How a new UN blockchain helps refugee women own their identity

How a new UN blockchain helps refugee women own their identity

By Luke Vargas   
Published
A woman utilizes a iris scanner at a WFP market in Jordan's Za’atari refugee camp. October 5, 2016. Courtesy: Mohammed Batah/WFP
A woman utilizes a iris scanner at a WFP market in Jordan's Za’atari refugee camp. October 5, 2016. Courtesy: Mohammed Batah/WFP

A blockchain system rolled in Jordan’s refugee camps is making UN aid more efficient and helping women manage their money and their identity.

UNITED NATIONS  Many know blockchain as the anonymising digital ledger that powers cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. But a new Ethereum-based blockchain application rolled out in Jordan’s Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps is making U.N. aid more efficient, and empowering female refugees in the process.

Most refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line, and female-headed households are often most in need of additional cash.

Refugees can already earn money at U.N. jobs and buy groceries at World Food Programme markets with an iris scan, eliminating the need to carry cash. But beginning this year, a blockchain system assigns each part of that transaction a unique and secure identification number, as data is shared between U.N. systems and beyond.

Hila Cohen is a lead developer at the the WFP’s Innovation Accelerator in Munich:

“The blockchain enables us to have records that are immutable  meaning that you cannot delete them. And we have also greater privacy for the people that are getting benefits from us.”

But for Ana Lukatela, who leads UN Women’s Resilience and Empowerment Unit in Jordan, embracing blockchain is part of a larger goal of giving women greater say over their lives.

“Women in particular are not often the ones that control important identity documents  birth certificates, marriage certificates, passports.”

So too, most refugee families only have one cellphone, and it’s often controlled by men, excluding women from innovative new financial services enabled by technology.

The U.N. can’t change how families share their phones or identity documents, but its blockchain system, backed by the power of a women’s own biometric data, can help facilitate secure access to her money.

“If we’re not alert to the gender dynamics of control and power that are present and overshadow all of this, then these digital systems will just bolster the existing inequalities. So the use of the blockchain technology to build an identity for women is something UN Women is exploring globally.”

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