Can blockchain help us better assist refugees and migrants in transit? Innovative Financing for Development


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Technology can both empower and disempower. At a recent workshop on blockchain, we landed a challenge: how can we use it to facilitate refugee integration?

I am an immediate misfit in the dynamic multiverse of people speaking in code. But at this USAID event led by the UNDP Alternative Finance Lab and AID:Tech, I wasn’t the only one.

My team started brainstorming with a simple question: what do we have in common? The answer was: a strong sense of identity. That fragile sense of self, inflated when our boss pats us on the back and shattered when somebody “swipes left”.

Displaced people often struggle with identity loss. It isn’t just about that “blood and soil” sense of belongingness that disappears when houses, families and memories are left behind. It is also the more abstract notion of dignity that ebbs and flows as you knock on doors that don’t open or file asylum and job applications without success.

After some philosophizing, we identified our clients: refugees in transit. More specifically, in camps or settlements. How do they get by? Some may have their own means, but most rely on vouchers, cash transfers and the like.

There are many ways to use and abuse that system – most notably if one family member thinks that he/she knows best, but their best isn’t in everyone’s best interest. While a mother may need health services, her 17-year old son might want to learn the local language to be able to start a business.

Of course, this is assuming that everyone’s wants and needs are underpinned by rational choices that would maximize their income and well-being. But in reality, not all of them want to fight. Some of them just want to forget.

Can blockchain help those of them that want to pursue happiness? Can it help organizations managing camps or settlements keep better track of the aid that they distribute and demand for different services?

In comes our tradeable token system! It creates a refugee micro-economy: every individual aged 16+ could register for a personalized blockchain profile and start receiving a monthly package of tokens. The use would be limited to certain services, such as food, education and training, or healthcare. Using their mobile phones, refugees could then start exchanging tokens.

Having blockchain’s digital footprint would help us get a better sense of what displaced people want. Consequently, we could improve our toolkits to assist them. Refugee communities could graduate from trying to survive to making choices about their present and investing in their future. They could, perhaps, regain a sense of self, a new identity.

Our team won the workshop challenge. We were excited: Could this work? Where do we find someone mad enough to pilot it? That remains to be seen: coming up with innovative solutions to development challenges is the easier part. What we need to figure out now is how to integrate them into day-to-day operations.

The next step is bridging the humanitarian-development divide and teaming up with our partners to discuss not only blockchain but innovative financing for development in general. On November 9, we will meet up in Washington, DC, to debate how Impact Bonds, Islamic Finance, Pay for Success schemes, Crowdfunding and Blockchain help us raise the trillions that we need to meet the SDGs. The event is hosted by Slovakia Ministry of Finance, UNDP’s Alternative Finance Lab and the World Bank’s Blockchain Lab. Come join us!
Register at EVENTBRITE


Kristina Mikulova

Advisor to Executive Director

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