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UN Women, The Blockchain, And The Future of Humanitarianism

This week, UN Women headlined a blockchain technology competition at United Nations headquarters. Participants demonstrated a variety of solutions with the aim of partnering with UN Women initiatives already in the field.

While the nations of the world are united in fascination, and perhaps preoccupation, with cryptocurrencies – what they are, what they mean, and what to do about them – the United Nations is already using the blockchain to help people around the globe in a variety of humanitarian contexts.

From the UN World Food Programme, to the UN Office for Information and Communications Technology, a multitude of UN organizations are exploring how blockchain technology can improve their mission effectiveness. Notably, one UN group – UN Women – is using blockchain technology to empower women and girls in humanitarian settings. While noble in its intentions, the UN isn’t acting out of idealism. Rather pragmatically, they have identified empowering women and girls as essential to sustainable global development. 

While this is notable for simply acknowledging the plight of women and girls around the globe, who are often exploited and victimized in crisis situations, the UN Women’s blockchain program is significant for another reason. This week, in simulated real world scenarios, UN Women is continuing to discover why blockchain technology may be the silver bullet needed to jump start the broader UN roadmap to sustainable development by 2030.

Why UN Women? Why Blockchain? Why Humanitarianism?

Although the UN has several internal organizations, UN Women is the only internal UN organization founded in the 21st century. The impetus of their mandate is timely, technologically speaking, and is designed to empower women and girls in the most perilous humanitarian situations, creating a launching point for achieving broader goals, like ending hunger and poverty.

Yannick Glemarec, assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director for policy and programme for UN Women, alluded to this fact in his opening remarks at the UN Women’s blockchain simulation lab earlier this week. UN Women is a “double recognition,” said Glemarec, referring to the recognition of the need to increase gender equality, and to the recognition of gender equality as a precondition for the UN 2030 sustainable development plan.

Essentially, the United Nations has defined gender equality as a core prerequisite of its 2030 initiative, mentioning concerns around womens rights and gender equality over 30 times in the 2030 resolution, which itself is only 35 pages long. Per the resolution:

Realizing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls will make a crucial contribution to progress across all the Goals and targets. The achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities. Women and girls must enjoy equal access to quality education, economic resources and political participation as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership and decision-making at all levels. We will work for a significant increase in investments to close the gender gap and strengthen support for institutions in relation to gender equality and the empowerment of women at the global, regional and national levels. All forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls will be eliminated, including through the engagement of men and boys. The systematic mainstreaming of a gender perspective in the implementation of the Agenda is crucial.”

The United Nations is testing the hypothesis that by empowering women, the vast majority of concerns surrounding some of the setbacks hampering humanitarian efforts could be alleviated or outright abolished.

Digital Identity, Cash Transfers, And UN Women’s Blockchain Simulation Lab

“What we want to achieve with this is a couple of things,” Caroline Rusten, UN Women’s humanitarian and crisis response lead told ETHNews. “It is an important learning and networking event for the vendors and for the UN. It is also a way for us to look for and find solutions that can work in the field in humanitarian settings. Bringing these vendors together in this event allows us to do a dry test on different solutions.”

The solutions proposed during the simulation lab were all based off of blockchain technology, and were specifically solutions for identity and cash transfers.

In her opening remarks, Atefeh Riazi, the assistant secretary general for the UN’s Office of Information and Communications Technology, elaborated about why the UN focuses on identity. “As technologists, when we look at blockchain, what we are promising is that you will have an identity. And if you’re a refugee and you are stateless, it doesn’t matter where you are, [your identity] travels with you. That’s incredible because technology has been used to help the private sector for a long time. The internet was an explosion of information, of sharing information. Blockchain is about sharing value.”

Indeed, those in humanitarian scenarios who store their identification documents on a blockchain instantly have a permanent and verifiable way of proving their identity, as well as their credentials and skills. Moreover, by scanning biometric indicators into a blockchain-based system, authorities could identify women or girls who have been trafficked or who have gone missing – an invaluable service which could help alleviate the already stress-filled situations many female migrants find themselves in simply as the result of being female.

James Green from the World Food Programme’s (WFP) innovation accelerator followed the comments about identity with the solution that cash shifted the focus of his own UN organization. “Our blockchain project is called ‘building blocks,'” said Green, “and it is transforming the way the World Food Programme does cash transfers.”

According to Green, the WFP handed over $1B USD last year to support humanitarian efforts and grow local markets. This was done because the traditional method of aid – food – was perishable and could also be stolen. By using blockchain technology to send cash to those in need, Green stated that the WFP achieved a 98 percent reduction in costs saved from not having to deal with financial service providers. Moreover, the money cannot be stolen or used in places unapproved by the WFP, helping to create robust microeconomies in remote areas while also connecting individuals there to global markets.

Final Thoughts

The United Nations and UN Women are on the right track. Gender equality is not simply a basic human right for all people, it is an ideal to be aspired to, and a natural law to be understood further. By exploring the nature of its implications, true equality between the sexes will unlock enormous social and economic potential. 

From the highest levels of business and commerce, to the most distant off-the-grid village, the blockchain is redefining how people trust one another. If the blockchain continues to earn its place in the 21st century, and if UN Women have anything to say about it, the world may be on the brink of a revolution so profound it redefines, and invigorates, our very humanity.

UN Women will be joining with people around the world to celebrate International Woman’s Day 2018 on March 8. The theme for this year is: “Time Is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives.”

Jordan Daniell is a writer living in Los Angeles. He brings a decade of business intelligence experience, researching emerging technologies, to bear in reporting on blockchain and Ethereum developments. He is passionate about blockchain technologies and believes they will fundamentally shape the future. Jordan is a full-time staff writer for ETHNews.

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