Could blockchain help put Europe's 'invisible' children on the map?

Mariana Dahan, CEO and founder of the World Identity Network. Photo by: Mariana Dahan

NEW YORK — A new blockchain partnership aims to put half a million of Europe’s “invisible” children, who live without any form of legal identification, on the map, making them less vulnerable to child trafficking and other dangers.

The pilot, launching this week in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, is backed by the United Nations Office for Project Services, the U.N. Office for Information and Communications Technology, and the World Identity Network, an initiative founded this summer in a bid to make progress on universal identification.

“We don’t believe the problems of the world will be solved by one institution, with a finite set of resources,” said Salem Avan, director of the U.N.’s OICT global services division. He spoke at the launch of the partnership, during the humanitarian blockchain forum at Fordham University in New York City last week.

“We also don’t believe we, the U.N. as an organization, can solve the problems of the world,” Avan continued. “We don’t know where the next best idea is going to come from. We want to engage the best ideas together.”

Blockchain — a secure, unchangeable method of recordkeeping — is perhaps best known so far for its role in pioneering crypto-currency Bitcoin. But it also has a range of practical uses in development work, from facilitating remittances and legal contracts, to tracking donor funds, and in this case, a child’s identity.

New initiative aims to deliver on the promise of blockchain for identity

The launch of the World Identity Network may have taken place at Sir Richard Branson’s private luxury island, but the aim is to benefit the 2 billion people living without recognized identification documents.

Mariana Dahan, co-founder and CEO of World Identity Network, said she is drawing on her past experience at the World Bank to execute the pilot, which undertakes its first mission in rural Moldova this week. Dahan, a Moldova native, believes the project and its unique use of technology could be a “game-changer,” correcting what she described as a “failure in the system.”

Without any form of identification, or even with just a basic photo ID, children can become especially vulnerable to traffickers and others who can take advantage of their situation.

“Anyone can come and pretend it is their child, or they have some rights over them, and they can transport them across the border; smuggle them, with fake ID documents,” said Dahan. “When you make a judgement based on a simple picture, it is hard to differentiate one child from another.”

Biometric identification — although accompanied by some privacy concerns — does not have to be complex. Increasingly, governments are using biometrics as the “core of national identification systems,” according to the World Bank’s Identification for Development Initiative, for which Dahan served as the first coordinator. India hosts the largest national unique identity system, which now covers 600 million people. India’s supreme court, however, recently turned down Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans to further expand the program, citing citizens’ rights to privacy.

Biometric identification systems typically store records of fingerprints or iris scans, enabling identification of people who lack birth certificates or other forms of legal identification. In Moldova, the number of unregistered citizens could top about 300,000, three-quarters of whom are under 18, in the post-Soviet country of just 3.5 million.

Globally, an estimated 1.1 billion people cannot prove their identity, according to the World Bank.

“This can really change the face of how traffickers are being prosecuted in such situations, because now you have tangible proof that this attempt of trafficking happened. This can now be traceable, preventable — you can address this challenge,” Dahan explained to Devex in a sit-down interview at the forum. “I truly believe this is a real case and a real use of this technology that can change the life of a child, of a family, and of a country overall.”

In 2014, the government of Moldova identified 264 trafficking victims, 26 of whom were minors. Almost all of the victims — 231 — were subjected to trafficking abroad; Moldova assisted 85 of the victims. Gaining support from the government, as well as from key U.N. agencies, “wasn’t hard,” said Dahan.

The partnership is now seeking further collaboration on blockchain with private sector companies, NGOs, academia, civil society, and others through a global challenge that will award an advisory position to a person or entity that offers the best proposal on how blockchain can be used to develop and execute the project.

“I think this will be a pilot that has a demonstrative effect and there is a lot of demand from other governments who are confronted with this issue of trafficking,” Dahan said.

“When such an attempt of trafficking happens at the border, most of the time in the past that went unnoticed, or unregistered. If you use a technology like blockchain to secure the data and to make a new record of what happened, this attempt of trafficking is now recorded and cannot be deleted under any circumstances,” she explained.

The pilot does not have a specific end date, but it aims to enroll all Moldovan children with biometric information. Neighboring countries have expressed interest in extending the project.

The deadline for submissions for the global challenge is January 10, 2018.

Read more Devex coverage on blockchain technology.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.

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