Distributed Ledger Technologies & Humanitarian Assistance: Next Steps

Written by Laura Walker McDonald

4th March 2019

Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs), such as blockchain, have attracted considerable interest and investment from all sectors in recent years across, including for humanitarian aid. GAHI has therefore made available its first Policy Brief “Distributed Ledger Technologies & Humanitarian Assistance: Next Steps” with recommendations in order to drive practical action that uses DLTs effectively, and to help ensure organizations and the people they aim to help are protected and receive the right form of aid.

At the invitation of DFID’s Blockchain Advisory Group, and with the support of Accenture, GAHI commissioned the report Blockchain and distributed ledger technologies in the humanitarian sector from the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute in order to better understand the evidence base for the impact of DLTs in humanitarian aid work. The GAHI Policy Brief draws from the evidence put forward in that report. The paper is an in-depth exploration of complex systems, policy, and project-level issues raised by DLT projects. The researchers drew on DLT project documentation to independently review the available evidence and develop five case studies detailing DLT progress in the humanitarian sector and interviews were conducted with humanitarian practitioners.

DLTs are of increasing interest because they are engineered to be transparent and difficult to manipulate or tamper with. DLTs are electronic ledgers which are replicated and kept updated across multiple devices, known as nodes. Blockchains, in which each entry is a timestamped, cryptographically-secure entry linked together in a growing list, are one type of DLT, and perhaps the best known.

GAHI’s Policy Brief sets out three “Takeaways”, and four recommendations for practical next steps that can help the humanitarian sector realize greater impact. The Policy Brief also suggests priorities for improving existing practices given the considerable tensions and risks raised by the evidence.

Takeaway 1: DLT pilots show there is potential for innovative internal systems to create measurable efficiency gains

Recommendation 1 – Gather evidence on the potential impact of innovation in back-office functions:

  • Commission research on opportunities to improve efficiency of internal systems; and
  • Develop and apply an evidence framework for organizations scaling internal systems. Such a framework should provide insight into changes to impact as projects scale. For example, pilots received more support during the early phase of development than would be practical or possible later.

Takeaway 2: DLTs have transformative potential, which is far from being realized

Recommendation 2: Undertake robust analysis of challenges and barriers to adoption in cases where DLT presents an opportunity

  • Explore the use of DLT, perhaps focusing initially on feedback mechanisms in collective efforts such as the Lebanon Cash Consortium, or the Communication and Community Engagement Initiative. These could provide operational environments to build knowledge on how DLT can support genuine accountability. 

Takeaway 3: DLTs provide an opportunity to showcase the risks posed by innovative technology in humanitarian action

Recommendation 3: Recognize and mitigate the risks DLTs pose to organizations and the vulnerable populations they serve:

  • Develop a taxonomy of the potential harms and risks of DLT projects including protection concerns of vulnerable people and the legal, operational, and financial risks to organizations.
  • Agree  digital data protection guidelines
  • Clarify the challenges around national and international law around both DLTs and digital projects more broadly

Recommendation 4: Catalyze collective, networked action to enable responsible digital innovation across the sector:

  • Increasing awareness and commitment to the Digital Principles within the humanitarian sector,
  • Committing, within the humanitarian DLT community, to practices of open sharing of resources and learning. 

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