnerability.
To Richard Opp, the Director of Innovation and Change Management at WFP, saw a way to fix this when he began delving into blockchain technology a few years back. Blockchain tech offers its users everything that a bank does not: Speed, transparency and Security.
The Building Blocks program operates on the Ethereum blockchain taking advantage of the ERC-20 standard token. By utilizing the blockchain users funds and identities are secure and processing time are nearly non existent. Due to distributed ledger technology the users of the building block program no longer face the possibility of their funds being stolen or tampered with by the banks or other third parties. Freedom to purchase is in their hands.
Or rather in their eyes.
How It Works
The Building Blocks operation works as follows. The persons Iris pattern must be scanned and attached to their identity record by a Building Blocks volunteer or employee. Once that’s done, that’s it! So far the project has only been installed at the Azraq and Zaatari Syrian refugee camps in Jordan but has managed to enable all of the 106,000 residents of the camp to utilize the technology. There are camp supermarkets that are equipped with biometric iris scanners at all of the cash registers. When the user is done getting their items scanned, they simply scan their iris and the appropriate amount of food vouchers is transferred out of their account.
Richard Opp States “All 106,000 Syrian refugees in the camps of Azraq and Zaatari now redeem their cash transfers on the blockchain-based system. So far, more than US$ 23.5 million worth of entitlements have been transferred to refugees through 1.1 million transactions.”
Opp states that their goal is to have another 400,000 refugees added to the system by March of 2019.
Building Blocks has helped WFP reduce their transaction fees by 98% and nearly eliminated all chance of loss due to corruption. WFP expresses interest in further utilizing blockchain technology to supply aid in new and exciting ways. A WFP executive working with Building Blocks, Houman Haddad, recently proposed the idea for the creation of a full biometric ID system that refugees could operate without dependence on any national authority. Blockchain technology could also be used to further enhance supply chains and reduce refugees vulnerability.
But along with all of this technological advancement comes the possibility of ethical conflict regarding data management. A researcher at the Berlin-based organization ‘The Engine Room’ Zara Rahman proposes a word of caution stating “Overall, it is essential for human rights workers to stay critical and see past the hype. Though a certain tool might seem like the easiest option now, what about in two years or five years time? What will you want to do with the data, and who owns it?”
Despite Rahman’s cautionary words against WFP, WFP continues to look for new ways to utilize blockchain in a humanitarian way. Opp States,
“We see it as an imperative to try to leverage innovative digital technologies and are already applying them for our work, as they have the potential to strengthen food systems, shorten humanitarian response times, deliver assistance more effectively, and make funds stretch further.”