UN Women on the hunt for a blockchain solution

Participants engage with a demonstration of one app, Blockbond, at UN Women. Photo: Ryan Brown / U.N. Women

UNITED NATIONS — When Fredrik Mosis moved to Norway from Côte d’Ivoire as a teenager for football opportunities, he started to send money home to his family. He channeled the money through his uncle, but when Mosis returned back to Côte d’Ivoire he found it had never reached his other family members.

There is a solution for this common issue of remittance mismanagement, Mosis found, and the year-old, Norway-based blockchain initiative he co-founded, Vipicash, addresses it. The app designates how and where individual cash recipients can spend their money, tying the funds to participating local businesses or institutions.

“It’s the same issue that we see people facing, and it’s the same issue within Africa as well,” Mosis said. “You don’t know how the money is being spent.”

Real-time demonstrations of Vipicash and nearly 10 other programs centered on blockchain — a decentralized, secure online database — were on display yesterday at UN Women’s headquarters in New York. Some of the programs launched as recently as two weeks ago.

The simulation experience also served as an “innovative procurement process,” which could help UN Women identify a service provider they want to work with in humanitarian settings, explained Caroline Rusten, chief of the organization’s humanitarian unit.

Most of the programs focused on providing, and storing, a digital identity for users, and facilitating money transfers outside of traditional set-ups with individual bank accounts. Attending U.N. staff, academics and other experts peppered the developers with questions about how their services could work in settings without broad mobile or internet access, and the accuracy of facial recognition technology.

Blockchain remains on the verge of breaking into humanitarian work, Rusten said. She offered Devex three points about how the technology could influence international humanitarian engagement.

More transparency could mobilize private funding

Many of the program simulations on Tuesday stressed the concept of empowering people off-the-grid — who may not have state-issued forms of identification, or bank accounts — with protected access to their data, which they can unlock with facial or fingerprint recognition.

The idea can also be translated for use by funders, to ensure they have more oversight over how their donations are spent — deciding, for example, to send money just for solar energy, directly to middle-aged women in a remote area of Papua New Guinea, as can happen with the multi-use IDBox. That could mean strengthening ties with skeptical donors, Rusten said.

“Private funders who might hesitate to give money to the U.N. or the U.N. system, but they may still want to provide if they can ... channel funds directly to beneficiaries,” she explained. “Private funders can come in and use the blockchain technology to support families directly, for example. In the future it could be a way ... to mobilize private funding in a different way.”

Donors could then follow the transfer of their money to see who has received it, and how they have spent it.

“We believe that you would then be better able to maybe mobilize private funding so they can see, they can also see the transfer of money through the chain link,” Rusten said.

The focus, for now, is on cash and identities

Traditional financing options don't seem to always speak to the women and girls UN Women and other partners are working with, Rusten said.

“With blockchain we would be able to find better solutions for how to transfer money, or a better solution for how to work with identity. These are the sort of solutions that we have been focusing on at this event,” she said.  

One vendor at the event, the Norwegian-based Blockbonds, showcased an app that requires a central partnership with a banking system within the country. But it also allows individual users to generate digital currency and save money through a payment system on the blockchain. By paying in cash at local, participating businesses, users would then, instead of change, be receiving a “top up” on the app in return.

Several stressed the question of protecting people’s identities through facial recognition, which could help in identifying people who are missing, or have been trafficked. This could also aid refugees and other vulnerable populations, such as migrants, in establishing and maintaining identities, Rusten explained, easing their way to access medical care or employment.

“If we can work again with populations to identify ways to use technology to help them build up identities when they're on the move, and also to recognize that a lot of these people come from countries that maybe don't have a functioning state, or maybe they don't want to give them papers that they need,” that could be a huge benefit, Rusten said.

“We think that's really important when it comes to identity.”

Blockchain is new at the U.N. — but it likely isn’t going away

UN Women launched a blockchain initiative about a year ago, marking the start of a discussion on new ways to do humanitarian work, Rusten said.

In July, it partnered with Innovation Norway to host its first hackathon in Oslo on addressing challenges for refugees and displaced people.

And blockchain solutions continue to pop up in association with the U.N., which participated in the first humanitarian blockchain forum at Fordham University in New York in the fall.

“For us it's been really important in trying to find better solutions to target girls because we know they are disproportionately affected by crisis, but we [the aid community] are not good enough at targeting them,” Rusten said.

UN Women will continue to work to identify blockchain solutions that could be implemented in the field, Rusten said.

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About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York 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.