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How Blockchain Technology Is Helping Syrian Refugees

This camp in the heart of the Jordanian desert is home to displaced people, and a world first tech initiative.

28/11/2017 8:01 PM AEDT | Updated 28/11/2017 8:01 PM AEDT
WFP/Mohammad Batah

Azraq Refugee Camp is a 15 kilometre-wide sea of corrugated aluminium houses in the heart of the vast Jordanian desert. The people that live there are detained by the barbed wire that surrounds the entire complex which is located an hour and a half from the country's capital city, Amman.

The people who live in the camp have escaped the horrors of the Syrian Civil War and reside there indefinitely. The knowledge that life as it was has been destroyed is coupled with the overwhelming uncertainty of when normality might return.

From within the strange environment of the camp and the indistinct future, lies a bastion of normalcy for these people -- the supermarket.

In the refugee camp the supermarket is much more than a place to shop or purchase food though: Here it is a vital fibre in the social fabric of a makeshift community.

Regardless of whether shoppers go to buy one tiny thing or to spend a while weaving through the isles, the supermarket is a hub for human interaction -- a place to talk and to share stories.

Getty Images

It's unbelievable to think then, that a place that is so remote and isolated could be home to a world first initiative involving the emerging Blockchain technology.

The Building Blocks Project is the brain child of Houman Haddad, Regional CBT Advisor for United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The project aims to make cash-based transactions between the WFP and the beneficiary faster, cheaper and more secure.

Prior to the project's launch at the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan in May 2017, it was first trialled in Pakistan and also in King Abduallah Park Refugee Camp as a means of testing the robustness of the technology. On May 31st 2017 the pilot in Azraq was extended indefinitely.

Traditionally, payments are made to refugees from the WFP via a third party financial service provider. The entity could be a bank, mobile monetary company or something similar and the WFP instructs the financial service provider to credit some of the funds to the refugee so they can spend it at the supermarket or elsewhere.

On top of that, the WFP also needs to transfer the funds to the third party so they can actually pay the beneficiary. Sounds complicated right? Well, the Building Blocks Project aims to eliminate reliance on a third party and with this comes plenty of savings.

WFP/Mohammad Batah
The supermarket is a place of social interaction.

"So, what we have done is essentially replaced that financial service provider with the Blockchain," Houman Haddad told HuffPost Australia.

"So instead of having someone else create virtual accounts and credit functions and so on and so forth, we create the virtual account on the Blockchain for beneficiaries, we upload entitlements to them, and currently in the supermarket where they go, the supermarket requests an authorisation code for transactions from the Blockchain as opposed to the bank.

"So we have reduced the bank cost of the financial service provider, or the total cost of what would have gone into doing this, by 98 percent, because we're now just paying the funds transfer to the retailer ... we're not paying additional services for creating all these virtual accounts, paying them, producing reports and so on and so forth, that's all being done on the Blockchain."

Photo: WFP/Shaza Moghraby
Blockchain makes it easier for refugees to access donated funds.

For this kind of transaction to work, the blockchain requires some kind of verification to prove the person purchasing goods at the supermarket is the same person to whom the money belongs. Building Blocks uses IrisGuard scanning technology to do this, were the beneficiary scans their eye when they wish to purchase something at the supermarket, with their iris acting as the password to their account. Haddad explains that this makes accessing funds easier for refugees.

"In Jordan, they so happen to already be using the iris scanning technology for identification, so our beneficiaries don't need anything more than their iris to transact," Haddad said.

"So when they visit a supermarket, they scan their iris, their identity is verified and that identity and the amount of the purchase is automatically sent to the Blockchain, which authenticates, records the transaction and sends the confirmation back to the supermarket to essentially issue the receipt and let the beneficiary be on their way."

WFP/Shaza Moghraby
The iris acts as an account password.

There are many major benefits that come with using Blockchain technology in its humanitarian aid capacity that span beyond financial savings. One of these possibilities involves a person's transaction records from the blockchain being used to establish a credit history.

Due to the nature of Blockchain technology, each refugee transaction is locked on an unchangeable digital ledger that can be moved across borders, meaning that in the future refugees could experience a smoother transition back into normal life once they return to their home countries.

"In the case of refugees, it's not a document that can be actively taken away from them or something they can be persecuted for stuff on, at the same time they'll have access wherever they go," Haddad said.

"So, what we're doing right now is essentially we're creating financial transaction histories for beneficiaries and just showing that your money may not be very meaningful on its own, but if you can show that you can save a bit of money, this can potentially count towards a credit score. So let's say if a refugee then returns to Syria, potentially they could get a small business loan based on this and get back on their own feet."

It's in this way that Building Blocks is currently looking at transferring refugee's identity onto the Blockchain as well. This will provide a secure, and unalterable record of an individual's identity, meaning that a refugees can prove that they are who they say they are without having to carry identification documents.

"They don't have to carry identification documents because their identity can be verified through their iris, essentially. But the identity is not yet fully on the Blockchain, that's something that were hoping to achieve as part of our future plans," Haddad said.

WFP / Paul McCann
Blockchain transaction histories could potentially be used towards a credit score.

Bernhard Kowatsch is the United Nations Head of the WFP Innovation Accelerator, the group that is responsible for finding and nurturing ideas like the Building Blocks Project, that harness disruptive technology to help end global hunger.

The Innovation Accelerator was officially launched in June 2016, and since then has supported over 30 projects like Haddad's to change the way society approaches issues related to hunger and to assist in reaching the Sustainable Development Goal to end hunger by 2030.

Kowatsch told HuffPost Australia that Building Blocks is remarkable because of the way it has helped people in such a short period of time.

"It only took six months to really get from starting to 10,500 people to get to cutting edge tech such as Blockchain and revamping the way we do things," Kowatsch said.

"We are able to save money, it works and it has huge potential to broaden the tech in Jordan other countries and humanitarian aid companies. So right now the plan is to expand the program to 100,000 refugees by the end of the year and by early 2018 the whole camp population."

Muhammad Hamed / Reuters
The WFP aims to extend the Building Blocks Project to the whole camp by 2018.

Kowatsch also said that innovations that utilise disruptive technologies, such as Blockchain, have the unique ability to begin to solve some of the long-standing humanitarian problems by giving displaced people the ability to access funds and institutions that they otherwise wouldn't be able to connect to.

"Why it is interesting for us to look into innovations is that one-in-nine people on this planet are still considered hungry -- hungry meaning they don't have enough calories to live a healthy life, so that is 815 million people and clearly there are still way too many people that are considered hungry.

"This work has adopted the goal of the Sustainable Development Goal ... number two which is ending hunger by 2030 and to do that we do need more innovations ... we need not only the ideas but also the brightest minds."

WFP/ Farman Ali
Houman Haddad at an early Building Blocks trial in Pakistan in 2017.

Haddad said that avoiding a solutionist approach is key to the success of the Building Blocks Project, where it is successful in assisting people without impacting their lives in a negative way.

"I feel good, I mean honestly, again this was from the napkin drawing to now, we've gone through a lot," Haddad said.

"I've been worried often about beneficiaries and changing the impact of their lives and disruption, all of that, and so far ... it's all been positive.

"When you're in the Blockchain space, a lot of people ask you, 'why Blockchain, why not something else?' And it is true, you can do a lot of things off of Blockchain but now the question becomes 'why not Blockchain, not why Blockchain?'"

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