21. When blockchain meets civil society

Blockchain is a decentralised digital ledger that enables the unchangeable transfer of data, transactions and records. These transfers are known as blocks and cannot be copied or manipulated, meaning that all transactions are transparent and accountable within the network. Within the civil society space there are clear benefits in engaging with blockchain.

Here are some key areas in which the use of such a technology can provide reassurance to participants whose information is logged onto the blockchain:

Verification

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One way blockchain has captured the interest of civil society is the technology’s ability to grapple with mismanagement of funds. In 2012, the then-UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon estimated that up to 30 per cent of foreign aid had not reached recipients because of corruption, citing the need for more transparency and accountability as the problem.

The use of blockchain to verify the transfer of data to intended parties has been demonstrated in the work of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. Working with fellow UN agency UNHCR, they are using the biometric registration data of refugees to enable camp inhabitants to use an iris scan payments system in verifying purchases made in the camp’s supermarket. WFP estimate that since January 2018 about 100,000 of the camp’s inhabitants have engaged with the technology.

Another organisation contributing to the blockchain for development space is Disberse. Their fund management system uses blockchain technology to transfer funds between donors and recipients. The initial partnership between Positive Women, a UK-based organisation and boMake, a partner in Swaziland, involved a collaboration to secure the transfer of funds to support the tuition of Swazi students. The direct impact of this new method of transfer enabled a further three students to enrol in school thanks to the savings on foreign exchange fees. Disberse has scaled up its enterprise by partnering with the Start Network in a pilot to develop an infrastructure to support Start Network’s 42 agencies across five continents.

The Estonian government has also been working on the implementation of blockchain since 2008. Its engagement with the technology has been a direct response to 2007 cyberattacks that affected the country’s internal systems. They have incorporated the use of blockchain in their national health, legislative and judicial systems, centralising siloed systems to ensure the security of digital identities of Estonian citizens.

Validation

Within civil society, the need to have free and fair elections is crucial in ensuring an equitable society. At a time when the number of elections has increased while the electoral turnout has decreased, the relationship between different governments and their respective civil societies is precarious. The app Coalichain appears to be stepping into the breach. Launching in late July, it will give users the opportunity to engage with issues put forward by electoral representatives and allow them to track the performance of elected officials.

Value

Blockchain’s value in terms of its immutability is crucial to the shifting political, economic and social contexts, with an estimated 53 per cent of the world’s adults identified as not having access to official financial services. Humaniq is an app that has emerged in the financial inclusion space, using biometric authentication to remove the need for formal documentation that users may not have. It taps into the increasing use of cashless payments in areas of sub-Saharan Africa, although scalability has been questioned due to the uncertainty of the legal status of cryptocurrencies in certain countries.

Viable or Vanity ?

Blockchain technology is at an interesting intersection of its journey. There are hesitations about a technology that appears to be all things for all people, particularly in an age where there is global disinformation and distrust in voices of authority.

There is indeed a discussion to be had with regards to the power imbalances that blockchain technology, for the time being, perpetuates. The geographical composition of the technology’s creation to the implementation is guilty of the North/South divide that civil society organisations are keen to recalibrate. As it is a relatively new technology, time will tell if these imbalances will be redressed, and if the current solutions can be scaled up in such a way to enable civil society to be more equitable.

Tanaka Nyamadzawo is the transparency assistant at Bond, the UK network for organisations working in international development, and a CIVICUS member.

This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.

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