Blockchain for the humanitarian sector

By Jonathan Lawrence

A network of global charities has begun using blockchain to provide costs savings and transparency to donations. Organisations including Oxfam, Save the Children, Mercy Corps and Christian Aid are three of the 42 members of the Start Network, which trialled the use of blockchain in humanitarian projects last year. The group will work on the project with start-up fund management platform Disberse.

Disberse uses blockchain, which records all transactions in a distributed digital ledger, to try to ensure that less money is lost on exchange rate fluctuations and traditional banking fees. It will also help charities to fight fraud, by tracking all transactions. The ultimate aim would be to track every dollar in aid, from original donor to each individual assisted.

The Start Network plans a three-stage experiment, using blockchain to:

  • Support decentralised decision making by the Start Fund, a peer-reviewed emergency relief fund aimed at rapid response to small-to-medium-scale disasters.
  • Trigger and speed up pay-outs, using “smart contracts” – self-executing arrangements that are guaranteed to deliver swiftly.
  • Enhance transparency by developing a form of “digital ledger” for use in all Start Fund transactions.

A report – Blockchain for the humanitarian sector – published in 2016 by the Digital Humanitarian Network for OCHA, the United Nations’ humanitarian affairs office, concluded:

  • Blockchain “has the potential to transform the humanitarian sector by providing cost savings and traceability of information flows, and by reducing transaction times”.
  • Potential uses are in information management, identification, supply chain tracking, cash programming and humanitarian financing.
  • Since the technology can offer solutions to existing humanitarian challenges, it may be wise to begin studying its impact and experimenting with future implementation.

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