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Blockchain has transformative potential beyond finance and commerce. One opportunity: humanitarian efforts to protect the interests of refugees, subsistence farmers, and the millions of women with no legal identity.
By Atefeh Riazi, Assistant Secretary-General and Chief Information Technology Officer, United Nations
My grandmother was never formally given a name. And whenever I asked her how old she was, she would tell me she didn’t know. Like a lot of women of her generation in her country, she didn’t have a birth certificate. Her lack of official identity papers made it easier for her family to marry her off at age 9 or 10. This also prevented her from achieving financial independence. Because she couldn’t get a bank account, her entire savings consisted of three bracelets.
This should be ancient history. But even today, as many as one billion people around the world don’t have a legal identity. Others have papers with information, such as their date of birth, that has been falsified. And, as was the case with my grandmother, the lack of valid documentation can have serious consequences. Throughout the world, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America, no papers or fake papers can push a girl out of school and into the factory, or force her to become a prostitute or a child bride. The government might have laws requiring girls to attend school or prohibiting childhood marriage, but if a girl doesn’t have a birth certificate, we won’t be able to enforce that policy in the village.
Clearly, tamper-proof documentation would be a good thing for poor women and marginalized people in general. Many of the world’s most vulnerable lose all they have because they lack the right papers or have had their papers stolen from them. Farmers who lack proof they own their land can have it taken away by a new political regime. Refugees who have had to leave everything behind, from academic degrees to medical records to bank accounts, have nothing to prove their identity nor what they did in their home country.
The lack of legal identity prevents people from being a part of society, from being served, heard, understood or even considered. A formal identity is the basis of fundamental rights and without it, people are invisible.
Secure documents would make a big difference in their lives. But how do you give someone an indestructible identity that cannot be taken away by somebody else, whether it’s a criminal or a family or a government?
We think blockchain technology may be part of the solution.
How blockchain can help
The United Nations is working with the ID2020 Alliance, a global group that is working to give the world’s 1.1 billion undocumented people unique digital identities. We’re also working with UN Women to look at how distributed ledger systems can be used to address women’s humanitarian needs. And we have posed a challenge – “Blockchain for Humanity” – that focuses on combatting child trafficking. Currently, there are nearly 20 million women who are victims of trafficking, roughly half of them children. This challenge has led to a successful pilot project by the government of Moldova.
If you don’t have an identity, no one can protect you. Once we know you exist, we can count you, we can begin working toward trying to protect you. We can ensure that your human rights are observed, and help you achieve legal equality. Blockchain can’t solve everything, but I think it will be the foundation of some major social changes.
It’s important that we remember, however, that technology is amoral. Though our biases can seep into technologies such as artificial intelligence, the baseline of technology is devoid of moral judgement. Whether it is good or bad largely depends on who is using it and for what purpose. In the Dark Web, Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies are being used for criminal transactions, including human trafficking. Our message to criminals in the Dark Web is: “OK, if you’re going to use this technology for bad, we’ll use this technology for good.”
The first generation of the Internet was all about moving information. This generation, the blockchain era, is all about exchanging and safeguarding value. With blockchain, we are moving toward protecting assets, whether that’s safeguarding people’s identity, educational credentials, property, or money.
We are working to realize blockchain’s potential for good. Since January 2018, the World Food Program has been experimenting with an initiative that uses blockchain to send money rather than food to Syrian refugees, giving them the autonomy to secure food locally. So far, they have served about 100,000 people, and they hope to scale it up to 500,000.
Other applications should follow very quickly, particularly in the developing world. Recently, I was talking to an entrepreneur from Kenya, who told me he developed a blockchain application for financial transactions because he saw that his uncle always sent money to his family. But the money only went to his father. His mother never saw any of it because she didn’t have an identity, didn’t have a cell phone, and didn’t have a bank account. Unfortunately, the father spent most of the money on drugs and cigarettes and alcohol, and very little of it on his children, food and education.
The entrepreneur had always wanted to develop an app to make sure the money would go to his mother. The peer-to-peer blockchain-powered product he developed would have allowed her to receive money on her phone, so she could spend it on education and healthcare.
The implications of blockchain transactions are staggering. When a maid in New York City no longer must pay a large fee to send $400 back home to Honduras, that’s not only saving her money – it’s shifting power, and ultimately changing the world’s income distribution.
Within three to five years, I believe we’ll see a lot of innovations that use blockchain to displace many traditional middlemen, whether that’s money transfer services, educational institutions, or government entities. And other innovations that give women a secure legal identity will, I hope, mean experiences like my grandmother’s become ancient history.
Giving everyone access to tamper-proof documents will make it harder to oppress many of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Blockchain makes it easier to create trust, making it possible to disintermediate many traditional middlemen.
Posing a challenge can be a good way to incite creative solutions.