The World Food Program gives refugees cash through Blockchain.
The World Food Program gives refugees cash through Blockchain.

In a store at a UN refugee camp near the Syrian border, iris scan technology is being used to allocate aid. It allows refugees' needs in individual camps to be tracked.

It sounds like a science fiction movie: Iris scan instead of pin number: Blockchain instead of bank account. When you go shopping, a machine compares your eye with a pre-stored scan. Your purchase total is automatically deducted from the sum you receive in aid.

The UN’s world Food Program gives Syrian refugees around 25 euros a month. That cash is not stored in a bank, it’s on Blockchain, a digital stored record of transactions maintained by a network of computers on the internet.

Bernhard Kowatsch and his team are in charge of coordinating and accounting. The Blockchain technology was launched from his office in Munich. It made aid work more transparent and cost effective.

Bernhard Kowatsch

“Every refugee has a virtual bank account, and instead of having that account at a bank, we can carry out individual transactions via Blockchain,” Kowatsch says.

On Blockchain each refugee is identified by an individual code. The information is not stored centrally, it’s managed simultaneously by thousands of servers. That’s why the Blockchain technology is seen as virtually forgery proof. All interactions between participants are stored in an encrypted text file. That way organizers can trace who bought what and when.

Some experts say there are risks, because there’s no government or financial institution controlling Blockchain. But the UN is already counting on Blockchain and is planning to bring aid services to other camps.

“We’re now trying to roll out the program for up to 100,000 people in Jordan by the end of the year, and simultaneously launch it in other countries,” says Bernhard Kowatsch.

“We believe that in Jordan alone, we can save several million euros a year on bank charges. That’s money that can be spent on food aid.

Blockchain scanner

Alexandra Alden, who heads the Blockchain project, sees benefits across the humanitarian aid sector. She says it could help build a digital identity for refugees who have lost everything.

“The capability of the Blockchain is you could record a lot of different types of information on the Blockchain,” she says.

“For example a lot of refugees are displaced they lose their papers, and they basically have to start from square one. They don’t have education records, etcetera. 

“If you begin putting those things on the Blockchain then it becomes an immutable record that’s also transferrable across borders.”

Aid without boundaries and banks. In this project, it’s already a reality.


First published: December 27, 2017

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