The UN Is Using Ethereum’s Technology to Fund Food for Thousands of Refugees

Steve Heap/Shutterstock.com

The blockchain technology could slash the costs of delivering aid.

Cancún, Mexico

The United Nations agency in charge of food aid—often billed as the largest aid organization in the world—is betting that an ethereum-based blockchain technology could be the key to delivering aid efficiently to refugees while slashing the costs of doing so.

The agency, known as the World Food Programme (WFP), is the rare example of an organization that has delivered tangible results from its blockchain experiments—unlike the big banks that have experimented with the technology for years.

The WFP says it has transferred $1.4 million in food vouchers to 10,500 Syrian refugees in Jordan since May, and it plans to expand. “We need to bring the project from the current capacity to many, many, more,” says Houman Haddad, the WFP executive leading the project. “By that I mean 1 million transactions per day.”

Haddad, in Mexico to speak at the Ethereum Foundation’s annual developer conference, hopes to expand the UN project, called Building Blocks, from providing payment vouchers for one camp to providing vouchers for four camps, covering 100,000 people, by next January. He hopes to attract developers and partners to the UN project from his conference appearance, organized by the foundation, which acts as a steward for the technical development of the ethereum protocol.

The WFP currently distributes food vouchers within Jordan’s refugee camps via supermarkets located in the camps. The cashiers are equipped not with cash registers, but with iris scanners, which both identify the customer and settle their entitlement payments by verifying the data with various UN databases. Building Blocks replaced the payment part with a ledger that records the transactions on a private version of ethereum that it developed. “For the beneficiary, nothing has changed,” Haddad says.

The major benefit to the food program so far is a large drop in payments to financial services firms, the usual middlemen for transactions. Such fees have dropped “significantly,” according to Haddad. There are other benefits, like increased privacy for beneficiaries, and quicker reconciliation of accounts because the agency now operates its own payment network instead of waiting for periodic reports from payments firms. The project has been relatively cheap to run, underwritten by a $100,000 grant from the WFP’s startup incubator. “Now we’re doing the payments ourselves and the accounting ourselves,” Haddad says.

The WFP solution is designed to scale. It uses a “fork”of the ethereum codebase that’s been modified by the engineering firm Parity to be private so transactions aren’t exposed. It also means ethereum miners—the people who add new supply of the cryptocurrency—aren’t required to validate those transactions, removing a bottleneck to transaction capacity. The WFP operates the chain itself, although it simulates a scenario where four parties are working together, for future expansion. As a result, the solution can be used by as many beneficiaries and merchants as Haddad can sign on.

Haddad envisions a future where refugees control their own cryptographic keys to access their funds (or “entitlements,” in aid worker jargon). This element may be crucial to making aid more easily and widely available because the keys would unlock data that’s currently stuck in different aid agencies, including medical records from the World Health Organisation, educational certificates at UNICEF, and nutritional data from WFP. “This profile starts to become enriched to become an identity that’s controlled by the beneficiary, which has never happened before,” Haddad says.

One catch: None of the other UN agencies or aid organizations want to play ball so far, Haddad says, thanks to the internecine bureaucracy at the UN and the desire of managers to guard their own turf. “If it’s just WFP, we’re not using the full power of blockchains,” he says.”But if someone wants to come in, we can just let them in.”

The problem of internal bureaucratic warfare, of course, isn’t limited to the UN. Paul Currion, who co-founded Disberse, another blockchain-based aid delivery platform, lauds the speediness of the WFP effort. “It’s fantastic for proving this can work in the field,” he says. But “we’ve found that the hard work is integrating blockchain technology into existing organizational processes—we can’t just hand people a ticket and expect them to get on the high-speed blockchain train; we also need to drive with them to the station,” he says.

Haddad, in the meantime, is building up internal support to expand the Building Blocks project. He has organized a blockchain steering committee at the WFP, and he’s drawing up plans for further expansion. By the second quarter of next year, the system could cover the entire Syrian refugee population of Jordan, or 500,000 people, which would include people who don’t live in camps. He’s hopeful he’ll make a connection in Cancún that will see more organizations join the WFP’ blockchain effort. “I wish that somehow we would get somebody to accept our hand and shake it from the other end,” he says.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.