The power of blockchain for the emerging world: In conversation with Jane Thomason
At first glance, the term Blockchain evokes its Westernised applications: a place to store gimmicky NFTs and meme tokens, to track who owns what coins and where its transparency can be trusted. It is often associated with benefiting the young, white, male ‘cryptobro’ or large corporations that understand the DeFi game.
This way of thinking about tech is not new, but little attention is given to the way blockchain is being used as a part of a bigger picture. A picture that gets lost in the buzz of the metaverse and behind the multi-million-dollar digital avatars. A picture that involves poverty, fraud, corruption, human trafficking and humanitarianism.
We are talking about how blockchain can benefit the global south, or “emerging economies”.
Jane Thomason is an entrepreneur described by Forbes as “Blockchains’ leading social evangelist”. Her work specialises in social impacts of DeFi with a repeated focus on seeing the benefits of blockchain being brought to the “bottom billion invisible people” as she describes.
“Blockchain, if deployed and scaled, could solve some of the global problems of our time like climate change and poverty. So, my focus for the past three years has been on trying to demystify the technology and explain the many ways that it can help us solve problems we have grappled with for decades,” Thomason said in an interview with CryptoVista.
The decentralised ledger system of blockchain technology makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change or remove data that is recorded on it. When this type of technology is applied to situations often laced with deception and criminal intent, the power of its transparency can truly be felt.
Creating a self-sovereign identity on the blockchain
Displaced people and those living in poverty often do not have physical identification papers. This is a significant issue, often resulting in major roadblocks when it comes to moving between countries and applying for jobs. The World Bank’s Identification for Development program estimates that 1.1 billion people do not have official proof of identity.
“Without identity, displaced women and children risk falling through the cracks, becoming vulnerable to trafficking or stateless. Blockchain can help reduce human trafficking by giving paperless identification documents based on biometric data, such as fingerprints or facial scans,” said Thomason.
Creating a digital identity on the blockchain is essentially like creating a digital fingerprint made up of key markers unique to the person. These markers can be biometric, financial records, license numbers, and so on. The idea is to create a self-sovereign identity (SSI) that is decentralised and independent of nation-states, corporations, or governing bodies, thus limiting the number of people who fall into the ‘grey economy’ of commercial sex work or slavery.
A report by the Transparency Lab, the Graduate Institute Geneva, noted “having a self-sovereign identity could make it possible for individuals caught in human trafficking to flee without depending on a passport or other form of identification that otherwise could be withheld or stolen from them.”
Going back to the “bottom billion” as Thomason put it, this utility of blockchain tech is already being implemented as a part of humanitarian efforts. For example, the Eastern European country of Moldova is working alongside the UN and Consensys to stamp out human trafficking: children who are being brought across the border have their iris scanned to alert their guardians, who must approve before they leave the country.
Tech company, iRespond, also operates using biometric data to identify individuals and store medical records that can be accessed by healthcare NGOs. They have worked across refugee camps in Thailand and within communities across Africa to improve tracking and treatment of those with diseases such as HIV.
Mobile devices and the transferring of digital funds
The process of transferring cash to marginalised groups is not an easy one and over two billion people are unable to access traditional financial services. High remittance fees and holding times on cash transfers, as well as a general lack of trust in the banking systems, have excluded a large percentage of the world’s population from receiving the funds they need. These are the “unbanked”, and crypto might be an opportunity to get them to have better financial participation in their societyies.
“Think of a poor woman who today does not have electricity, a bank account, or an ID and lives in a remote location. If she wants to get money (sent from a relative) – she has to walk or take public transport to the nearest town (which costs money), Western Union takes 15%, and there is a bus ride home. The reality of the situation could be that she is sent $200 and has to spend $120 on transport and $25 for Western Union and has spent three or four days to access only $65,” Thomason said.
“Think of the promise of technology. With only a 2G mobile phone, poor women can have access to: money, identity, micro-grid solar power, direct access to sell produce and handicrafts globally, crowdfunding money for projects, information on antenatal care visits, access to subsidies from government and a democracy platform to improve citizen engagement with the government,” she said.
The World Bank estimates of the population of unbanked people globally, around 60 per cent of them have access to a mobile device. With access to a mobile device, comes the opportunity to set up a crypto wallet and use the security of blockchain tech to transfer money cheaply and instantly across countries.
This is a process that provides greater global financial inclusion of people in developing nations and is one that is already being implemented across humanitarian aid.
The World Food Program’s ‘Building Blocks’ initiative is an example of this and enables cash transfers direct to refugees in conflict zones using blockchain technology. The WFP found sending money through local financial institutions was unreliable in places of high conflict and storing cash on the blockchain for people to access proved to be the most impactful.
Building Blocks also partnered with UNHCR’s biometric ID systems, allowing refugees to pay for food at shops in the refugee camps by scanning their eyes. Currently, the program supports over 400,000 refugees worldwide.
Transparency in the humanitarian supply chain
When you donate money to a humanitarian fund – be that a large or small amount – the data surrounding where that money ends up is usually difficult to find. Visibility of resource management within the humanitarian supply chain is an issue that is highly prevalent as organisations work out the logistics of availability, quantity and location or relief support.
The transparency of blockchain technology enables ‘end-to-end’ traceability within this process with its public transaction records allowing donors to track the real-time location of relief supplies.
Pilot programs are already underway to put the benefits of this technology to use as a shared and secure record of exchange. Should they prove fruitful, then the long-term benefits will be clear – more of the charitable money donated will go to directly assist the cause, and the additional transparency involved should encourage deeper participation.
These are just some of the ways that crypto assets – still a new and emerging space, and one that started in the global north so has yet to filter through to the rest of the world in a meaningful way – but they highlight just what digital and decentralised assets might be able to do to raise living standards and improve equality worldwide.