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Can technology progress human rights? Provide humanitarian aid? Help combat Climate Change? Address issues of identity, trafficking, and provide access to food?

The answer to these questions is yes. And Blockchain is a fantastic space to explore right now.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been working on my thesis on Blockchain, Human Rights and International Law for the U.N. University for Peace. I have had the chance to learn about a plethora of innovative projects, pilots and ideas that human rights activists are currently working on to make the world a better place. Is it lucrative? Not always. But it does help make the world a better place. Here are some of the most interesting applications of Blockchain for Social impact, more specifically how this innovative technology addresses some of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Blockchain Technology and the UN: The Sustainable Development Goals


For those that are unfamiliar, in 2015, all 193 members of the United Nations unanimously passed a resolution implementing a 15-year plan of achieving 17 Sustainable Development, global goals by 2030 (SDGs). Each of these goals has targets to achieve, totalling 169 different targets. The SDGs cover a broad range of social and economic development issues including poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, clean water, sanitation, energy, environment, and social justice.

SDG No. 2: Eradication of Hunger
World Food Programme – Building Blocks

UN Aid programs have been wrought with countless cases of fraud, red tape, hefty administrative fees and mismanagement of funds. In order to provide the maximum amount of aid to those who need it the most, the World Food Programme (WFP) implemented a pilot project in 2017 called Building Blocks, an early experiment that enabled the transfer of WFP Food and cash on a public Ethereum blockchain through a smartphone app to vulnerable families in Pakistan, addressing SDG Goal No. 1 and 2- poverty and hunger.

Within months, the WFP expanded the pilot to a Syrian refugee camp in Azraq, Jordan to successfully facilitate cash transfers for over 10,000 Syrian refugees on its blockchain payments platform. According to CCN, the implementation of blockchain technology also enabled Syrian refugees to buy food from local retailers using a biometric scan of their eye where each transaction was recorded on a blockchain, rendering the use of cash, bank cards, and paper vouchers obsolete. In this case, the refugees did not need to share any sensitive data with banks or mobile operators, benefitting from greater security and privacy through an immutable, secure blockchain.

Now, the World Food Programme is currently expanding its Ethereum-based blockchain after saving millions of dollars in bank transfers by utilizing decentralised blockchain technology. Currently the WFP feeds over 100 million people across 80 countries. It will be interesting to see how far they are able to expand their reach with the help of blockchain technology.

SDG No. 5: Gender Equality and Identity
UN Women: Blockchain Simulation Lab

UN Women is the only UN organ that was founded in the 21st Century. This organ of the UN is dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women and was established to accelerate progress of meeting their needs worldwide. Their focus is on increasing women’s leadership and participation, ending violence against women, engaging women in all aspects of peace and security processes, and making gender equality central to national development planning and budgeting.

From January 29 – February 1, 2018, UN Women hosted a 4-day blockchain simulation lab in order to create launching points of achieving goals like gender equality, and ending hunger and poverty. Successful programs from this lab would become part of larger UN initiatives including the UN Women’s Global Flagship Programmes for Disaster Risk Reduction.

The Blockchain simulation lab addressed humanitarian scenarios around identity. For stateless refugees, for example, identity isn’t limited to documentation. According to Jordan Daniell, Blockchain could provide a platform where storing identification documents as a viable way of proving their identity, in a humanitarian scenario. Daniell state that authorities could also identity women or girls who have been trafficked or who have gone missing.

The simulation lab is creating the first step in merging the pursuit of Gender equality and addressing other intersecting sustainable development goals.

SDG No. 13: Climate Action
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN): The Green List

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is a membership Union uniquely composed of both government and civil society organisations. It provides public, private and non-governmental organisations with the knowledge and tools that enable human progress, economic development and nature conservation to take place together.

The IUCN is looking to utilize blockchain to administer its Green List of Global Conservation areas, which encourages and supports the creation of new and protected conservation sites around the world. Blockchain offers a reduction of bank fees, more transparency about Green List funding and progress towards meeting its goals.

James Hardcastle, the IUCN’s programme believes that many of these protected areas don’t have an abundance of money at their disposal so reducing financial friction and transaction costs diverts more money into preserving ecosystems. This way, the IUCN can guarantee that donor funds go straight to the site they want to help.

SDG No. 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
ID2020 and Digital Identities

Article 6 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights stipulates that:

“Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” The Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030) include target 16.9 which aims to “provide legal identity to all, including birth registration, by 2030.”

ID2020 is an alliance of governments, NGOs, and the private sector, along with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which seek to use blockchain technology to give refugees a digital identity. They have currently teamed up with Accenture and are looking at rolling out an interoperable, user-owned and controlled digital identity to its hundreds of thousands of staff with the idea of it being a standard background check to be distributed to potential clients using a biometrics system that can manage data on fingerprints and irises.

Challenges with the Technology

Blockchain is still in its exploration and infancy phase and may not be suitable for every UN/International humanitarian Agency. For Toni Caradonna, Chief Innovation Manager at the Porini Foundation, ‘Blockchain for Good’ offers great potential, but cannot be viewed in isolation as a silver bullet for all the world’s pressing issues.

“Blockchain can give transparency, efficiency gains and independence from banks,” he told “But we still need cooperation from legislators. Blockchain alone cannot solve the problem of people who feel free to pollute thinking that someone else will come along and clear up the mess.” State-level and international policy networks need to adapt and allow for innovations while providing adequate legislation that provides a base-level guidance on what can and can’t be accomplished with blockchain.

With the ongoing blurring lines between the real and digital world, there have been increasing concerns of data ownership and access to services. With all these innovations, there need to be adequate protections in place to protect the identities of refugees or stateless individuals.

There is also the issue of the Digital Divide. This term has typically referred to the gap between those who have access to certain technologies and those that do not. Many developing countries do not have the adequate infrastructure or ability to provide with high-speed internet or digital accessibility. All humanitarian efforts with blockchain are moot if sustainable, cost-effective, long-term solutions can be adopted.

Blockchain and the progression of Human Rights

Kobina Hughes believes that blockchain presents an opportunity for the Internet development community to claim a degree of recognition in the human rights realm. It only makes sense that technology is being utilised to promote human rights, gender equality, and address current social concerns in ways that are only able to be explored now due to innovations in technology. The fact that Blockchain has been adopted by governments and international organs is a wonderful first step at utilizing technology for promoting human rights for all.

Do you know of any other interesting developments with Blockchain and the Sustainable Development Goals? Let me know and we can add them to the list!

About the Author

Laura Marissa Cullell

Twitter: @LalaMarissaC
LinkedIn: Laura Marissa Cullell

Laura Marissa Cullell is a M.A. Graduand of International Law and Human Rights from the U.N. University for Peace in Costa Rica and is finishing up her thesis on Blockchain and Human Rights. She loves to travel and is a die hard fan of shiny new tech, comic books, and puns.

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