UN Women and partners to pilot blockchain technology in humanitarian action

Date: Friday, February 2, 2018

Blockchain technology solution-providers demonstrate their solutions. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Blockchain technology solution-providers demonstrate their ideas at UN Women and UN OICT's four-day simulation lab in New York. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

UN Women, in partnership with the UN Office of Information and Communications Technology (UN OICT) and with the support of Innovation Norway, hosted a four-day simulation lab to explore cutting-edge solutions based on blockchain technologies that address challenges faced by women and girls in humanitarian settings.

“Being the only UN agency created in the 21st century, UN Women has prioritized innovation technology as one of the drivers for change, strategically leveraging innovation and partnership to accelerate progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment,” said Yannick Glemarec, UN Women Deputy Executive Director, during the opening session.

UN Women Deputy Executive Director speaks at the simulation lab that explored Blockchain technology.
UN Women Deputy Executive Director Yannick Glemarec speaks at the blockchain technology simulation lab. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Natural disasters and conflicts exacerbate pre-existing gender inequalities and discriminations experienced by women and girls, heightening their vulnerability, and exposing them to disproportionately high levels of risk. At the same time, women also play a critical role in enabling effective, efficient and sustainable humanitarian response.

UN Women, together with partners, such as Innovation Norway, is committed to ensuring that humanitarian action responds to the needs and challenges of women and girls and leverages their active participation and leadership. While there has been some progress in this area, there remain significant gaps. Calling for “radical innovation,” Elisabeth Fosseli Olsen, Head of Humanitarian Innovation Initiatives, Programmes and Grants at Innovation Norway reminded participants, “there are too many people left behind in today’s humanitarian efforts.” Harnessing technologies such as blockchain is one of many ways that UN Women is working to strengthen humanitarian action.

How Blockchain works
Blockchain technology is a database of lasting digital records that can be accessed from anywhere. Photo: UN Women/Ryan brown

Blockchain is a distributed database of immutable digital records that can be accessed from anywhere. It offers users the ability to build and maintain immutable and secure records and to directly transfer digital assets without the need for intermediaries and associated costs.

These attributes enable blockchain to be used to create and store verifiable digital identity for refugees as well as enable trackable and inexpensive cash transfers. As humanitarian crisis continues to be protracted over decades, with millions of people on the move, technology like blockchain can provide solutions to immediate and long-term challenges.

During the four-day event at the UN Women Headquarters in New York, seven blockchain technology solution-providers demonstrated their solutions to over 200 UN officials, representatives from Permanent Missions to the UN, blockchain technologists, humanitarian actors and academics.

How can Blockchain technology support women and girls in humanitarian settings? Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
UN Women and UN OICT's four day innovation lab aimed to determine "how can blockchain technology support women and girls in humanitarian settings?". Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Commenting on the need to encourage and finance innovative approaches, Karen Ellemann, Minister for Fisheries and Equal Opportunities and Minister for Nordic Cooperation, Denmark, said, “UN Women’s pioneering involvement in this new territory can act as an important stamp of legitimacy enabling investment in blockchain solutions designed to help women in emergencies. For refugee women on the move, blockchain technology can help store and secure identity papers, medical records and documentation of ownership of assets.” The Government of Denmark is UN Women’s founding partner for the work on innovation, including through the establishment of an Innovation Facility.

Among the various areas of potential innovation and investment, UN Women has identified cash transfer and identity as areas to leverage blockchain technology to assist women and girls. UN Women will invite selected vendors to submit a ‘request for proposal’, after which the most suitable solutions will be piloted in humanitarian crisis settings. Supported by Innovation Norway, UN Women is committed to ensuring that this process continues to progress in close collaboration with UN and private sector partners.

Participants filling out feedback cards at the event. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Participants filling out feedback cards at the event. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

“History shows that trends can be broken with innovation in policy, institutions, management models, finance, science and technology. Making innovation work for women is a key objective of UN Women,” said Mr. Glemarec. “Digital technologies can provide unprecedented solutions to address the fundamental needs of marginalized groups and those at the bottom of the pyramid.”