How blockchain is providing ‘proof of existence’ for the world’s 1.1 billion refugees

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles March 22, 2018
Blockchain’s promise of a highly secure, digital, transparent, open, immutable and distributed ecosystem is providing humanitarian groups with “digital identity” tools to tackle some of society’s most intractable troubles.

refugee crowd
When large numbers of people are uprooted from the native countries by war or famine or other conflicts, they lose not only their homes and earthly possessions, they often also lose their individual identities.

The UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law,’ but without records and documentation, refugees commonly live in a state of limbo with access to basic healthcare, education, housing, voting, childcare and other social support.

About 1.1 billion people--one-sixth of the world’s population cannot participate in cultural, political, economic and social life because they lack the most basic information: documented proof of their existence.

One of the early examples of blockchain being used for a humanitarian cause is ID2020, a public-private partnership committed to improving lives through digital identity, which was previewed at the UN in 2017 when Accenture and Microsoft, unveiled a prototype identity system based on the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance’s “permissioned” blockchain protocol. It runs on Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform, and is designed to use fingerprint and iris biometrics, among others, for identification in a decentralized manner.

Accenture created the prototype using its own Biometric Identity Management System (BIMS), built upon the Unique Identity Service Platform (UISP) and collaborating closely with The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR.) The BIMS technology captures and stores fingerprints, iris data and facial images of individuals, providing undocumented refugees with their only personal identity record.

Because it uses several biometric elements, BIMS is more inclusive and accurate in matching an identity and detecting and eliminating multiple enrolment attempts. Says Dave Treat, a managing director and the global head of Accenture’s Capital Markets Blockchain practice:

We are combining this biometrics capability with the work in development by the Decentralized Identity Foundation (DIF), of which Accenture and Microsoft are founding members. DIF is furthering the ability of people, organizations, and machines to have a single identifier akin to today’s DNS entries for computers. Part of our work is to solve the ‘last mile’ problem of associating the identifier with the human (or similar characteristics of a thing).

Current members of the ID2020 Alliance are Accenture, Microsoft, Mercy Corps, Hyperledger and the UN International Computing Center. The Alliance describes itself as unique among initiatives focused on digital identity, in that partner organizations jointly manage a pooled fund, used to implement pilot projects, and work jointly to develop user-centric technical requirements and data privacy standards. In the coming year, the group plans to launch pilots focusing on refugee populations and childhood immunization.

The Finnish Solution

ID2020 is by no means the only active effort to address the problem of refugees and digital identity. Finland recently raised its forecast for asylum seekers this year to 50,000, and says that number could double next year. In anticipation of the larger inflow the Finnish Immigration Service Migri chose the Helsinki startup MONI to deploy an Ethereum based pilot program to provide refugees with both MONI Prepaid MasterCards and mobile-first, customizable payment accounts.

The pre-paid cards are being used to replace the current cash payments of government benefits and function more like a bank account replacement than a simple payment account. When the refugees eventually get jobs, their salaries can be paid to MONI accounts as well. The cards allow authorities to track both spending and identity with the added benefit that the blockchain data is immutable.

The technology used by MONI doesn’t require a financial intermediary, such as a bank, to process transactions. Transactions are instantaneous between users, and a unique digital record is kept of each one. In short, transactions are cheaper and more transparent.

In addition to paying and receiving money, cardholders can also apply for a loan or credit through their mobile phone, either from friends or financial companies. The card also encompasses a “circle of trust” where users choose the friends they would be willing to lend money to, setting a maximum amount, and friends can reciprocate. Loans between friends have no fees and no interest, and the service is free to use.

The World Food Program

In January 2017, the World Food Program (WFP) successfully tested ‘Building Blocks’, an early experiment that enabled the transfer of WFP food and cash on a public Ethereum blockchain through a smartphone app, to vulnerable families in Pakistan.

Within months, the WFP ran a full pilot in the Jordanian refugee camp of Azraq to successfully facilitate cash transfers for over 10,000 Syrian refugees on its blockchain payments platform. The pilot alone is said to save the agency $150,000 a month while eliminating a startling 98% of bank-related transfer fees.

Based on that success, the WFP—which feeds over 100 million people across 80 countries--is expanding its blockchain platform after estimating savings of millions of dollars in bank transfer fees by utilizing de-centralized blockchain technology. The WFP said at the time:

Blockchain technology, most famously associated with the crypto- currency Bitcoin, offers unique opportunities for humanitarian agencies to provide the best-possible assistance to vulnerable people around the world.

My take

It’s hard for those of us who were born and grew up in stable, industrialized countries to imagine what it’s like to not be able to prove we are who we say was are. People without a documented identity suffer by being excluded from modern society. The ID2020 solution is personal, private and portable, empowering individuals to access and share appropriate information when necessary without the worry of using or losing paper documentation.

It’s hard to think of a more worthy humanitarian effort than providing our fellow humans who lack it this basic human right. It is also fairly easy to think of many possible commercial applications. Implementation will take time but the potential to be a game-changer is clearly there.

A grey colored placeholder image