Opinion: Blockchain offers poorest a real economic identity — and a shot at the SDGs

A female farmer with local fruit on the way to the Tumba Lediima Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by: Ollivier Girard / Center for International Forestry Research / CC BY-NC-ND

Here are two simple facts facing the development world today. One: It is very expensive being poor. Period. Two: For all the tech innovation and mobile money in the world, billions in extreme poverty are still dealing everyday with the “curse of the empty purse.”

Why is that?

The answer is hiding in plain sight. Multiple organizations interact with the poor in silos. On average, a poor woman farmer in Congo or South Sudan or Guatemala is a “named beneficiary” for at least seven to 10 international organizations, nongovernmental organizations and social enterprises. Each one of these organizations are really trying to do good in the world and trying to address some of the toughest problems we face today. Similarly, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are very achievable, and for the first time ever represent a comprehensive framework to tackle the most pressing problems we face today.

But here is the fundamental problem that begs an innovative and disruptive solution — data on people living in poverty are spread thin across all the organizations, SDGs and their programs. And they are never able to break the cycle of poverty because they do not own their own identity.

Identity as defined by critical life elements, both transactional as well as static, that allows them to have a say in their economic prosperity and stability. Here is a concrete, real life example that I have seen firsthand:

A Congolese or Peruvian woman coffee farmer, making less than $200 a year:

1. Is enrolled in an agriculture cooperative program via an international NGO that is working with another INGO for capacity building.
2. Gets a government subsidy for seed inputs from a local NGO doing agricultural development.
3. Participates in a “human-centered design thinking” session with a global foundation that empowers her as a customer.
4. Is using m-Pesa mobile money on her phone to pay for milk and bread.
5. Has a crop buyer contract with a potential buyer through an implementation partner funded by an impact investor.

This real-world example highlights the five independent data sets in silos of five to seven different organizations and the woman farmer is lost in those silos. Therein lies the problem. She has no leverage, no history, no economic profile summary, no credit-worthy baseline, even though she has been an incredibly hardworking farmer raising a family of seven all by herself.

And all because she doesn’t own or have access to her own identity and history!

There is a lot of conversation and dialog regarding identity these days, but if you look closer all these identity conversations are tied to one core problem: Identity is still owned and operated by someone else, not by the mama farmer.

So here is a unique idea — what if that farmer was seen as a strategic customer collectively by those organizations? What if she had an economic identity that gave her full control and documented evidence of critical life elements such as the land she owns and/or is farming; the health history (birth registration, immunization etc.) of her family; and crop forecast and harvest connected to a climate service so she gets affordable crop insurance that is specific to her land and not aggregated.

“While blockchain technology will not solve all our problems or magically deliver the SDGs, it will give us the ability to think and act differently.”

— Ashish Gadnis, CEO and founder, BanQu

I am recommending a major paradigm shift that all of us working in this space need to seriously consider. One that puts the onus on organizations such as INGOs, social enterprises, monetary financial institutions and the U.N. to collaborate and interoperate in way that puts the woman farmer at the epicenter of their solutions and not lost in individual systems and databases across silos of their own organizations.

How can this be put into practice?

Well, this is where the blockchain technology offers a solution. Blockchain is the technology that powered bitcoin but its applications are much more than bitcoin. At its core the blockchain is a distributed ledger that turns conventional systems and databases over its head. A distributed ledger that is based on consensus and trust-networks making it ideal for an economic identity that is owned by the poor, portable and one that builds long-term economic resilience.

In theory, blockchain provides near immutable records for any assets or payment flows. Its security components have made blockchain an attractive technology for the interests of global development. Time will tell if it's all it's cracked up to be. Via Devex YouTube channel

Blockchain is impacting the developed world in a massive tsunami of applications from banking on Wall Street to supply chains for multinational corporations, and from property titling to health care in the United States.

So, why not apply it in the context of the SDGs and collaboration between INGOs and social entrepreneurs serving the poorest. The SDGs will not meet their targets if they are seen and implemented as point solutions because point solutions fragment the household. The SDGs will have a chance to succeed if they are seen as single platforms with a common profit and loss statement and balance sheet where there is a single customer identity, just like any successful business does anywhere in the world.

If the U.N. and development agencies can collaborate, interoperate and integrate using an economic identity model we can make huge progress and actually have a shot at the first SDG!

I would like to offer a concrete call to action, which is practical and rooted in blockchain technology. First, we must understand the true value of an economic identity on the blockchain, which is owned by the poorest and their household in a way that builds a viable bankable history. Second, development agencies should consider an interoperability protocol when it comes to sharing economic identity and updating information in a way that the poor are recognized for their transactions and history with other agencies. And third, to apply the same interoperability and interdependence to the SDGs.

This call to action may touch some very raw nerves on how aid or development work is done in this world, but it also pushes us to take a very different view — a demand-based view versus the traditional supply-based view. Traditionally development and aid is driven by the surplus and supply from the developing world, which has led to failures such as “buy one, give one to a kid in Africa” and high interest rates on microloans.

Does Africa need yet another payment or cash card option where the recipient has no access to the transaction data?

This traditional view ignores economic identity. While blockchain technology will not solve all our problems or magically deliver the SDGs, it will give us the ability to think and act differently. The internet failed to address basic human needs when it comes to global poverty. I believe the blockchain offers another realistic shot.

Over three weeks, Devex will explore how the development sector can work together to promote inclusive local, and sustainable approaches to development. Global to Local will reimagine how to work together to address a myriad of interrelated challenges, pivoting toward more connected and crosscutting approaches to solving global problems. Join the conversation, tagging @Devex and #Global2Local.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Ashish Gadnis

    Ashish Gadnis is the founder and CEO of the award winning blockchain application BanQu. BanQu is the first ever blockchain Economic Identity platform (patent pending) and network that creates long-term economic resilience/independence for refugees and people living in extreme poverty across the globe. He is also currently, a senior strategic advisor to multiple global organizations and the United Nations on the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 agenda.

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