few times a month, Bassam pushes a shopping
cart through the aisles of a grocery store stocked
with bags of rice, a small selection of fresh vegetables, and other staples. Today he’s wearing a
black sweater tucked into denim jeans, which
are themselves tucked into calf-high boots caked
in mud. The Tazweed Supermarket, where he’s shopping, is on
the periphery of a 75,000-person refugee camp in the semi-arid
Jordanian steppe, six and a half miles from the Syrian border.
At the checkout counter, a cashier tallies the total, but
Bassam doesn’t pay with cash or a credit card. Instead he lifts
his head to a black box and gazes into the mirror and camera
at its center. A moment later, an image of Bassam’s eye flashes
on the cashier’s screen. Bassam collects his receipt—which
reads “EyePay” and “World Food Programme Building Blocks”
across the top—and walks out into the noonday chaos of the
Zaatari refugee camp.
Though Bassam may not know it, his visit to the supermarket involves one of the first uses of blockchain for humanitarian
aid. By letting a machine scan his iris, he confirmed his identity on a traditional United Nations database, queried a family
account kept on a variant of the Ethereum blockchain by the
World Food Programme (WFP), and settled his bill without
opening his wallet.
Started in early 2017, Building Blocks, as the program is
known, helps the WFP distribute cash-for-food aid to over
100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. By the end of this year,
the program will cover all 500,000 refugees in the country. If
the project succeeds, it could eventually speed the adoption
of blockchain technologies at sister UN agencies and beyond.
Building Blocks was born of a need to save money. The WFP
helps feed 80 million people around the globe, but since 2009
the organization has shifted from delivering food to transferring
money to people who need food. This approach could feed more
people, improve local economies, and increase transparency.
But it also introduces a notable point of inefficiency: working
with local or regional banks. For the WFP, which transferred
over $1.3 billion in such benefits in 2017 (about 30 percent of
its total aid), transaction and other fees are money that could
have gone to millions of meals. Early results of the blockchain
program touted a 98 percent reduction in such fees.
And if the man behind the project, WFP executive Houman
Haddad, has his way, the blockchain-based program will do far
more than save money. It will tackle a central problem in any
humanitarian crisis: how do you get people without government identity documents or a bank account into a financial and
legal system where those things are prerequisites to getting a
job and living a secure life?
Owning your identity
Haddad imagines Bassam one day walking out of Zaatari with a
so-called digital wallet, filled with his camp transaction history,
his government ID, and access to financial accounts, all linked
through a blockchain-based identity system. With such a wallet,
when Bassam left the camp he could much more easily enter
the world economy. He would have a place for an employer to
deposit his pay, for a mainstream bank to see his credit history,
and for a border or immigration agent to check his identity,
which would be attested to by the UN, the Jordanian government, and possibly even his neighbors.
Such a record, perhaps stored on a mobile phone, could let
someone like Bassam take his data from Syria to Jordan and
beyond, backed up online in encrypted form. Syrian refugees
using such a system—and most in Zaatari already have smart-phones—could regain legal identities that were lost along with
their documents and assets when they fled their homes. In this
scenario, Bassam could move—to Germany, or back to Syria—
and easily prove his educational credentials, demonstrate his
relationship to his children, and get a loan to start a business.
(In most countries, without an ID you can’t get a bank account,
and without a bank account, you can’t get a place to live or a
If such a system had existed before Bassam left his hometown of Daraa, he might have avoided Zaatari altogether and
become a productive member of Jordanian society straight
away. Even if Syria revoked his passport, or if a school with a
record of his degrees were bombed, an immutable register of
his history could still smooth his entry into an adopted country.
A number of organizations are already working on aspects
of this idea. In Finland, a blockchain startup called MONI has
collaborated since 2015 with the Finnish Immigration Service,
giving every refugee in the country a prepaid MasterCard—
Syrian refugees could regain
legal identities that were lost
when they fled their homes.