Voices from Eurasia


Can blockchain help us better assist refugees and migrants in transit?

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Technology can both empower and disempower. At a recent workshop on blockchain, we landed a challenge: how can we use it to facilitate refugee integration?

I am an immediate misfit in the dynamic multiverse of people speaking in code. But at this USAID event led by the UNDP Alternative Finance Lab and AID:Tech, I wasn’t the only one. 

My team, half tree-huggers and half tech gurus, started our brainstorming with this question: what do we have in common? The answer was a strong sense of identity. That fragile sense of self, inflated when our boss pats us on the back and shattered when somebody “swipes left”.

Displaced people often struggle with identity loss. It isn’t just about that “blood and soil” sense of belongingness that disappears when houses, families and an entire mosaic of memories are left behind. It is also the more abstract notion of dignity that ebbs and flows as you knock on doors that don’t open or file asylum and job applications without success. 

After ten minutes of philosophizing, we identified our target group: refugee families in transit. More specifically, in camps or settlements. How do they get by? Some may have their own means, savings or earnings. But most rely on vouchers, cash transfers and the like, handed over by humanitarians, development banks, municipalities or governments. 

There are many ways to use and abuse that system – most notably if one family member thinks that he/she knows best, but their best isn’t in everyone’s best interest. While a mother may need health services, her 17-year old son might want to learn the local language to be able to start a -business one day. 

And of course, this is assuming that all family members’ wants and needs are underpinned by rational choices that would maximize their income and well-being. In reality, though, not all of them want to fight. Some of them just want to forget.

Can blockchain help those of them that want to pursue happiness to do so? Can it help organizations managing camps or settlements keep better track of the aid that they distribute and the demand for different services?

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In comes our tradeable token system! Think of it as creating a refugee micro-economy: every individual aged 16+ could register for a personalized blockchain profile and start receiving a monthly package of tokens. The use would be limited to a set of services, which could include food, education and training, healthcare, and so on. Using their mobile phones, refugees could then start exchanging tokens based on what they need at that moment.

Having the digital footprint of blockchain would also help those of us in the humanitarian arena to get a better sense of what displaced people want. This way, we could get better at tailoring our toolkits to assist them. Then, refugee communities could transition from survival to making choices about their present and investing in their future. They could, perhaps, regain a sense of self, of their new identity.

In the end, our team won the workshop challenge. We were excited: Could this actually work? Where do we find someone mad enough to pilot it? That remains to be seen.

Coming up with innovative solutions to development challenges is the easier part. What we need to figure out now is how to integrate them into our day-to-day operations at UNDP.

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On November 9, we are meeting up in Washington, DC to explore how instruments such as impact bonds, crowdfunding and Blockchain can help us raise the trillions that we need to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. If you are working on an initiative where blockchain can add value, please, join us.

Blog post Migration and displacement Development Effectiveness Innovation

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