Has global development reached 'peak blockchain hype?'

A man queues to receive humanitarian relief for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Photo by: Anna Dubuis / DFID / CC BY

BANGKOK — Tired of waiting for the global development community to dream up a solution for the decades-long oppression of his people, Muhammad Noor has for years busied himself creating new initiatives to support displaced Rohingya.

From his bases in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, those efforts have included Rohingya Vision TV, a multilingual broadcasting channel to educate and empower the population worldwide, as well as an organized Rohingya Football Club that seeks to compete in the ConIFA World Minorities Cup.

His latest project, which involves a 15-person team and several partners, is his most ambitious yet. It is also closely tied to Noor’s background as a software engineer and expertise in cryptography: A blockchain-based digital identification system exclusively for the Rohingya. The project will utilize a multilayered verification methodology to confirm Rohingya ancestry through a series of interviews and assessments that test on five areas: Geographical, social, language, culture, and occupational.

The resulting digital identity will cryptographically prove Rohingya existence and family relations, and record them on a blockchain distributed public ledger. Rohingya diaspora will then be able to leverage their unique digital identities to access crowdfunded resources and empower themselves economically and socially, Noor said.

More than simply providing digital identification documents, the system seeks to bring the population out of financial exclusion and address the challenges of the statelessness they face between the bouts of repression that gain international attention, said Noor, who teaches bitcoin mining and trading to Rohingya diaspora.

The Rohingya Project estimates there are nearly 2.5 million Rohingya living outside their ancestral land, many in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia.

“A couple of decades ago, such a project may have seemed far fetched,” Noor said. “Yet technology is now evolving to the point where decentralized systems such as blockchain can ensure sensitive data is secure and hackproof … it provides the possibility that every Rohingya can have a wallet and can send and receive money.”

For Noor, blockchain is a logical step to answering the problems that come with being a stateless community, when a lack of identity results in financial exclusion and difficulty accessing health care, for example.

But others are far from convinced.

For many members of the ICT4D community, the project represents experimentation on a vulnerable population — and the peak of blockchain hype and its inflated expectations.

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.

In theory, blockchain is intended to provide near immutable records for any assets or payment flows using a decentralized network of computers to record and authenticate transactions. Its security components have made it a potentially attractive technology for global development — one the World Economic Forum has called a "mega-trend" and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development's innovation chief Tamara Giltsoff named the next tech game changer.

Still, it’s a largely untested new technology with few use cases.  

Wayan Vota, co-founder of ICTworks, blogged about the Rohingya Project in a post entitled “A really bad blockchain idea: Digital identity cards for Rohingya refugees,” where he pointed out four fundamental issues with the project, including asking Rohingya refugees, who already suffer from massive power imbalances, to surrender their digital privacy and become part of an experiment in order to receive services.

Already, data experts have raised the alarm on the biometric registration of vulnerable Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, posing questions about who should be collecting this information and who should have access to it.

Commenters on the ICTWorks article thread expressed concerns over various layers of the blockchain project, including the Rohingya Project using their own system to classify ethnicity, and pondering whether blockchain is the best technology to use to digitize biometric information. In the end, it ignited a common development debate: The line between when employing a new technology is innovative and forward thinking, and when it’s irresponsible and dangerous.

“Blockchain is being thrown around like mHealth was five or six years ago … No one seems to really understand it, but everyone wants in,” said James Michiel, mHealth innovation lead at University of California Davis. “When will ‘methodically designed interventions using proven technology with a clear plan for sustainability’ be the new buzzword?” he asked.

One commenter on Vota’s post called it “possibly the worst blockchain idea posed yet,” while another named it “a deeply problematic effort, largely because of that fact that amongst those displaced not all even identify with the Rohingya identity.”

Aside from the buzzed-about pitfalls of blockchain, the ethnicity aspect is one of the big problems with the proposal, according to Sam Lanfranco, an economist and professor emeritus at York University.

“The biggest is the history of the past 100 years with regard to bad outcomes from assigning ethnic identity cards to populations, or parts of populations, especially when there are social tensions (caste in India, ethnicity in Rwanda, religion in Europe, etc.),” Lanfranco wrote in a reply to the blog post. “This part of the proposal should be evaluated completely separately from the secondary idea of using blockchain as the underpinning technology.”

The list of what Rohingya lack does not stop at identity documentation, “and efforts at well meaning help from outside, or by leaders or the more privileged from within, need to be assessed in terms of how those efforts help improve the overall situation — and not just in terms of how they use a cutting edge technology for a particular purpose,” Lanfranco told Devex in a follow-up email.

Despite his critical blog post, Vota understands the impetus to take a drastic step, considering the dire situation of the Rohingya, a persecuted minority that has received increased international attention since a violent military crackdown in Myanmar caused more than 650,000 people to flee to Bangladesh.

“It feels like the development sector wants to do something, but we’re not sure what to do because of the politics involved,” he told Devex. “We don’t have a unified response that is making a real impact.”

But Vota encouraged a step back to consider that even those people with advanced digital literacy are often worried about their privacy, and that projects like the Rohingya blockchain proposal are “doing the exact thing that we are concerned about personally onto those who have no concept of data privacy.”

“To me, blockchain is still a solution in search of a problem,” Vota added. “We don’t have ironclad uses for blockchain that anybody is using at scale, and there’s a lot of worry that we’re experimenting with something we don’t really understand.”

Though many members of the ICT4D community have come forward to point out the risks of the project, Noor told Devex he welcomes constructive criticism, but he feels confident in the project and doesn’t see any other options.

“The world wants us to wait until the Burmese government issues us a government ID … but then what? We will do this in the meantime,” he said. “We are not talking about a state ID or eliminating statelessness, we are addressing the issues caused by statelessness.”

People may not understand the existing systems that already leave Rohingya refugees vulnerable, he added, referencing mobile applications released in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia so that police can scan QR codes to verify Rohingya identity cards and combat counterfeiting.

But with blockchain ID, the identity holder would be able to give permission as to what details will be shared, Noor said: “For the police, maybe that’s just their name and photo to verify they are who they say they are, rather than full details like home address and phone number. It’s more secure.”

The Rohingya Project is working in partnership with Blockchain Embassy Asia, a public blockchain consortium that educates organizations on the legal and technical implications of distributed ledgers, and Malaysia’s Ata Plus, an online equity crowdfunding platform. Soon, Noor and the team will begin holding informational sessions on the project for diaspora in Malaysia, and they hope to register the first Rohingya by the end of 2018.

The ultimate goal of the Rohingya Project is to use the ID as a key to empower the Rohingya wherever they may be in the world, and over time allow for the creation of a “thriving virtual community that can encourage collaboration and entrepreneurship,” Noor said.

For better or worse, Noor is set on creating an identity for the Rohingya people in a cryptographic world. The development community, in the meantime, warns of the dangers of a technoutopia.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.