Since 2017, the World Food Programme (WFP) has been working with other humanitarian organisations – including UNICEF and UN Women – to bring cash-based assistance to refugees through blockchain technology.
The Building Blocks Programme, which now operates in Jordan, Bangladesh and Lebanon, aims to make the distribution of food and other necessities to people who need them fair and fast, giving them more independence to choose the items they need.
Houman Haddad, head of emerging technologies at The World Food Programme, tells Maddyness that he hopes the technology will bring more collaboration to the humanitarian sector, meaning cash for necessities will stretch further.
“We’re hoping to meet the biggest challenge of collaboration in our sphere,” he said. “When we collaborate, we get a common visibility of the people we serve.”
The WFP has been using cash-based transfers since 2009, meaning that instead of delivering food packages, refugees are given cash value in the form of a food token or electronic voucher to make their own purchases. Now the largest humanitarian organisation in the world, the WFP is set to surpass $2.2B in cash-based transfers this year alone.
But when multiple humanitarian organisations serving refugees use their own system of delivering cash for food and essentials, some get more or less depending on overlap or gaps in distribution.
“We ended up with multiple organisations with different mandates offering something rather similar to the same people,” said Haddad, who has worked at WFP since 2010. “At the higher level, you know what everyone’s doing but at a detailed level, you don’t.”
“By the mere fact of not knowing, some end up getting a lot and some less, but not necessarily because it matches their need.”
Haddad said this “systemic over or under-targeting” was made worse by the fact that most aid programmes require refugees to enrol in them, meaning more educated young people have an advantage over older or illiterate people, for example.
How does the technology work?
Blockchains are decentralised systems, meaning transactions can be processed without the need for third party banks or financial institutions.
In the context of humanitarian aid, blockchain-based assistance allows for fair distribution because all organisations can operate the same system equally, transferring cash value for different items through the system to one beneficiary account. This means refugees are not managing multiple food vouchers, tokens or bank cards for each organisation they receive aid from.
Haddad compared the transaction process to sending tokens via email.
“Everyone has their own address on the blockchain,” he said. “We might send a food token; UNICEF might send one for soap. But they all come into the inbox of one address. The beneficiary can send that token to whatever vendor they visit, like a supermarket.”
Since refugees can spend up to 20% of the aid they receive collecting the cash loaded on different cards from different organisations at ATMs, the blockchain technology is designed to bring convenience and choice to those in need.
“I want people to be able to walk into a shop and, just like us, pick whatever they want without having to think about what comes from where. We do the heavy lifting for them,” said Haddad.