Blockchain Runs Refugee Camp in Jordan

This Refugee Camp Runs on Blockchain

Syrian refugees could regain legal identities that were lost when they fled their homes.

The Blockchain technology is changing the lives of these refugees in Jordan, positively. Blockchain technologies have the potential to alleviate many of these complications. On May 31, 2017, the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) completed the first successful large-scale trial of the Ethereum blockchain in Jordan to distribute humanitarian aid to Syria.

A blockchain, originally block chain, is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. Each block typically contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block,[6] a timestamp and transaction data. By design, a blockchain is inherently resistant to modification of the data. It is “an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way”. For use as a distributed ledger, a blockchain is typically managed by a peer-to-peer network collectively adhering to a protocol for inter-node communication and validating new blocks. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires collusion of the network majority.

Blockchains are secure by design and exemplify a distributed computing system with high Byzantine fault tolerance. Decentralized consensus has therefore been achieved with a blockchain. This makes blockchains potentially suitable for the recording of events, medical records, and other records management activities, such as identity management, transaction processing, documenting provenance, food traceability or voting.

Blockchain was invented by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 for use in the cryptocurrency bitcoin, as its public transaction ledger. The invention of the blockchain for bitcoin made it the first digital currency to solve the double-spending problem without the need of a trusted authority or central server. The bitcoin design has been the inspiration for other applications.

A 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.

Houman Haddad is the UN executive behind Building Blocks and its use at the Jordanian camp.
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 smartphones—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 legal job.)

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—backed by a digital identity number stored on a blockchain. Even without the passport necessary to open a Finnish bank account, a MONI account lets refugees receive benefits directly from the government. The system also allows refugees to get loans from people who know and trust them, helping them build rudimentary credit histories that could make it possible to get institutional loans down the road.

Meanwhile, companies like Accenture and Microsoft are joining nonprofit organizations in a public-private alliance called ID2020. The mission is to help achieve the UN goal of providing a legal identity to everyone, starting with the 1.1 billion people who lack any officially recognized proof of their existence.

The system uses a traditional database and an account stored on a permissioned variant of the Ethereum blockchain. The supermarket offers bulk supplies of necessities such as rice, oil, and sugar.

At the heart of such systems is a concept known as “self-sovereign identity.” It was popularized in 2016 by Christopher Allen, an American technologist, who outlined principles for a digital proof of existence owned by the individual. In such a scheme, identity would be portable and not dependent on any state or central authority. And the consensus is growing that a blockchain should be at its center.

Blockchains, Allen told me, are critical to such identity systems because they solve previously “unsolvable” problems. By storing an encrypted identifier in a blockchain, one can separate the authentication system from one’s data, helping to protect privacy. Blockchain systems are also more secure than conventional identity records because they cut out third-party intermediaries. They can be easier to use, and they can survive disasters that might wipe out more centralized record-keeping systems.

The ultimate goal is a system in which a user owns and totally controls some kind of digital wallet—much like the physical one we carry today for our paper documents. The wallet stores claims made by the user (like name and date of birth), evidence for those claims (like copies of birth certificates or utility bills), and third-party validations, known as attestations, that further support an individual’s claims (like a government confirmation of the details on a birth certificate). Such a wallet could reside in a smart chip on a key fob or something resembling a credit card, or it could be a secure enclave within one’s phone, like those already provided by some manufacturers.

With the right technology, say Haddad and others, a blockchain ID system could cover many more claims than the kind found on licenses or passports—claims like “over 21” or “US citizen.” It might, for example, help a refugee prove his or her professional background or family connections.