Interview with Julio Alejandro • Président directeur général de Humanitarian Blockchain
While blockchain technology is often associated with bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, it is only the tip of the iceberg. The interest it arouses is motivated by its many other possible applications in the fields of insurance, healthcare, real estate, transport, music and even electoral voting. But blockchain technology is taking root in the world of humanitarian aid as well.
If done with collaboration, ethics, and ingenuity, blockchain can revolutionise humanitarian response. Some movements, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations and enterprises are leading the way. The ID2020 Alliancehttps://id2020.org, in cooperation with Microsoft, is creating a system allowing people to register their identity documents in a blockchain database but also to provide digital IDs to millions of undocumented or stateless people who lack access to basic government and financial services. In Lebanon, Aid:Techhttps://aid.technology provides e-vouchers in a blockchain to Syrian refugees in camps, allowing them to purchase goods in a localised refugee economy and increasing their self-reliance in these camps. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)http://innovation.wfp.org/project/building-blocks has tested a pilot project in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, where Syrian refugees can use iris-identification technology at a cash register to buy food and supplies. Handshakehttp://handshake.tech/index.html is designing a system for fair and legal labour contracts for international migrant workers, in an effort to minimise the prevalence of exploitation and insecurity while ensuring human rights and fair wages for work.
Governments have started to implement this technology in their own programmes, such as for managing and organising land titles in Georgia“The First Government To Secure Land Titles On The Bitcoin Blockchain Expands Project”, Forbes, 7 February 2017, … Continue reading; digital identities of refugees in Finland“Finland Turns to Blockchain to Help Unbanked Refugees”, CCN, 8 September 2017, www.ccn.com/finns-turn-to-blockchain-to-help-unbanked-refugees-enter-the-digital-economy; health records in EstoniaJonathon Marshall, “Estonia prescribes blockchain for healthcare data security”, PWC, 16 March 2017, … Continue reading; and public governance systems in the United Arab Emirates“Dubai launches Blockchain strategy to become paperless by 2020”, Gulf News Government, 5 October 2016, … Continue reading. However, the expansion of blockchain is not without risk. Besides the technical constraints, it poses some basic questions about governance and data protection.
|What is blockchain technology?
Blockchain technology is supposed to be the second digital revolution, after that of the Internet. A blockchain is a continuously growing list of records, called “blocks”, which are linked and secured using cryptography. By design, a blockchain is inherently resistant to modification of the data. It is an open, decentralised and distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way. The first blockchain was conceptualised by a person (or group of people) known as Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 to implement the cryptocurrency bitcoin.
|How information moves through distributed ledgers in “blocks”, using money as an example|
Image from Thomson Reutershttps://blogs.thomsonreuters.com/answerson/blockchain-impact-tax-and-accounting-industry
Humanitarian Alternatives – Humanitarian Blockchain was described as “the world’s first DIY e-governance consultancy project that is attempting to tackle social and global problems by using blockchain technology”“Blockchain Tech Helps Coffee Farmers Make Fair Gains”, CCN, 13 April 2017, https://www.ccn.com/blockchain-tech-helps-coffee-farmers-make-fair-gains. For many people, all these concepts are difficult to understand. Can you explain what it means in simple, concrete terms and tell us the story behind Humanitarian Blockchain?
Julio Alejandro – I am motivated to stop systems of discrimination. After studying at Sciences Po-Paris and ITESM Mexico, I moved to Chicago, working as a Foreign Correspondent for Excelsior and La Jornada newspapers, covering immigration and deportation topics, white supremacists, the Black Lives Matters movement, feminism and sexual abuse of minorities. So, I come from a very sociological and political background. From there, I analysed and said: well this is failing. I’m not being efficient, and change at a systemic level is not happening. So how and why could we try something other than “media” to change the world? Why don’t I give technology a try? A friend sent me a few bitcoins, and that’s where the story began in 2014 in New Hampshire. I moved to London to become an entrepreneur for social change. I needed to know two things first: to understand overall how finance works, and how technology works. That’s when I started looking into blockchain. I came to the realisation that technology was neutral. Technology does not discriminate according to somebody’s gender or nationality; it’s an algorithm, it’s mathematically proved, and it contains a degree of sophistication that is difficult for everyday users to understand. But once you get into the ecosystem, I find it more productive and more efficient than working within the public or human rights sector. That’s why I’ve decided to build blockchain solutions, blockchain tools, because I think that we’re trying to solve the same problems just with a very different approach.
In simple terms, what is blockchain technology? It is what Linux was to the Internet 20 years ago. If we’d been asked “what is the Internet?” 20 or 30 years ago, we would have said “it creates emails”. What’s an email? We’d say it creates websites. What’s a website? It creates social media. What’s social media? Well, it creates companies that use social media like Google, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. So, blockchain is a foundational technology. It’s a set of decentralised underlying architecture, protocols and networks that exist to create new marketplaces, new value markets that do not yet exist– like Amazon or Uber, or the collaborative economy that didn’t exist 5, 10 or 20 years ago. So what people are creating at the moment are protocols and networks, scalability and the Internet’s technical backend so we can enter a new phase of the Internet. Blockchain is set to be more important than the Internet itself.
H.A. – How did you set up your organisation?
J.A. – There were five of us. We started as a not-for-profit, human rights organisation, a globally based NGO with centres in the United States and Mexico, Estonia, the UK and France. But we are now shifting more towards a consultancy model. One of our most successful pilot projects in 2016 was to create solutions for the refugees in Calais, such as securing their money and identities. By providing them with a Visa Bitcoin debit card, governments wouldn’t be allowed to seize their money or control it, as it would be in bitcoin. The refugees would be able to spend their money anywhere Visa cards are accepted, i.e. 50 million places in the world now. On top of that, the transaction fees would be lower. But to be clear, it was a pilot project, it was not implemented. Blockchain technology is not yet ready to use. The ecosystem is too expensive. Small contracts are quite “hackable”; they’re very insecure at the moment. And even private ledger is quite expensive to use. But we were the first ones to create awareness that these solutions could be implemented for refugees. What I am proud of is that we created the design of the implementation: we became a school of thought, a point of reference. Currently, there are no successful blockchain or bitcoin projects within the human rights sector. Once you analyse what has actually been done, it’s extremely limited.
H.A. – What is the added value of blockchain technology in the humanitarian sector? What would be the incentive for humanitarian actors to embrace this new technology?
J.A. – The humanitarian field in blockchain needs to have a marketplace. Not of ideas, but feasible technical solutions: design, implementation and execution. We need developers, not simple ideas. The not-for-profit sector will no doubt be the last to adopt blockchain, simply because they don’t have an entrepreneurial mindset. Yet, the incentive is quite high for anyone that knows how to create value in society. The biggest area in which blockchain can help promote human rights is digital identity. It’s harder for citizens from Syria to trade and engage in business with a Syrian passport than someone with an Austrian or German passport. So, by using digital identity, people would have a credit system similar to the way you rate your Uber driver with five stars or one star depending on whether he’s a good or a bad driver. You would not be judged by your passport, but by the credit system, by the positive reviews and transactions you’ve completed, and what other people think of you. It will thus empower minorities or categories of population that are being excluded because they’re female, gay, bisexual or black to be valued as individuals. This is what non-legal digital identity means, and that’s the first place where the human rights and humanitarian sectors can take action.
H.A. – We better understand the promising aspects of blockchain, but let’s think about the risks. As a matter of fact, it poses basic questions about governance and data protection. How can we prevent a terrorist or criminal organisation from taking advantage of this new technology for improper use?
J.A. – Regulation is the enemy of entrepreneurship. Government and State regulation is the biggest nemesis of innovation, entrepreneurship, and start-ups. Technology is not responsible for the way it is used, and usually people from human rights or academic backgrounds tend to see a dystopian future, as in the series Black Mirror, which shows a very negative and pessimistic vision of humanity. If you have a USB stick, you can use it to illegally hack information, but people are not calling for the regulation of USB sticks. And to answer the question: let free, unregulated, decentralised, anonymous, untraceable, capitalistic organisations and people who have experience in building value solve the problems. The last people that should be intervening in its regulation are charities and not-for-profits. And the State should play no role at all, except stopping people from killing each other.
Interview by Danielle Tan, co-editor of the Focus, 8 March 2018
ISBN of the article (HTML) : 978-2-37704-394-1