Can Building Blocks fulfill its
real promise and be more than a
centrally controlled database?
major institutions that will mine our data,” he says. Still, he
says, the hope is that the discussion will move away from such
The real promise of using blockchains may not be realized
until organizations like the WFP and the UN have the courage
to open at least parts of the system to other agencies, and then
to take the bravest step of all and turn over ownership of the
data to beneficiaries like Bassam, who currently has little say in
the matter because he has to be in the system if he wants to eat.
Building Blocks could, in theory, accomplish this if it evolves
according to Haddad’s vision. For instance, the WFP could offer
its technology to others as a basic accounting system, tracking
disbursements for food and later adding entries for land ownership, educational credentials, and travel history. If outside
nonprofit organizations were allowed to add nodes to the blockchain’s network, it could become more like a public blockchain,
with its advantages of being harder to hack or cripple because
it is decentralized and distributed.
Walking around Zaatari, a bustling city that sprang into
existence as a tidal bore of humanity crashed over the Syrian
border in 2012, shows what a severe test it will be for Building
Blocks’ ambitions. Just beyond the two officially sanctioned grocery stores that accept payments using Building Blocks, there
are scores of mom-and-pop vendors openly running what are
essentially black-market shops selling everything from food to
washing machines to old bicycles. If Building Blocks can’t be
adopted there, then aside from making the WFP’s operations
a bit more efficient and transparent, it will remain little more
than a centrally controlled database dressed in a costume of
distributed, decentralized trust.
Russ Juskalian is a freelance writer based in Munich, Germany.
He visited Zaatari this February.