Recently, the United Nations was recognised for its use of blockchain technology in Forbes’ second Blockchain 50 List. The 75-year-old organization, which has an important role to play in global humanitarian efforts, has been looking to leverage the emerging technology in several areas. 

From assisting in the fight against climate change to disbursing funds to Syrian refugees using blockchain-verified iris scans instead of ID cards, the UN has looked to advance its cause with the help of a technology that is still finding its niche. 

The idea of blockchain for good is not a foreign one, as the technology has such far-reaching disruptive potential that it has often been aimed at charitable exercises and situations where good can be achieved, or at least featured, through this new technology.

The UN, at the top rung of global efforts to further humanitarian causes, has proven its willingness to get on board with blockchain technology to be a more effective force. In fact, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres has said the intergovernmental giant needs to embrace blockchain.

The digital age

It has become apparent that we currently sit on the precipice of a new industrial revolution that will be predicated on the advancement of new and currently emerging technologies. Artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, blockchain and others are all finding their feet in this new digital age.

For blockchain especially, it is being spread across many different sectors, with its impact being heavily felt, and sought, in the financial sector thanks to the cryptocurrency side of things. However, enterprises have also started recognizing the potential for the technology to bolster business, and the UN is not letting this slide by them either. 

“For the United Nations to deliver better on our mandate in the digital age, we need to embrace technologies like blockchain that can help accelerate the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals,” said Guterres in the statement provided exclusively to Forbes.

For the UN, its focus is on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). First set in 2015, the 17 SDGs, including ending poverty and responsibly producing and consuming goods, are expected to be completed in the 2030s.

There are five blockchain projects in the United Nations Innovation Network set up to facilitate inter-agency cooperation. For example, the United Nations International Telecommunications Union and Food and Agriculture Organization have partnered to track pig supply chains in Papua New Guinea; the United Nations Capital Development Fund is exploring blockchain for remittances in Nepal; and the United Nations Development Programme is using blockchain to track the cocoa supply chain in Ecuador. But there are also other areas of blockchain usage.

UNICEF and Cryptocurrency

The United Nations International Children’s Education Fund is also looking to the power of blockchain to bolster its work, but it is honing in on the other side of things — cryptocurrencies. 

The Unicef Crypto Fund, a prototype that lets the agency accept bitcoin and ether donations and invest them directly into blockchain startups, was launched in October of last year and immediately had uptake from the cryptocurrency community as a donation of 1 Bitcoin and 10,000 Ether came from from the Switzerland-based Ethereum Foundation.

And again, this move from UNICEF is not just to try and profit from the volatile and exciting Bitcoin investing market, but rather than attempt to keep up with the digital age.

“We don’t see the Crypto Fund so much as being crypto,” said Christina Lomazzo, head of blockchain for UNICEF. “What we really see it as is being ready for a digital future. We’re going to need to be ready to deal with digital assets whether that be Bitcoin or Ether or some other government-backed digital currency. It could be any of those, but this is really helping us build up the muscles to understand how to live or how to on-board digital assets.”

And, even though there is an entrance into cryptocurrency for the UN in this instance, those at the Ethereum Foundation, have also pointed out the benefits of being on the blockchain.

“The Unicef Crypto Fund provides an amazing opportunity for us to work collaboratively with Unicef teams around the world,” said Aya Miyaguchi, executive director of the Ethereum Foundation, which will be providing technical support to Unicef and its blockchain portfolio as part of the investment. “Unicef has a network of 190 offices across the world that brings to the Ethereum ecosystem the ability to work with leading minds in regions that could benefit the most from Ethereum technology.”

Tangible results

Of course, all of this work being done with blockchain currently is still very much experimental and quite theoretical. The potential has been seen, but there is still a long way to realize the goals or to even feel the direct impact that blockchain can have in humanitarian cases. 

However, one use case that has come to the fore is the use of blockchain-verified iris scans for Syrian Refugees.

Syrian refugees in Jordan’s Azraq camp are now receiving aid, and paying for their food through a retina scan that is recorded on the blockchain, rather than through ID cards which come with their own issues. 

“We feel this is a starting point,” said WFP’s director of innovation, Robert Opp. “There are a number of potential uses of blockchain that could dramatically change the way we reach people in terms of our efficiency, effectiveness and security.”

Misappropriation of funds is an issue across the whole humanitarian sector, so it’s little wonder that other agencies are also studying blockchain, said Yoshiyuki Yamamoto, special adviser for blockchain at the U.N. Office for Project Services (UNOPS).

In 2012, former Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said 30 percent of all U.N. development assistance was lost to corruption.

“If we don’t know where 30 percent of the money is, that’s a big concern for everyone,” said Yamamoto.



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