Inside the Jordan refugee camp that runs on blockchain

Russ Juskalian at MIT Tech Review: “…Though Bassam may not know it, his visit to the supermarket involves one of the first uses of blockchain for humanitarian aid. By letting a machine scan his iris, he confirmed his identity on a traditional United Nations database, queried a family account kept on a variant of the Ethereum blockchain by the World Food Programme (WFP), and settled his bill without opening his wallet.

Started in early 2017, Building Blocks, as the program is known, helps the WFP distribute cash-for-food aid to over 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. By the end of this year, the program will cover all 500,000 refugees in the country. If the project succeeds, it could eventually speed the adoption of blockchain technologies at sister UN agencies and beyond.

Building Blocks was born of a need to save money. 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. 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.

And if the man behind the project, WFP executive Houman Haddad, has his way, the blockchain-based program will do far more than save money. It will tackle a central problem in any humanitarian crisis: how do you get people without government identity documents or a bank account into a financial and legal system where those things are prerequisites to getting a job and living a secure life?

Haddad imagines Bassam one day walking out of Zaatari with a so-called digital wallet, filled with his camp transaction history, his government ID, and access to financial accounts, all linked through a blockchain-based identity system. With such a wallet, when Bassam left the camp he could much more easily enter the world economy. He would have a place for an employer to deposit his pay, for a mainstream bank to see his credit history, and for a border or immigration agent to check his identity, which would be attested to by the UN, the Jordanian government, and possibly even his neighbors….

But because Building Blocks runs on a small, permissioned blockchain, the project’s scope and impact are narrow. So narrow that some critics say it’s a gimmick and the WFP could just as easily use a traditional database. Haddad acknowledges that—“Of course we could do all of what we’re doing today without using blockchain,” he says. But, he adds, “my personal view is that the eventual end goal is digital ID, and beneficiaries must own and control their data.”

Other critics say blockchains are too new for humanitarian use. Plus, it’s ethically risky to experiment with vulnerable populations, says Zara Rahman, a researcher based in Berlin at the Engine Room, a nonprofit group that supports social-change organizations in using technology and data. After all, the bulk collection of identifying information and biometrics has historically been a disaster for people on the run….(More)”.