The United Nations’ humanitarian aid efforts span thousands of different projects across the globe. As you can probably imagine, there are a huge number of inherent logistical challenges involved in ensuring that aid reaches those most in need. This is especially true in times of natural disaster and war, when immediate action is generally required to prevent these catastrophes from spiraling out of control.
Luckily, the United Nations has billions upon billions of dollars at its disposal for these aid projects. The problem is that this is spread out over numerous organizations with overlapping goals and mandates, which can create huge logistical issues in trying to keep track of where the money needs to go and also where it eventually ends up. Recently, the UN has started looking into a novel approach to help simplify this process in the form of blockchain technology.
What is Blockchain?
Although definitely a concept familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology is not something that the average person knows much about. Blockchain is the concept that underlies Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and is part of what makes them so safe. With this type of platform, the money itself isn’t technically kept track of, meaning there aren’t just a bunch of bitcoins sitting around on banks or computers around the world.
Instead, what is unique about blockchain is that it doesn’t pay attention to the coins itself, but rather tracks and keeps a record of each transaction of every single coin. In this way, blockchain makes it possible to keep track of exactly who the buyer and seller are for every single transaction, thus creating a paper trail that makes it possible to track every coin from point A to point B, C, D or Z.
How Can Blockchain Benefit the UN?
The drive to institute blockchain platforms into the UN’s humanitarian aid efforts is led by Yoshiyuki Yamamoto, who was recently named as special advisor for UN engagement and blockchain technology. Serving under the UN’s Office for Project Services, Yamamoto has been meeting with various other UN agencies to show how Bitcoin transparency could go a long way towards simplifying humanitarian responses and also ensuring that aid money actually ends up where it’s intended.
Corruption is currently a major problem plaguing many UN projects. The fact that the aid money is distributed by so many different agencies over such a wide scale makes it incredibly difficult to track exactly where it all ends up, and oftentimes, it ends up in the hands of greedy intermediaries instead of those who need it most. The problem is so widespread that some estimates that as much as 30% of money spent on aid projects is lost due to corruption. Obviously, by being able to fully track the money trail from beginning to end, blockchain could help eliminate much of these problems.
However, Yamamoto also notes that the different agencies themselves also help contribute to the waste due to a lack of proper oversight. He cites one particular case in Afghanistan where a hospital desperately needed a generator and so applied for one through numerous UN aid agencies. The hospital’s pleas were clearly heard, as it received five generators from five separate agencies even though it only needed the one. Again, Bitcoin transparency could help eliminate these issues. Each agency would immediately be able to see that a fellow agency was already providing the needed aid, thus eliminating the extra wasted time, energy and money.
As of yet, only informal steps have been taken to begin including blockchain platforms within various UN agencies. However, Yamamoto believes it may only be time before the process starts to gain steam and become more official practice. As well, he sees one other huge benefit that may contribute to this, which involves ensuring that countries around the world continue to chip in to the UN peacekeeping budget. Through blockchain, he hopes that the UN will be able to provide greater transparency and show taxpayers exactly what worthwhile projects their money is being spent on, thus making it less likely that politicians will vote to slash UN funds.