by Karl Steinacker, Deputy Director of the Division of Programme Support and Management
Azraq camp in Jordan: In a video clip recently published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), refugees are shopping in a supermarket. The World Food Programme (WFP), which has been given access to the UNHCR biometric database, verifies identities and is, thus, able to issue its cash assistance without using physical money. This innovative use of biometrics as well as of a private blockchain has saved WFP millions of dollars otherwise spent in bank transaction fees.
This is a great success, and we wonder, as does the video clip: Is blockchain the future of humanitarian aid? Social media, due to their brevity, have the power to ask pertinent questions. However, answers to complex questions might take longer to formulate. Lacking the famous crystal ball, we cannot be certain about what the future has in store for humanitarian aid. But trends can give us a hint.
UNHCR has been using cash cards in Jordan and other countries for more than a decade. Using the human iris falls under the same logic: as refugees aren’t allowed to open bank accounts, the cash assistance is received by the individual refugee through what is technically a sub-account of the donor. This monetary assistance is made available through pre-defined channels: ATMs, point of sales in supermarkets, mobile money, and so on. Certainly, there will be more channels for cash distribution in the future, allowing for more flexibility and opportunities in how refugees and other eligible persons will receive and spent the money dedicated to them. But the real protection dividend lies elsewhere: We should advocate for refugees to have full-fledged bank accounts so that they can receive, save, and transfer their monies like everybody else!
Technology will undoubtedly continue to play an increasingly important role in all sectors of society, including in humanitarian assistance. And, in addition to identity and trust systems, public ledgers (i.e. blockchain) are likely to be part of the technology of the future as shown by WFP’s cash assistance programme in Azraq camp.
But the Jordan example also amplifies the need for a recognized and unique identity. In Jordan and elsewhere this has been achieved through UNHCR’s biometric registration systems. While data protection and the ability of refugees (as so called “data subjects”) to access and share their own data will be enhanced over time, digital identity systems remain the backbone of current and future humanitarian assistance.
Having an identity which is recognized by administrations, services, and businesses is indeed a key building block for socio-economic inclusion. This crucial benefit for development is listed in Goal/Target 16.9 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG): Identity for all!