At our April Technology Salon we discussed the evidence and good practice base for blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) in the humanitarian sector. Our discussants were Larissa Fast (co-author with Giulio Coppi of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation/GAHI’s report on Humanitarian Blockchain, Senior Lecturer at HCRI, University of Manchester and Research Associate at the Humanitarian Policy Group) and Ariana Fowler (UNICEF Blockchain Strategist).
Though blockchain fans suggest DLTs can address common problems of humanitarian organizations, the extreme hype cycle has many skeptics who believe that blockchain and DLTs are simply overblown and for the most part useless for the sector. Until recently, evidence on the utility of blockchain/DLTs in the humanitarian sector has been slim to none, with some calling for the sector to step back and establish a measured approach and a learning agenda in order to determine if blockchain is worth spending time on. Others argue that evaluators misunderstand what to evaluate and how.
The GAHI report provides an excellent overview of blockchain and DLTs in the sector along with recommendations at the project, policy and system levels to address the challenges that would need to be overcome before DLTs can be ethically, safely, appropriately and effectively scaled in humanitarian contexts.
What’s blockchain? What’s a DLT?
We started with a basic explanation of DLTs and Blockchain and how they work. (See page 5 of the GAHI report for more detail).
The GAHI report aimed to get beyond the potential of Blockchain and DLTs to actual use cases — however, in the humanitarian sector there is still more potential than evidence. Although there were multiple use cases to choose from, the report authors chose to go in-depth on five, selected to provide a sense of the different ways that blockchain is specifically being used in the sector.
These use cases all currently have limited “nodes” (e.g., places where the data is stored) and only a few “controlling entities” (that determine what information is stored or put on the chain). They are all “private“ (as opposed to public) blockchains, meaning they are not taking advantage of DLT potential for dispersed information, and they end up being more like “a very expensive database.”
What’s the deal with private vs public blockchains?
Private versus public blockchains are an ideological sticking point in “deep blockchain culture,” noted one Salon participant. “’Cryptobros’ and blockchain fundamentalists think private blockchains are the Antichrist.” Private blockchains are considered an oxymoron and completely antithetical to the idea of blockchain.
So why are humanitarian organizations creating private blockchains? “They are being cautious about protecting data as they test out blockchain and DLTs. It’s a conscious choice to proceed in a controlled way, because once information is on the blockchain, it’s immutable — it cannot be removed.” When first trying out a DLT or blockchain, “Humanitarians tend to be cautious. They don’t want to play with the permanency of a public blockchain since they are working with vulnerable populations.”
Because of the blockchain hype cycle, however, there is some skepticism about organizations using private blockchains. “Are they setting up a private blockchain with one node so that they can say that they’re using blockchain just to get funding?”
An issue with private blockchains is that they are not open and transparent. The code is developed behind closed doors, meaning that it’s difficult to make it interoperable, whereas “with a public chain, you can check the code and interact with it.”
Does the humanitarian sector have the capacity to use blockchain?
As one person pointed out, knowledge and capacity around blockchain in the humanitarian sector is very low. There are currently very few people who understand both humanitarian work and the private sector/technology side of blockchain. “We desperately need intermediaries because people in the two sectors talk past each other. They use the same words to mean very different things, and this leads to misunderstandings.” This is a perpetual issue in the “humanitarian tech” space, and it often leads to applications that are not in the best interest of those on the receiving end of humanitarian work.
Capacity challenges also come up with regard to managing partnerships that involve intellectual properly. When cooperating with the private sector, organizations are normally required to sign an MOU that gives rights to the company. Often humanitarian agencies do not fully understand what they are signing up for. This can mean that the company uses the humanitarian collaboration to develop technologies that are later used in ways that the humanitarian agency considers unethical or disturbing. Having technology or blockchain expertise within an organization makes it possible to better negotiate those types of situations, but often only the larger INGOs can afford that type of expertise. Similarly, organizations lack expertise in the legal and regulatory space with regard to blockchain.
How will blockchain become locally owned? Should we wait for a user-friendly version?
Technology moves extremely fast, and organizations need a certain level of capacity to create it and maintain it. “I’m an engineer working in the humanitarian space,” said one Salon participant. “Blockchain is such a complex software solution that I’m very skeptical it will ever be at a stage where it could be locally owned and managed. Even with super basic SMS-based services we have maintenance issues and challenges handing off the tech. If in this room we are struggling to understand blockchain, how will this ever work in lower tech and lower resource areas?” Another participant asked a similar question with regard to handing off a blockchain solution to a local government.
Does the sector needs to wait for a simplified and “user friendly” version of blockchain before humanitarians get into the space? Some said yes, but other participants said that the technology is moving quickly, and that it is critical for humanitarians to “get in there” to try to slow it down. “Sometimes blockchain is not the solution. Sometimes a database is just fine. We need people to pump the brakes before things get out of control.”
“How can people learn about blockchain? How could a grassroots organization begin to set one up?” asked one person. There is currently no “Square Space for Blockchain,” and the technology remains complicated, but those with a strong drive could learn, according to one person. But although “coders might be able to teach themselves ‘light blockchain,’ there is definitely a barrier to entry.” This is a challenge with the whole area of blockchain. “It skipped the education step. We need a ‘learning revolution ‘if we want people to actually use it.”
Enabling environments for learning to use blockchain don’t exist in conflict zones. The knowledge is held by a few individuals, and this makes long-term support and maintenance of DLT and blockchain systems very difficult. How to localize and own the knowledge? How to ensure sustainability? The sector needs to think about what the “Blockchain 101” is. There needs to be more accompaniment, investment and support for the enabling environment if blockchain is to be useful and sustainable in the sector.
Are there any examples of humanitarian blockchain that are working?
The GAHI report talks about five cases in particular. Disberse was highlighted by one Salon participant as an example that seems to be working. Disberse is a private fin-tech company that uses blockchain, but it was started by former humanitarians. “This example works in part because there is a sense of commitment to the humanitarian sector alongside the technical expertise.”
In general, in the humanitarian space, the place where blockchain/ DLTs appear to be the most effective is in back-end use cases. In other words, blockchain is helpful for making behind-the-scenes transactions in humanitarian assistance more efficient. It can eliminate bank transaction fees, and this leads to savings. Agencies can also use blockchain to create efficiencies and benefits for record keeping and auditability. This situation is not unique to blockchain. A recent DIAL baseline study of the global ICT4D ecosystem also found that in the social sector, the main benefits of ICTs were going to organizations, not to vulnerable populations.
“This is all fine,” according to one Salon participant, “but one must be clear that the benefits accrue to the agencies, not the ‘beneficiaries,’ who may not even know that DLTs are being used.” On the one hand, having a seamless backend built on blockchain where users don’t even know that blockchain is involved sounds ideal, However, this can be somewhat problematic. “Are agencies getting meaningful and responsible consent for using blockchain? If executives don’t even understand what the blockchain is, how do you explain that to people more generally?”
Because there is not a simple, accessible way of developing blockchain solutions and there are not a lot of user-friendly interfaces for the general population, for at least the next few years, humanitarian applications of blockchain will likely only be useful for back-office operations. This means that is is up to humanitarian organizations to re-invest any money saved by blockchain into program funding, so that “beneficiaries” are accruing the benefits.
What other “social” use cases are there for blockchain?
In the wider social sector and development sector, there are plenty of potential use cases, but again, very little documented evidence of their short- and long-term impacts. (Author’s note: I am not talking about financial and private sector use cases, I’m referring very specifically to social sectors and the international development and humanitarian sector). For example, Oxfam is tracing supply chains of rice, however this is a one-off pilot and it’s unclear whether it can scale. IBM has a variety of supply chain examples. Land registries and sustainable fishing are also being explored as are digital ID, birth registration and civil registries.
According to one Salon participant, “supply chain is the low-hanging fruit of blockchain – just recording something, tracking it, and referencing it. It’s all basically a ledger, a spreadsheet. Even digital ID – it’s a supply chain of movement. Provenance is a good way to use a blockchain solution.” Other areas where blockchain is said to have potential is in situations where election transparency is needed and also “smart contracts” where one needs complex contracts and there is a lack of trust amongst the parties. In general, where there is a recurring need for anonymized, disaggregated data, blockchain could be a solution.
The important thing, however, is having a very clear definition of the problem before deciding that blockchain is the solution. “A lot of times people don’t know what their problem is, and the problem is not one that can be fixed with blockchain.” Additionally, accuracy (”garbage in, garbage out”) remains a problem that blockchain on its own cannot solve. “If the off-chain process isn’t accurate, If you’re looking at human rights abuses of migrant workers, but everything is being fudged. If your supply chain is blurry, or if the information being put on the blockchain is not verified, then you have a separate problem to figure out before thinking about blockchain.”
What about ethics and consent and the Digital Principles?
Are the Digital Principles are being used as a way to guide ethical, responsible and sustainable blockchain use in the humanitarian space, asked one Salon participant. The general impression in the room was that no. “Deep crypto in the private sector is a black hole in the blockchain space,” according to one person, and the gap between the world of blockchain in the private sector and the world of blockchain in the humanitarian sector is huge. (See this write up, for a taste of one segment of the crypto-world.) “The majority of private sector blockchain enthusiasts who are working on humanitarian issues have not heard of any principles. They are operating with no principles, and sometimes it’s largely for PR because the blockchain hype cycle means they will get a lot of good press from it. You get someone who read an article in Vice about a problem in a place they’ve never heard of, and they decide that blockchain is the solution…. They are often re-inventing the wheel, and fire, and also electricity — they think that no one has ever thought about this problem before.”
Most in the room considered that this type of uninformed application of blockchain is irresponsible, and that these parallel worlds and conversations need to come together. “The humanitarian space has decades of experience with things that have been tried and haven’t worked – but people on the tech side think no one has ever tried solving these problems. We need to improve the dialogue and communication. There is a wealth of knowledge to share, and a huge learning curve on both sides.”
Additionally, one Salon participant pointed out the importance of bringing ethics into the discussion. “It’s not about just using a blockchain. It’s about what the problem is that you’re trying to solve, and does blockchain help address that problem? There are a lot of problems that blockchain is not appropriate for. Do you have the technical capacity or an accessible online environment? That’s important.”
On top of that, “it’s important for people to know that their information is being used in a particular way by a particular technology. We need to grapple with that, or we end up experimenting on people who are already marginalized or vulnerable to begin with. How do we do that? It’s like the Facebook moment. That same thing for blockchain – if you don’t know what’s going on and how your information is being used, it’s problematic.”
A third point is the massive environmental disadvantage in a public blockchain. Currently, the computing power used to verify and validate transactions that happen on public chains is immense. That is part of the ethical challenge related to blockchain. “You can’t get around the massive environmental aspect. And that makes it ironic for blockchain to be used to track carbon offsets.” (Note: there are blockchain companies who say they are working on reducing the environmental impact of blockchain with “pilots coming very soon” but it remains to be seen whether this is true or whether it’s another part of the hype cycle.)
What should donors be doing?
In addition to taking into consideration the ethical, intellectual property, environmental, sustainability, ownership, and consent aspects mentioned above and being guided by the Digital Principles, it was suggested that donors make sure they do their homework and conduct thorough due diligence on potential partners and grantees. “The vetting process needs to be heightened with blockchain because of all the hype around it. Companies come and go. They are here one day and disappear the next.” There was deep suspicion in the room because of the many blockchain outfits that are hyped up and do not actually have the staff to truly do blockchain for humanitarian purposes and use this angle just to get investments.
“Before investing, It would be important to talk with someone like Larissa [our lead discussant] who has done vetting,” said one Salon participant. “Don’t fall for the marketing. Do a lot of due diligence and demand evidence. Show us the evidence or we’re not funding you. If you’re saying you want to work with a vulnerable or marginalized population, do you have contact with them right now? Do you know them right now? Or did you just read about them in Vice?”
Recommendations outlined in the GAHI report include providing multi-year financing to humanitarian organizations to allow for the possibility of scaling, and asking for interoperability requirements and guidelines around transparency to be met so that there are not multiple silos governing the sector.
So, are we there yet?
Nope. But at least we’re starting to talk about evidence and learning!
In addition to the GAHI report, the following resources may be useful:
- Blockchain for Social Impact, Moving Beyond the Hype
- Blockchain Ethical Design Framework
- Blockchain: Unpacking the disruptive potential of blockchain technology for human development
- Reflecting on MERL Tech 2018 and the Blockchain (includes several embedded resources)
Salons run under Chatham House Rule, so no attribution has been made in this post. Technology Salons happen in several cities around the world. If you’d like to join a discussion, sign up here. If you’d like to host a Salon, suggest a topic, or support us to keep doing Salons in NYC please get in touch with me! 🙂