Ten years ago, Bitcoin was born, becoming the first decentralized, borderless, peer-to-peer, digital currency. As Bitcoin proved its effectiveness, an ecosystem began developing around it’s open-source protocol. By 2013, excitement began to build around the potential of blockchain beyond Bitcoin.
In 2015, the UN Human Rights Council proclaimed encryption and privacy-preserving technology to be expressions of free speech. Soon after, the Agenda for Sustainable Development was published, its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) providing focus and drive for the use of blockchain in the United Nations.
UNCTAD—Technology-Driven Universal Currency
Just over a year after the release of Bitcoin, the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development proposed creating a technology-driven universal currency. Their paper discusses a “BitMint” whos users exchange bits of actual digital value, rather than “pointers” to value — as in traditional banking. With a ‘universal digital currency’ individuals could exchange funds instantly around the globe, and carrying them around on USB drives.
UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Speech
In May 2015, the twenty-ninth session of the UN Human Rights Council included, as one of its agenda items, “Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development” and released the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, by David Kaye.
the Special Rapporteur addresses the use of encryption and anonymity in digital communications. Drawing from research on international and national norms and jurisprudence, and the input of States and civil society, the report concludes that encryption and anonymity enable individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age and, as such, deserve strong protection.
Bitnation (founded in 2014) was the first Decentralized Borderless Voluntary Nation (DBVN), and hosted the first Blockchain ID and Notary, anchored to the Bitcoin blockchain.
By August 2015, the UN Security Council expressed alarm over the growing crisis in Syria; which, at that point, had claimed 250,000 lives and displaced 12 million people.
In September of 2015, Bitnation stepped forward to provide affected individuals identification, Bitcoin debit cards, and other needed services.
Transforming our World
2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
In the same month, the United Nations released their Agenda for Sustainable Development comprised of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with 169 action points between them.
“The spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies, as does scientific and technological innovation across areas as diverse as medicine and energy.”
The overarching purpose of the SDGs is “achieving sustainable development in its three dimensions – economic, social and environmental – in a balanced and integrated manner.”
While the Agenda doesn’t mention the words blockchain or distributed ledger, the global effort to meet the SDGs is at the heart of Blockchain and the United Nations.
Building Social and Solidarity Finance
February 2016, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) published Brett Scott’s “How Can Cryptocurrency and Blockchain Technology Play a Role in Building Social and Solidarity Finance?”
It discusses some narratives that had begun to emerge around how Bitcoin could empower those in developing nations:
- Bitcoin as a means to facilitate low-cost remittances for those seeking to transfer small amounts of money internationally.
- Bitcoin as a means for an otherwise excluded individual to have a decentralized global bank account, accessible simply by downloading an open source wallet from the internet, rather than having to set up with a formal financial institution.
- Bitcoin—or the technology that underpins it—subsequently providing the basis for a richer set of financial services.
The report goes beyond Bitcoin and provides an excellent review of the blockchain space at the time, paving the way for further research on this new era of digital finance.
That May, the inaugural ID2020 summit was held at the UN headquarters in NY, in conjunction with the second #RebootingWebOfTrust design workshop on decentralized identity, featuring “lots and lots of blockchain.”
ID2020 is a not-for-profit organization founded by Accenture, Gavi, Microsoft, and the Rockefeller Foundation with the goal of developing a comprehensive identification solution, aligned with SDG 16.9 to “provide legal identity for all including free birth registrations.”
Later, Microsoft announced a collaboration with Blockstack Labs, ConsenSys and developers around the world to create an “open source, self-sovereign, blockchain-based identity system that allows people, products, apps and services to interoperate across blockchains, cloud providers and organizations” in alignment with the SDGs.
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
The UNDP is a global development network, active in 177 countries and territories, seeking to eliminate poverty, reduce inequalities, and works towards the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Throughout 2016, the UNDP began exploring the potential for blockchain in humanitarian aid, supporting initiatives including:
The Alternative Finance (AltFin) Lab, via UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub for Europe and CIS, is exploring new financial technologies for achieving the SDGs, and have worked with firms such as AIDTech, Blockchain.com, and Bitspark.
Aid:Tech offering low-cost remittance services, and reduced fraud surrounding cash transfers to refugees.
In Moldova, the UNDP conducted a trial with EmerCoin for blockchain management of the UN car fleet.
Cash deliveries, using the Bitcoin blockchain for disaster relief.
UNICEF Innovation Fund
In February 2016, UNICEF announced an Innovation Fund, starting at $9 million, to invest in open source technologies for children.
“We’ll be identifying opportunities from countries around the world including some that may not see a lot of capital investment in technology start-ups.” Christopher Fabian, UNICEF Innovation Co-Lead
This fund enables innovators in developing countries to build products that directly impact the needs of local communities, and bring tested projects to a bigger market.
“These three areas are ripe for investment due to rapidly changing technologies such as blockchain, 3D printing, wearables and sensors, artificial intelligence and renewable energy,” Fabian said.
UNICEF was also keeping close track of how cryptocurrencies provide basic services to the most disadvantaged communities, while exploring the potential of other cutting edge technologies. Early 2016, UNICEF began seeking blockchain developers for research, consulting and prototyping applications for humanitarian purpose.
November 2016, the Innovation Fund awarded its first five winners, awarded $100,000 each. Among the chosen was 9needs (also known as Trustlab), UNICEF’s first investment into blockchain. TrustLab is a South African blockchain startup founded by Shaun Conway, that supported the early development of Amply, a self-sovereign identity solution.
For their pilot, Amply enabled early childhood development centers to record and verify pre-school attendance claims that are then exchanged for subsidies from the government of South Africa. Amply brings transparency and accountability to the funding process, while protecting the private data of participants.
UNOPS (Office for Project Services)
Early 2017, discussions grew around blockchain among the UN’s Office for Project Services (UNOPS), and surrounding organizations. Those informal meetings rapidly grew, leading to the appointment of Yoshiyuki Yamamoto to UNOPS Special Advisor for UN Engagement and Blockchain Technology, in July.
"It’s a waste of time and resources if 16-plus U.N. organizations are doing the same thing separately in a silo” - Yoshiyuki Yamamoto.
UN Blockchain Group
That collaborative continued to grow, as Yamamoto met with representatives of various UN agencies, exploring the idea of uniting the organizations on a blockchain. Agencies working with the UN blockchain group include WFP, UNDP, UNICEF, UN Women, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Development Group (UNDG).
World Identity Network
That July, UNOPS and the UN Office of Information and Communications Technology (UN-OICT) partnered to launch the World Identity Network, to provide identification to children at risk for child trafficking and more broadly to support the creation of a system to serve the billions without access to a recognized form of identification.
World Food Programme (WFP)
At the start of 2017, the UN’s World Food Programme held its first blockchain pilot, in Sindh, Pakistan. Building Blocks was quickly considered successful, and by May expanded to serve thousands of households in a Jordanian refugee camp.
“We constantly need to make sure that we’re having transparency and maximum security in our payments […] blockchain strengthens that for sure” - Robert Opp WFP Director of Innovation
Office of Information and Communications Technology (ITE)
Blockchain for Impact
The commission instated Blockchain for Impact (BFI), a collaborative for the co-creation, application, and promotion of blockchain for a positive social benefit. Among their projects are food distribution systems, and an Ethereum payment system. The commission will host a yearly BFI summit in locations around the globe.
“The Blockchain Commission for Sustainable Development envisions and encourages the development of radically creative decentralized solutions to issues including; conservation of natural resources, protection of the commons, empowerment of all communities, financial inclusion and security, public health and welfare, civic trust and protection of the integrity of democratic systems—all in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Humanitarian Blockchain Summit
In November, the Humanitarian Blockchain Summit brought experts, scholars, and humanitarian practitioners together at the United Nations Headquarters; enlarging the discussion around using blockchain technology for pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Among the applications discussed, at the summit, were tracking educational credentials, identification for those without access to government services, donation tracking and financial freedom for those to whom it is denied by oppressive regimes.
Climate Chain Coalition (CCC)
At the end of 2017, UN Climate Conference hosted a blockchain hackathon, where developers worked to build demos and explore solutions for tracking carbon emissions, carbon pricing, distributed energy infrastructure, monitoring land use, and more.
In early 2018, the UN helped found the Climate Chain Coalition (CCC), composed of 25 organizations committed to the use of DLT for the benefit of the climate.
“[The coalition] will cooperate to support the rapid advancement of DLT solutions to address climate change across mitigation and adaptation through enhanced climate actions, including but not limited to the measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of the impact of all sorts of intervention, and the mobilization of climate finance from diversified sources.”
The Future is Decentralized
In March 2018, Blockchain.com partnered with ArtFinLab, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and the World Economic Forum (WEF); committed to supporting sustainability, humanitarian, and environmental initiatives.
Together, Blockchain and the Blockchain Commission for Sustainable Development will leverage blockchain technology to develop radically creative and decentralized solutions for the conservation of natural resources, financial inclusion and security, public health and welfare, civic trust, and protection of the integrity of democratic systems — among others — to improve lives around the world. - The Future is Decentralized.
In April '18, UN Centre for Trade Facilitation and E-Business (UN/CEFACT) held a workshop to brainstorm on smart contracts, electronic notary, decentralized process coordination, and blockchain interoperability.
As part of the workshop, they produced a whitepaper on blockchain trade facilitation, for public review. CEFACT is well positioned to make an impact on the global supply chain. However, more research and development is required to ensure that use of a blockchain framework will fulfill the needs of global trade.
Consensys - Blockchain for Social Impact
On June 1st, Consensys held its 2nd Blockchain for Social Impact conference in NYC, focused on agriculture, climate, and refugees.
The Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition (BSIC) aims to leverage the Ethereum blockchain in support of the UN SDGs.
BFI - Inaugural Summit
The inaugural Blockchain for Impact summit was held, a few days after BSIC, on June 4th, 2018, at the UN headquarters, in NYC. The event brought together investors, entrepreneurs, and world leaders, who formed six BFI Subcommittees:
Supply Chain Transparency & Traceability
Global Health & Emergency Relief
Refugee Rescue, Shelter & Resettlement
Vincent Molinari, of the Blockchain Commission for Sustainable Development, claims that the success of BFI is a result of the passion and commitment of diverse representatives from across the globe.
Commissioner Rostin Behnam, of the US CFTC, also spoke at the summit, acknowledging that digital currencies are not going away.
"Let me repeat that: these currencies are not going away, and they will proliferate to every economy and every part of the planet. Some places, small economies, may become dependent on virtual assets for survival. And, these currencies will be outside traditional monetary intermediaries, like government, banks, investors, ministries, or international organizations.
We are witnessing a technological revolution. Perhaps we are witnessing a modern miracle.” CFTC Commissioner Rostin Behnam
In July 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres assembled a group of experts from technology, science, policy, and academia. Their focus is the impact of blockchain, AI, and other global innovations, in hopes of applying their benefits while protecting against undesirable consequences.
The panel will conduct a broad engagement and consultation process, to resulting in a final report with actionable recommendations in 2019.
Blockchain Charity Foundation
On July 25th, Binance, one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges, partnered with the Maltese President to create the Blockchain Charity Foundation. Helen Hai, goodwill ambassador of the UN Industrial Development Organization, was appointed to head the foundation and intends for it to contribute to the UNSDGs.
“This foundation, the first of its kind in the world, will develop humanitarian projects to effectively address the United Nations Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals. Through this agreement, The President’s Trust and the Blockchain Charity Foundation will develop socio-economic projects in Malta, to address social challenges. Moreover, Blockchain technology will be used to increase efficiency, transparency and to measure the social impact of the respective projects.” -President Coleiro Preca
Forwarding the Sustainable Development Goals
Any number of other organizations, workshops, conferences, pilots and demonstrations have arisen around blockchain and the SDGs.
The WFP’s Building Blocks project, using the Ethereum blockchain for remittances and cash assistance, is one of the resounding successes of blockchain in the UN. By mid-2018, the project had provided aid to over 100,000 Syrian refugees, with plans to expand to 500,000 by 2019.
Their 200-page book discusses the legal ramifications of blockchain technology, GDPR, smart contracts, and human rights. It also covers Self Sovereign Identity, government management of data, blockchain land administration, open source development, and broadly examines the impacts both actual and potential of blockchain technology upon the world.
In May, UNOPS announced a partnership with IOTA, envisioning a network that connects devices, sensors, and people.
“We are thrilled to begin working together with UNOPS and to tackle current and future challenges together. The IOTA Foundation is fully committed to putting the IOTA Tangle to work on behalf of important humanitarian and development causes.” —IOTA Co-Founder Dominik Schiener
Having no particular nation or border is a feature that blockchains and the United Nations share in common.
Besides payments, decentralized identity is a rapidly developing field in which, the borderless nature of blockchain offers a distinct advantage to global organizations, humanitarian efforts, and individuals without reliable government services.
In such a rapidly changing landscape, as painted by blockchain and cryptocurrency, it’s hard to know which will be the next breakthrough application. Rather, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift.
Wherever this journey takes us, UN organizations and member states have done much to further the exploration of this new technology, and are uniquely positioned to lead the enterprise landscape, through the pursuit of humanitarian ideals. —infominer
It’s really mind-boggling how much activity has gone on with the UN and blockchain tech, over the years. I’ve enjoyed learning about it, and I hope you have too.
Visit Blockchain in the United Nations for a reasonably comprehensive collection of related resources.