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United Nations turns to blockchain technology

The international body casts a wide net in its experiments

UNHCR

BERKASOVO, SERBIA – OCTOBER 10, 2015: Worker of the UNHCR, the United Nations Agency for refugees, standing in front of a crowd of refugees, including a baby, at the border between Serbia and Croatia (photo by BalkansCat / Shutterstock.com)


The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime is reportedly planning to partner with telemedicine and telepsychology firm doc.com to provide free basic medical services in East Africa, where Focus Economics says three of the 10 poorest countries in the world are located.

A Dec. 28 report by Coin Telegraph also says doc.com intends to replace the Ethereum-based ERC-20 tokens it currently uses to provide free consultations with doctors and psychologists with its own mainchain system by the first quarter of 2019. The UNODC did not respond to questions about the project by press time. Earlier this year, UNODC partnered with Chainalysis, a blockchain security firm specializing in know your customer (KYC) and anti-money laundering (AML) software to provide training to Colombian investigators and prosecutors in tracing cryptocurrency transactions.

Still, UNODC is far from the only UN agency that is looking at blockchain technology to improve the ways it provides services, particularly those that impact the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) are among the agencies using or experimenting with blockchain-based technologies.

The UN has established several working groups to ensure its various agencies collaborate on the development of blockchain technology, notably UN Blockchain, which has more than a dozen members, including UN agencies and other groups like the World Bank. The WFP and UNICEF co-chair the UN Innovation Network, an informal community of UN and NGO groups that in January released a report detailing ways blockchain technology can help the organization achieve its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. And the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) held a Blockchain Symposium in New York on Sept. 26.

The UNHCR has been working with Accenture and Microsoft for more than 18 months on a digital identity documentation system that would use the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance’s permission-based blockchain protocol to offer refugees and other undocumented persons control over their ID. It would interact with existing biometric ID systems like Accenture’s Biometric Identity Service Platform, currently used by the UNHCR to register more than one million refugees for assistance. Accenture’s platform is part of the ID2020 initiative to provide documentation to the estimated 1.1 billion people around the world without the officially recognized and documented identity needed to obtain everything from jobs and housing to healthcare and bank accounts.

Provision of identity documents dates to the UN’s predecessor organization, the League of Nations, which provided so-called Nansen passports to refugees like European Jews made stateless by the Nazis.

“When it is too dangerous or impossible for individuals to rely on governments for identity documents  –  such as in the case of refugees, forcibly displaced, and stateless persons  –  the world has a moral imperative to provide an alternative,” says Karl Steinacker, deputy director of the UNHCR’s Division of Programme Support and Management, according to ID2020. “Developments in digital technologies are making such an endeavour easier, and are giving rise to many new opportunities.”

Secure identity goes to the heart of many of the UN’s forays into blockchain technology.

First tested in 2017 in the Azraq Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, the WFP’s Building Blocks platform, based on the Parity Ethereum client using a proof-of-authority (PoA) consensus algorithm, is now being used to provide more than 100,000 refugees with WFP-funded cash assistance as of October, the agency said. Using biometric identification, the digital transactions provide the refugees greater security and privacy while giving the agency better reconciliation data and a “significant reduction of transaction fees,” it added, noting that it provides $1.6 billion in cash transfers globally. WFP is planning to expand it to all 500,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.

The WFP is also testing the Building Blocks technology in several of the camps in partnership with UN Women, as part of the latter’s cash for work programs.

In April, South African start-up Trustlab graduated from the UNICEF Innovation Fund after successfully testing its blockchain-based Amply platform by registering and tracking the attendance of 2,700 pre-schoolers in 77 centers that provide early learning, nutrition and childcare programs. Securely digitising the attendance records automated a costly, manual, paper-based system that allowed the teachers to receive government subsidies, while tokenizing impact records that help secure future funding, the organization said in a release. About 800,000 children in South Africa receive these services, the Fund added.

And Dublin-based AID:Tech partnered with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) on a small pilot program in the Serbian city of Nis to provide blockchain-based digital identity documents that would enable residents to receive remittances from abroad at a significant discount to what is generally charged by banks and financial services companies. The pilot ended in October and is being evaluated. Annually, remittances from the Serbian diaspora accounts for 9 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the UNDP.

Ultimately, the UN is experimenting with blockchain as widely as it can as it looks for innovative ways to help it fulfill its many missions, which can have high-stakes humanitarian goals beyond helping refugees or the poor. The United Nations Climate Change secretariat helped launch the Climate Chain Coalition, which aims to use the distributed ledger technology underpinning blockchain technology to monitor, report on and verify the impact of a wide variety of climate change initiatives, as well as mobilizing financing for these efforts.

But as in the public sector, there are plenty of low-stakes ways blockchain may be able to make life a little bit easier. Which is probably why UNDP’s Alternative Financing Lab ran a test program in Moldova using Emercoin in 2017 to see if blockchain technology could help improve its vehicle fleet management.

Leo Jakobson, Modern Consensus senior editor, is a New York-based journalist who has spent much of the last 15 years covering the employee engagement and recognition business. Before that he covered the East Coast side of the Internet boom and bust, and wrote about politics in New York City. Disclosure: Jakobson owns no cryptocurrencies.

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