Blockchain for the Humanitarian Sector: Future Opportunities

KEY MESSAGES

• The blockchain is a type of distributed database hosted across a network of multiple participants. Moreover, the blockchain provides a way to share information and transfer digital assets in a fast, tracked and secure way.

• The blockchain has the potential to transform the humanitarian sector by providing cost savings and traceability of information flows, and by reducing transaction times.

• Originally created to transfer financial value, the blockchain is now viewed as having the potential to be an efficient and secure way to transfer or share any type of information or asset.

• Humanitarian practitioners should understand that blockchain technology can be applied to humanitarian challenges, but it is not a separate humanitarian innovation in itself.

• When layering applications, such as smart contracts, on top of the blockchain, its full potential can be realized.

• In the humanitarian sector, some potential use cases for blockchain technology are in information management, identification, supply chain tracking, cash programming and humanitarian financing.

• Since blockchain technology can offer solutions to existing humanitarian challenges, it may be wise to begin studying its impact and experimenting with future implementation.

INTRODUCTION

The blockchain is a type of distributed database hosted across a network of multiple participants. Moreover, the blockchain provides a way to share information and transfer digital assets in a fast, tracked and secure way. Originally created to enable the digital currency Bitcoin, blockchain technology has garnered attention by creating new opportunities beyond currency for organizations in all sectors, including the humanitarian sector. The blockchain has the potential to transform the humanitarian sector by providing cost savings and traceability of information flows, and by reducing transaction times.

There has been tremendous interest in blockchain technology around the world and across sectors. DARPA is investigating the blockchain for a messaging service. National and local Governments, such as the United Kingdom, Estonia, Russia and Delaware in the United States, have been researching blockchain applications for public record-keeping, commercial vendors and voting systems. In the financial sector, banks have already formed consortiums and research labs centred on the blockchain and its potential.

This Think Brief explores blockchain technology and its potential application to the humanitarian sector. It provides a primer on blockchain technology, and it highlights applications in the humanitarian sector, potential use cases and recommendations for implementation. This is meant to serve as guidance for potential use within the humanitarian community, and it outlines future areas of research and exploration.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:
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