Can distributed ledger technology help to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly for transparency of donations and provision of digital identities? Within pilots in Lebanon and Tanzania, AID:Tech is putting this to the test.
Blockchain – the technology that underpins Bitcoin – could have the potential to provide a solution to some of the world’s toughest development challenges. That’s the belief of AID:Tech, a company set up in 2014 to pioneer the technology in this context.
The company stemmed from the experiences of one of the two co-founders, Joe Thompson, who could not trace the outcome of £122,000 he raised by running the world’s toughest marathon, in the Sahara Desert. The money was meant to go towards reconstructive facial surgeries for children in Morocco via a local NGO but subsequently there was no way of tracing the funds and finding out whether they had reached the intended cause.
Around 30 per cent of official development aid goes missing. This is through a combination of inefficiencies and illicit activities.
Lebanese Refugee Pilot
AID:Tech’s Lebanese pilot began in late 2015, working with the Irish Red Cross. Aid was provided via 500 intelligent QR Code-based vouchers, each worth $20, which could be redeemed at a supermarket in Tripoli in north Lebanon, near one of the country’s many refugee camps.
The transactions were monitored in real-time by the Red Cross and all 500 vouchers were redeemed. A number of deliberately faked ones failed at the Point of Sale. The teller scanned the voucher and this created a permanent immutable record on the blockchain platform. Training of tellers took ten minutes.
While this was a relatively straightforward proof of concept for the technology (although clearly had significant logistical challenges), AID:Tech co-founder, Niall Dennehy, believes there is far greater potential.
Unlocking the Potential of the Technology
The distributed ledger technology of blockchain looks well-suited to these types of challenges. Its strengths are transparency from start-to-finish of transactions; instant verification; and security, with records unable to be manipulated. Indeed, Dennehy believes the technology has the potential to make a valuable contribution to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including for everyone to have a legal identity by 2030. At present, an estimated 2.4 billion people around the globe lack this.
At times, the distributed ledger can seem like a technology is search of solutions but, as it matures, so its strengths are becoming better understood. Those attributes stem from the fact it basically constitutes a database that is consensually shared and synchronised across a network, as opposed to the traditional centralised database. Any “value” – in this case, the donations – is transferred on a peer-to-peer basis, without a need for a centrally coordinating entity and with complete transparency.
“Value” refers to any record of ownership of asset or of specific information such as identity, health information and other personal data. It allows transactions to have public “witnesses”, thereby making cyberattacks and fraud more difficult. A white paper on the potential of blockchain for human development by the Canadian International Development Research Centre is available here: https://idl-bnc-idrc.dspacedirect.org/bitstream/handle/10625/56662/IDL-56662.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y
In Tanzania, AID:Tech is working with Dutch NGO, PharmaAccess Foundation, which is dedicated to improving access to healthcare across Africa. AID:Tech’s platform is being used at a trial clinic to support 100 women’s health entitlements. It supports the collection, identification and verification of digital health data to make women’s antenatal care a safer and more efficient process.
The women’s data is protected and they have control of their health records. It tracks the journey of pregnant women from their first hospital visit at 16 weeks and throughout their antenatal care, delivery and postnatal care (Dennehy is like an expectant father when we meet, awaiting the imminent news of the first child to be born within the scheme).
Dennehy is hopeful that the solution can be rolled out across Africa. PharmaAccess was one of three founders of M-TIBA (M stands for Mobile and Tiba means care in Swahili) and Dennehy believes AID:Tech’s platform could have a role here.
M-TIBA, which was launched in Kenya in 2015, is a mobile ‘health wallet’ that allows people to save, borrow, and share money for healthcare at low cost. Again, transparency and accountability are at the heart of the initiative, for all stakeholders, from the patient to the government. Alongside PharmaAccess, the other founders were mobile operator, Safaricom, and CarePay, a Kenyan mobile healthcare payments specialist.
In terms of where all of this is heading, Dennehy is hopeful of a scaling up of the Lebanese refugee solution which could incorporate a digital identification aspect as well. There are also studies looking at how the platform could be applied to welfare entitlements in the UK, initially focused on one London borough, and for the traditional traveller community in Ireland, plus another around remittances in Serbia.
The company is now launching an app, TraceDonate, which sends notifications to donors when their contributions have been delivered to the intended recipient. “We hope it will change the culture of giving,” says Dennehy. A website, www.tracedonate.com is live and the Irish Red Cross will be the first charity to support it, with the hope that others will follow, offering services with a “Powered by AID:Tech” label.
The company has had support from the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation, is an IBM partner and is part of Mastercard’s StartPath programme for start-ups. With TraceDonate, it will receive a transaction fee but with this charged to the charity so with no impact on the beneficiary.
These are still relatively early days for distributed ledger technology applied to development challenges such as these but AID:Tech, alongside others, is seeking to harness it for an increasingly diverse range of uses and the fit looks to be a good one.