Blockchain, identity as a human right and the refugee crisis
Identity is too important not to digitise.
The World Food Program has already found a lot of success using a self-operated Parity-designed Ethereum fork to manage food vouchers for Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Rather than exchanging printed vouchers for food, shopkeepers use iris scanners to verify identity and status against the blockchain record. The main advantage has been a large drop in payments to financial services intermediaries, who would otherwise need to take a cut and send periodic reports to the WFP.
Houman Haddad, the WFP executive leading the project, is picturing a program that's expanded to give refugees their own cryptographic keys for unlocking funds and a system that integrates data from other aid agencies, such as medical records from the World Health Organisation and educational certificates from UNICEF.
"This profile starts to become enriched to become an identity that’s controlled by the beneficiary, which has never happened before," Haddad says.
He's not the only one thinking that.
"Self Sovereign Identity, a key-based, on-chain decentralized digital identity, for example, can potentially help iron out the inefficiencies associated with the issuance of government paper-based IDs, allows people to reclaim control of their own information, and provides international protection for refugees and the 'invisible population' (the stateless or those who don’t have IDs)," explains Nydia Zhang, co-founder and chair of the Social Alpha Foundation non-profit.
With more identity ingredients being added to the mix, these kinds of systems see much wider possibilities. A good example is India's ongoing national blockchain project. It's intended to bring together disparate data sources, such as individual identity information from Aadhaar and geographical data from soil health cards, to create solutions that are much greater than the sum of their parts. Here, for example, an individual's financial and health information can be crossed with their local land and climate information to help automate a national self-adjusting insurance scheme.
In the case of refugees, these ingredients might include their current entitlements, health information, travel data or previous training or education to help more efficiently process and help re-home them.
Joseph Thompson, co-founder and CEO of AID:Tech, also points at how identity can go beyond just being an identity card.
"Refugees, especially those in protracted crises, are vulnerable, particularly when we look at the challenge of identity. Not only do refugees need to reformulate their personal identity to secure a sense of belonging, but also it’s imperative from a legal, social, and political perspective," he said. "Needless to say, the issue is more complex than simply assigning each individual an identity card, as global crises happening throughout the world are different and varied with refugees and their situation experiencing a constant flux."
The tangible importance of a sense of identity has been noted for a long time, and the resurfacing of the issue in the context of refugees might bring to mind the writing of Mervin Willett Gonin, whose regiment famously found itself with a huge shipment of purely cosmetic but identity-restoring lipstick while liberating the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
One of the benefits of a blockchain digital identity rather than physical documents is that it can remain immutable and cannot be accidentally lost or destroyed while also creating an updating set of footprints over time and distance.
For example, a pregnant woman's blood tests can be securely and privately held on the network, and a digital placeholder can be made for her child so the child doesn't miss out on an identity later and can have a record even from before birth. Or two geographically distant relatives can check into camps thousands of kilometres apart and almost immediately find out that the other is safe.
"An effective identity solution needs to be flexible, reliable and sustainable while also accommodating the transitional circumstances often faced by refugees. This is particularly crucial and alarming when we consider that refugee children are being born with the risk of missing out on legal identity; the foundation for access to formal services, including healthcare and education," Thompson said.
Bruce Silcoff, CEO of the Shyft Network, notes that geography is playing an outsized role on people's fortunes and that softer data points, such as reputational information, can also be attached to people.
"We are evolving into a world where geography increasingly defines destiny, and that has to change," he said. "We are witnessing millions of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers crossing borders to escape violence and build better lives for themselves and their families, only to run into institutional barriers, unable to access basic services and participate in the global economy.
"Shyft is building a blockchain-based, cryptographically secure network that can help these individuals gain access to the global economy by giving them a way to build Creditability, a contextual identity based on reputation and credibility. We are breaking down walls and silos to build bridges that transcend borders, and working with established and up-and-coming organizations to disrupt the way identity is assessed and managed. Given the extent of the global identity crisis, it has never been more important to work on solutions that will help build a more fair and inclusive future for everyone."
Disclosure: At the time of writing, the author holds ETH, IOTA, ICX, VET, XLM, BTC and NANO.