Blockchain for NGOs: "Think big, keep it small"

Blockchain technology carries much potential to support NGOs in tackling complex issues. Experts discussed the future of blockchain and development cooperation.

The cutting-edge technology blockchain knows many applications in cybersecurity, financial services, and even in health care. However, blockchain is now also proving to be of importance for NGOs and the issues they are trying to tackle. During a sparkling, yet informative night at Pakhuis de Zwijger, several experts from both fields gathered to discuss the future potential of blockchain in development cooperation.

As blockchain remains an elusive technology for many, Simone Vermeend opened the night with an elaborate, yet short presentation about the essential concepts of blockchain. ‘Proof of work’, ‘hashing’, ‘nodes’ and many other concepts were explained by Vermeend to increase the basic understanding of blockchain. Despite the crash course, Sjoerd Louwaars, the moderator (Leiden University), noted that blockchain remains difficult to grasp. He therefore introduced Yvo Hunink to the stage.

Less susceptible to fraud
Yvo Hunink is co-founder of Energy Bazaar, a start-up that tries to change the landscape of energy technology in developing countries by making use of blockchain. In India, he saw that blockchain could be very useful to support decentralized energy markets. Blockchain allows people to manage their own energy market, as the solid and transparent technology allows for information to be stored and checked. As people can check each other’s transactions, it is very complex to commit fraud. Furthermore, Hunink explained that blockchain technology takes out the ‘middleman’, meaning that less parties are needed to facilitate the same energy transaction. Hunink discussed several other examples, such as the World Food Programme that uses blockchain to make cash-based transfers cheaper, faster and more secure.

Identification & aid through blockchain
Tey El-Rjula and Khalid Maliki (Tykn) took the stage to share their inspiring story about their use of blockchain technology to make undocumented asylum-seekers visible. In Kuwait during the Gulf War, birth registries were destroyed en masse. For Tey El-Rjula this meant that even if he would have owned a copy of his birth registration, there would be no way to verify it’s authenticity. He was forced to live in an asylum seekers centre in the Netherlands for two years, where he was surrounded by people who were struggling, often without success, to retrieve and verify their passports, land titles and academic certificates. El-Rjula and Maliki participated in The Spindle Innovation Awards 2017 with the innovative idea to use blockchain to solve this problem. They provided another inspiring example of how blockchain can be of value: together with the The Netherlands Red Cross they are starting a pilot in St-Maarten regarding cash-based assistance in case of a disaster.

Just technology is not a solution for social challenges
In the end, a panel consisting of the earlier-mentioned speakers, blockchain expert Tobias Disse (Kryha) and Bart Romijn, director of Partos, discussed the role of NGOs in a future with blockchain technology. El-Rjula shared that he believed that NGOs will not exist in the future, because blockchain will then have taken over the facilitative role of sending money. Bart Romijn quickly addressed this comment as too narrow, as NGOs have a much more diverse role than simply sending money:

“Social change is more than funding; it is also mobilizing the people for change.”

Romijn further emphasized that the promise of blockchain will be realized if it is facilitated correctly and the ethics are conspicuously considered as well. Tobias Disse gave some advice to NGOs that want to start exploring blockchain technology: “Think big, but keep it small. Like the coconut case by Fairfood. Start with one person, one identity, and start building applications in a lean way.”

In their last minute statements, the young entrepreneurs encouraged the audience to take action: “Don’t dream about it, but do it.” Tey El-Rjula talked about changing one letter, from hype to hope: because of blockchain technology there is finally hope. Hope for millions of people around the world to become financially independent and to have their documentation safe and secure.

Click here to watch the live-stream that was made during the event.

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