Humanitarian Groups Explore Blockchain:
Overcoming Common Obstacles of Providing Aid during Humanitarian Crises

Part III

To provide tools to crisis victims so they may take greater agency on their own behalf as they reconstruct their lives in the crisis aftermath

The World Bank’s Identification for Development Program (ID4D) estimates that 1.1 billion people have no official identity record. Officially, these 1.1 billion people do not exist. Unsurprisingly, the majority of them are vulnerable populations, including children, women, and more who suffer under poverty and other humanitarian crises. Eric Jing, a member of the ID4D High Level Advisory Council, emphasizes that at-risk populations without official identities become even more vulnerable during times of crisis, because when government infrastructure begins to fall apart, the “families are left without access to healthcare, education, and social and financial services.” This means that the lack of 1.1 billion identities is itself a crisis, and this lack also exaggerates the suffering caused by other humanitarian crises.

When the United Nations released the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, it was immediately clear that a solution to the missing-identities crisis would contribute toward achieving the 17 goals. Because of this, many humanitarian organizations are looking for what Blockstream’s Principal Architect Christopher Allen termed, “a self-sovereign identity,” in his often-cited 2016 essay, “The Path to Self-Sovereign Identity.” In his essay, Allen acknowledges the dilemmas inherent to identity records: impermanence and mutability, inaccuracies, uneven regulation of privacy, and individual ownership of his/her identity. There is also a substantial cost of maintenance. Notably, these dilemmas exist under any form of identity which is created or maintained by any single organization, ranging from governments to digital registration services. Therefore, simply putting an identity online is not enough, since these records can be edited and accessed against the wishes of the individual.

Although the internet is insufficient to reduce the missing-identity crisis, there is a technological solution. Several prominent humanitarian organizations are partnering with technology companies to find blockchain-based solutions to the missing-identity crisis. Blockchain technology intrinsically supports transparent digital records, as detailed earlier in this article. Public blockchain is effectively impossible to manipulate, and even privately controlled blockchains have inherent structural protections against attack. Additionally, blockchains can allow for public authentication of data while keeping the details of that data private. This means that an individual can enjoy the benefits of having a secure and permanent digital identity record while also maintaining his/her privacy.

In 2015, Finland’s immigration services worked with MONI, a local tech start-up, to achieve two goals: establishing official identities and providing meaningful long-term aid. The program allows refugees and other immigrants to voluntarily build digital identities through blockchain technology, and it also enables program participants to receive aid through debit cards linked to their digital identities. The debit card provides instant access to aid, without the recipient having to pick up or deposit a check or otherwise complete an exchange. The permanent and secure identity empowers program participants to gain legitimate employment, receive wages, pay bills, and further integrate into their new community. This can reduce the length of a crisis victim’s suffering as well as his/her reliance on aid. It also enables the government to continue long-term aid and monitor it, even if the aid-recipient changes addresses.

Since this early adoption, donor organizations around the world have developed, tested, and used digital identities as solutions to an array of humanitarian crises. This article has already mentioned some of the most prominent usages, including the prevention of child trafficking and reuniting displaced persons with their families. In these cases, blockchain-supported identities reduce immediate effects of humanitarian crises. In cases like Finland’s collaboration with MONI, blockchain-supported identities become tools for victims of humanitarian crises to develop personal independence and take actions to free themselves from the long-term effects of the crises. Digital identities are a long-range solution to myriad challenges, a solution which many hope to pursue. Houman Haddad, a UN executive involved in the Building Blocks program, states that his “personal view is that the eventual end goal [of Building Blocks] is digital ID, and beneficiaries must own and control their data.” He would like to see Building Blocks provide full digital identities for refugees. Official identities could extend to purposes beyond the grocery store at the Azraq camp and allow the victims of this refugee crisis an opportunity to rebuild their lives independent of aid.

Humanitarian aid distribution - how blockchain technology can help
A customer pays for groceries at a supermarket in the Zaatari refugee camp - source: MIT Technology Review

When any aid-giving organization considers how to distribute resources and structure support, there will be a compromise between the short-term the long-term programs. The first hopes to mitigate the effects of a dire immediate crisis, and the latter seeks to produce positive systemic change that can prevent such crises from recurring. Blockchain is being used in both short- and long-term applications.

In New York City, homelessness in the five boroughs is reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression. In 2017, the city government began using blockchain in two initiatives to combat the homelessness crisis. One focuses on long-term study of the problem, and the other explores a short-term solution. On the long-term side, city workers were at a loss on how to gather and coordinate their personal records into a useful body of collected knowledge. They began using an app called StreetSmart to record, analyze, and integrate collective data about the homeless, in order to inform their future decision-making. The second initiative premiered late in 2017, with the Fummi app (built by Blockchain for Change). Three thousand of the city’s homeless were issued smartphones preset with the Fummi app which is supported by blockchain technology. The app can swiftly deliver cryptocurrency to a user who follows certain program requirements, and it also tracks what is purchased in real time (specifically, to prevent purchase of controlled substances). Interestingly, this short-term solution provides an added benefit by giving its users the opportunity to build permanent, blockchain-supported official identities. The Hypergive program in England provides much of the same support as Fummi, but uses a pre-paid card instead of a smartphone. These two programs are already exploring Houman Haddad’s hope for the Building Blocks program, by using blockchain-supported official identities to empower individuals at a grassroots level.

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” Legal recognition requires a legally recognized identity. This is why sponsors ranging from Microsoft to UNESCO are pursuing blockchain-supported solutions to the missing-identity crisis. Blockchain-supported digital identities are a step above what most United States citizens enjoy from their local DMV, since digital identities have relatively low maintenance cost, immutability, secure encryption, and potential for easy universal access. Official digital identities can unite families who have been separated by crises, create financial stability for people who have never had it, and protect children from human trafficking. It is no small wonder that organizations who want to help the “unidentified” victims of humanitarian crises are, increasingly, looking to blockchain-based solutions.

Blockchain is no panacea for all the world’s humanitarian crises. However, its pitfalls and limitations are known, which enables blockchain-based technologies to allow for these problems and work around them.

For example, there is no consensus on public versus private (or “commissioned”) blockchains. Massive public blockchains like those used by Bitcoin and Ethereum can experience drag and delays, especially when compared to smaller, nimbler blockchains. The Building Blocks program discontinued its original public, Ethereum-supported blockchain for that reason, shifting to a small private version. However, the kind of grand impact and final goal of digital identities that Houman Haddad wants for the Building Blocks program will require a public blockchain. Most industry insiders predict that the public/private distinction will disappear over time as developers adapt to the best aspects of both. John Wolbert, who recently left IBM to join ConsenSys (the awardee of the Moldovan anti-child trafficking challenge), anticipates, “I would like to see in a year from now for most people to think it's absurd to say ‘private networks’ or ‘public networks.’

Ownership of the information on blockchains is also an unresolved question which draws widespread interest. Data ownership is the focus of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which began enforcement in 2018. After the Brexit vote, the United Kingdom quickly moved to update its own Data Protection Act by implementing the GDPR provisions in the first DPA update since 1998. The concern, to put it simply, is: do individuals have the right to delete their own records, if they choose to? Should identities be truly “self-sovereign”? The GDPR and other legislation seem to say, “Yes, each person should be able to control his/her own data.” However, accessing the power and authority to exercise that personal control is a separate issue. Blockchain’s strength, which is its complete and immutable record, is also its weakness. The technology is “append-only,” meaning deletion is never possible even if the person who “owns” the information is the one trying to delete it. Additionally, any form of privacy-inducing function of blockchain would, most likely, be far above an average person’s technical expertise. To some, these facts make a valuable argument for not including personal data at all in any blockchain-supported system.

Privacy and access are particular concerns for victims of humanitarian crises whose digital identities might be traced and weaponized by, for example, the hostile regimes which force refugees from their homes. Fortunately, blockchain has the ability to encrypt data securely while maintaining public authentication process. By using unique private keys to digital identity, such as biometric keys like fingerprints or iris scans, each individual could theoretically maintain possession of his or her own data and preferred level of privacy.

The completeness and integrity of collected data is another legitimate concern of those considering blockchain-based solutions to humanitarian crises. However, analog and non-blockchain digital records share this same issue of data gaps. Blockchain may share that weakness with all forms of data collection, but it improves on other methods of data collection with its transparency. A blockchain might not hold complete records of every thing, but it is clear and transparent about what records it does have.

Finally, blockchain-based tools are useless without a certain amount of support—specifically network access, electricity, expertise, and tech. In the case of Fummi in New York City, trained government workers have to help the homeless create digital identities, and the program would be useless without issuing users their own smartphones (described by one article titled, “Holidays Come Early for the Homeless in New York City”). And perhaps it is stating the obvious, but those smartphones won’t work unless each user keeps his or her phone charged. Many early adaptors of blockchain-based solutions to crises were already in possession of reliable network infrastructure and tech. Other successful projects can concentrate their resources; for example, Building Blocks outfits only the supply stores in the refugee camp with eye-scan equipment. However, some off-grid areas would find blockchain-supported systems to be useless and impossible. Fortunately, this challenge may be overcome by building on work already being done in the for-profit sector. Samourai Wallet, a secure digital wallet for cryptocurrencies, released their Txtenna app in October 2018. It is the first app to complete blockchain-based transactions while offline. A user doesn’t need internet or cellular network access; he/she only needs the Txtenna app on a mobile phone and goTenna short-range radios. There are still a few “hiccups” and the process requires an energy source (which could be solar or wind power). However, this promises that even those living in the most remote or technologically limited areas may soon have access to blockchain-supported humanitarian aid efforts.


In a range of obstacles to helping victims of humanitarian crises, blockchain-supported solutions continue to appear. People and organizations with an interest in providing efficient, transparent, long-lasting aid to crisis victims are finding it worthwhile to explore blockchain and invest in its wide-ranging potential. Time spent in understanding blockchain’s humanitarian applications will be time well spent.