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Harnessing the Power of Blockchain for Humanitarianism

Idomeni, Greece - May 26, 2016. A Syrian man carries his daughter, as refugees abandon the makeshift camp of Idomeni in northern Greece, after the evacuation operation by the Greek police.
January 9, 2018

Article 6 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights mandates, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” Recognition before the law entitles citizens to access – to education, childcare, healthcare, financial services, voting, housing, and other social services.  Yet, over a billion people go unrecognized every day for lack of identification.

The implications of this exclusion to access are vast. Social mobility, protection, and participation are stymied, while marginalization is sustained. Thus, creating an apparatus that allows for universal identification is a fundamental step in fostering a more cohesive, productive, and inclusive international community.

Migrants and refugees make up a large cohort of those without papers. Arguably, they are one of the most systematically marginalized segments of society, a problem fueled by the absence of documentation. Be it poor governance at home or crisis situations, migrants and refugees often must flee without documentation, through no fault of their own. The absence of documentation can prove traumatic for migrants and a logistical, humanitarian nightmare for the adoptive state.

Governments are the traditional gatekeepers of identity. But today, politics, inefficiency, and the status quo mean we must look beyond conventional mechanisms to address this issue. One possible solution, that happens to be in everyone’s best interest, involves enlisting the services of the budding financial technology sector, notably blockchain, and digital startups.

Like most European countries over the last few years, Finland has experienced an influx of asylum seekers. Overwhelmed, the Finnish government has turned to innovative startups for help. Helsinki-based MONI, arguably the most promising of these startups, is tackling the issues of identity and inclusion head on by way of blockchain-based financial services.

Unable to open bank accounts due to strict, know-your-customer rules, asylum seekers can obtain prepaid MONI Mastercards, replacing existing government monthly cash payments, which are neither safe nor cheap. A MONI account costs €2 per month and a small fee is charged for each purchase or international transaction. Each card is also connected to a unique digital identity stored on a blockchain, an ever-growing list of records stored securely online, and employs the same technology that supports the digital currency, Bitcoin.[i] MONI’s use of blockchain technology provides an avenue for securely creating and storing a digital form of identification that cannot be corrupted and is globally accessible.

Finnish Immigration Service director Jouko Salonen has stated that the issue of “strongly authenticated identity” is no longer a problem because MONI has made it easier for refugees to prove their identity, access capital, find employment, and participate in society.[ii] In short, MONI has succeeded in creating a quick, efficient system that permits access to identification and financial service.

Word of MONI has travelled to refugee camps throughout Europe and demand has become rampant. In fact, the United Nations is exploring ways to employ the company’s technology to provide identification and financial inclusion to all undocumented people on earth.[iii] Recently, MONI obtained a license to expand and deliver its service across the European Union,[iv] with Sir Richard Branson stating, “MONI will make the world go round.”[v] In the future, MONI’s CEO Antti Pennanen hopes to deliver financial inclusion — and identity — to every corner of the globe.[vi]

MONI is a perfect example of the possibilities born of symbiosis between startups and humanitarianism, and blockchain may even have other applications beyond identification and financial inclusion. In November 2017, the United Nations hosted the ‘Humanitarian Blockchain Summit’, in collaboration with Fordham University. At the conference, the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the UN Office of Information and Communication Technology (UN-OICT), and World Identity Network (WIN) announced a blockchain initiative to confront and combat the issue of child trafficking.[vii] It is estimated that almost 50% of children under 5 internationally do not have a birth certificate, while 600 million children under 14 are without identification. These minors fall in the high-risk human trafficking category because, without documentation, they are invisible to development and governmental agencies. Thus, identification is not just about socio-economic opportunity; it guarantees acknowledgement of existence, thereby ensuring access and protection.

Blockchain can also serve as a tool against corruption; for example, it can make the process of giving aid more transparent, thereby reducing the chances of fraud or negligence.[viii] The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is also adopting blockchain technology in a pilot program named Building Blocks to make the food-assistance process cheaper, faster, and more secure for all that go hungry. WFP stated, “Full implementation of the technology promises significant cost savings to WFP, and donors alike, potentially totaling millions of dollars per annum.” So far, Building Blocks has allowed 10,000 refugees in Jordan’s Azraq camp to pay for their food by using a blockchain-based system that tracks distribution.

Blockchain has the potential to address a plethora of issues through the quick and sustainable establishment of people’s identity. Supporting, spreading the word, and getting involved with blockchain-based initiatives is a great step for those inspired by the possibilities.

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[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.





[viii] Ibid.