We Made It: A Tale Of Blockchain Building Bridges For Syrian Refugees

An empty belly, searching eyes, and a decorated cargo perched on her hips.

WFP/ Saikat Mojumder Photo Credit: WFP/ Saikat Mojumder

How did they survive? When hunger was a gunshot in slow motion, a vicious woodland turned into a safe haven, and when many children arrived alone after they crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar. Little boys and girls surviving without their parents in the early days of the Rohingya refugee emergency.

We Used To Have Hunger For Dinner

WFP/Nida Tariq
Photo Credit: WFP/Nida Tariq

“They had lost their parents and had no clue about where to seek refuge or get food,” World Food Programme (WFP) staff member Barna Paul recalled. “Once we gave them their food card and they started receiving their food, I felt like we were giving them a new life.”

Famined and bone-tired, the young refugees were sure of only one thing: they have nothing but themselves, some clothes, a few items, and their remaining surviving kin. Tomorrow lies beyond the horizon. For now, escaping hell is the first priority. Finding food, water, shelter, and other basic needs are just things they have to worry about once they’ve escaped.

Nawej Ray, a mother-of-four and now a resident in Gambella camp, Ethiopia shared:

“The journey to Ethiopia was scary, but I had to save my kids. To hide from the bullets, we had to walk for seven days through woodlands inhabited by wild animals including lions. My nephew was killed by soldiers. We survived by chance — we only got food when we arrived at the camp.”

Waiting for them in Bangladesh was WFP, a food-assistance branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and promoting food security. In the sprawled out camps in Cox’s Bazaar area, the organization is currently feeding more than 800,000 people monthly.

According to the organization, WFP has provided food and nutrition assistance to 9.3 million refugees in 32 countries, one in ten of the 91.4 million people fed by the organization globally. This addresses UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 1 “No Poverty” and SGD No. 2 “Zero Hunger.”

Now We Have Blockchain For Lunch

WFP/Edward Johnson
Photo Credit: WFP/Edward Johnson

The task of feeding more than 91 million people around the world may seem more daunting than fleeing from a civil war. But WFP’s assistance to refugees did not stop at giving out bags of food and nutritional supplement. Under certain circumstances, WFP is increasingly resorting to cash assistance. This enables recipients to choose the foods they want to buy and local economies to prosper.

The World Food Programme believes blockchain can potentially transform the fight against hunger. After testing the bold technology, WFP introduced Building Blocks — its first blockchain innovation that uses the decentralized digital ledger technology to make cash transfers more efficient, secure, and cost-friendly by eliminating the need for intermediaries.

The organization explained:

“By harnessing the power of the blockchain, WFP aims to reduce payment costs associated with cash transfers, better protect beneficiary data, control financial risks, and set up assistance operations more rapidly in the wake of emergencies.”

Early in January this year, at the heart of Sindh province in Pakistan, WFP carried out the first, successful test of Building Blocks at field level. As families received WFP food and cash assistance, transactions were authenticated and registered on a public blockchain through a smartphone interface. Transaction reports generated were used after to match the disbursements with entitlements.

Farman Ali, from the WFP Karachi provincial office noted that blockchain can revolutionize the way WFP delivers assistance to vulnerable families across the globe. “It can bring us closer to the people we serve and allow us to respond much faster,” he continued.

WFP/Edward Johnson
Photo Credit: WFP/Edward Johnson

According to WFP, over 100,000 Syrian refugees in Pakistan and Jordan have already redeemed their WFP-provided assistance via the blockchain-based system. As a result, WFP has now a full, in-house record of every transaction that occurs at a retailer. Aside from ensuring better security and privacy for the Syrian refugee families, it also cancels out the need for intermediaries, thus reducing significant third-party costs.

When buying food from local shops, the refugees pay with an eye scan instead of cash, paper vouchers or credit cards. Building Blocks has integrated UNHCR’s (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) biometric identification system wherein their transactions are recorded on the blockchain. Developed by Baltic Data Science and Parity Technologies, Building Blocks operates on a private, permissioned blockchain via the Parity Ethereum client with a Proof-of-Authority (PoA) consensus algorithm.

The next stage, WFP disclosed, is to have all 500,000 WFP-supported refugees in Jordan receive their provisions using the service.

And Tomorrow, We’ll Have Hope For Breakfast

How many refugees have been eaten by hunger because they lacked the needed energy to rebuild their lives?
Several. Barna narrated:

“I have seen many children who were starving when they arrived. Food plays a vital role during any crisis, because you see, when we are starving, we lose our basic rights. If we are hungry, we neither have the energy to survive nor the ability to rebuild our lives.”

Time is slow for the starving. But blockchain has the potential to enable “faster intervention in some of the world’s most difficult environments,” WFP claims. For instance, blockchain could aid humanitarian sectors spread out life-saving cash assistance in a matter of days when disasters strike. WFP is reportedly tracking the scope for applications beyond cash-based transfers, identity management, and supply chain operations.

So far, the program seems to be effective. Nawej shared how much her children like a porridge made of corn soya blend given at the camp school. “I think the food has improved the health and growth of my children,” the refugee testified.

The organization is well aware that they cannot sustain the camp forever. WFP is also currently working on creating opportunities for people to graduate out of dependency on their assistance, through skills training and the promotion of income-generating activities.

wood-carving
Photo Credit: WFP/Edward Johnson

At a carpentry workshop offered by WFP in Tripoli, Lebanon — Syrian refugee Radwan sounds hopeful. “I need the cash now to buy medicine for my wife , she has cancer , but when she is better I’ll focus on starting a small business,” he explains. “Everyone needs tables.”

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We Made It: A Tale Of Blockchain Building Bridges For Syrian Refugees
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We Made It: A Tale Of Blockchain Building Bridges For Syrian Refugees
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How did they survive? When hunger was a gunshot in slow motion, a vicious woodland turned into a safe haven, and when many children arrived alone after they crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar. Little boys and girls surviving without their parents in the early days of the Rohingya refugee emergency.
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