Betting on blockchain to deliver cash in the Pacific

Cash transfers, Disasters, ICT4D, Innovation

Sandra Uwantege Hart, Pacific Cash & Livelihoods Lead, describes how Oxfam successfully used blockchain technology to make cash accessible to communities and small businesses in Vanuatu one of the world’s most remote and hazard-prone locations.

 Store owner Melika Kaluat during the Unblocked Cash blockchain pilot. Photo:  Keith Parsons/OxfamAUS
Store owner Melika Kaluat during the Unblocked Cash blockchain pilot. Photo: Keith Parsons/OxfamAUS

We are told that blockchain technology will change the world – harnessing a decentralised, distributed ledger, removing expensive middlemen and resolving core issues of trust in financial transactions.

Blockchain offers solutions to some of the most difficult aspects of delivering humanitarian cash

For some, it’s a revolution. A trust machine. An opportunity to expand financial inclusion, and create digital identities for the world’s most marginalised groups. Blockchain offers solutions to some of the most difficult aspects of delivering humanitarian cash: difficulties tracking payments, lengthy reconciliation times, and costly monitoring and reporting.

The infrastructure provides a running ledger of live, traceable transactions, from the moment funds are loaded to the system, to the moment they are spent. Cross-border transactions are made quicker, and easier – using stable denominations of digital cash. Smart contracts help automate reconciliation processes, and cryptography ensures security without compromising transparency.

In my work with cash and vouchers, I was excited by the potential of blockchain, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong with this hype-charged discourse. It was dominated by decision makers and technology experts. Where were the voices of the communities we work with?

The UnBlocked Cash project

In launching the UnBlocked Cash project, we wanted to ensure that blockchain technology was grounded at the community level. In Vanuatu, the communities of Pango and Mele Maat played a central role. With partners, we designed a pilot process that would give people in poverty the position to determine if, and how, blockchain solutions could work for them.

We wanted to ensure that blockchain technology was grounded at the community level
We had been spearheading efforts to introduce, and scale cash and voucher approaches across the Pacific region for the past year. In early 2018, we developed a model for assessing cash transfer feasibility in Vanuatu. By the end of the year, we had launched the first multi-purpose grant programme ever implemented in the Pacific – to assist families displaced by the Ambae volcano.

Our teams are used to innovating and finding solutions. We are a group of small country and regional offices, working on the front lines of climate change, across a massive geographic area. We were ready to leapfrog, and see if blockchain presented a solution. Oxfam Australia supported these efforts, forming a multi-disciplinary innovations team to push the initiative forward.

UnBlocked Cash is only the second example, globally, of a blockchain platform being used by a global agency to deliver humanitarian cash. Choosing the right partners was critical. Sempo is focused on blockchain solutions for financial inclusion, and getting cash to vulnerable people in crises. And our second partner, Consensys, is one of the world’s largest blockchain firms.

Blockchain from the bottom up

We needed a system that was robust, and that could bridge gaps
In Vanuatu, smartphones are rare, and the internet can go down for days at a time. Most people don’t have photo ID or a debit card, and many are without bank accounts. We needed a system that was robust, and that could bridge gaps in connectivity, digital and financial inclusion. It was important that money could circulate and stay within the community – essentially an e-voucher system running on a blockchain platform.

Communities agreed that single mothers, widows, people with disabilities and LGBTIQ+ members of the community would be the most appropriate recipients. Everyone played a role. Sempo went through a three-week, adaptive training, testing and design process in villages, to gather feedback that fed directly into on-site product development and app updates.

The impact of using blockchain technologies

  • Tap and pay cards were issued to 187 recipients, and smartphones to 28 vendors. Simple, easy to use, and safer than carrying cash.
  • We could register recipients, issue cards, and disburse funds on the spot. Within the day, people could start shopping for what they needed –  with choice and control.
  • Because of a faster, weekly payments process, smaller shops and market stallholders were able to participate in the process – creating a more localised and inclusive delivery model.
  • We could see how funds were allocated and spent on a live dashboard, allowing us to troubleshoot issues and resolve complaints within hours instead of days.
UnBlocked Cash dashboard

Taking UnBlocked Cash to scale

This initial pilot was an achievement in several ways: improving our speed and performance in delivering assistance, and including communities in the innovations process. It has been exceptionally well received, locally and globally.  

Success in such a complex and challenging environment means that we can now explore and scale the use of this platform elsewhere. I’m thrilled that we now have a tool that could accelerate the delivery of cash and voucher assistance across the Pacific, and a team who knows how to use it.

Even more promising – the blockchain infrastructure it is built on can accommodate multiple donor funds for coordinated and transparent distribution to a designated group of recipients. Donors, partners, and coordinators can all trace how funds are used – like a common cash platform.  

This year, we plan to scale UnBlocked Cash at country level, to test the possibility of multi-stakeholder delivery. We’d like to teach our civil society partners how to use it. Next, we’d like to take it regionally, and explore global applications across the Oxfam confederation and INGO networks.

While blockchain is not a silver bullet, for Vanuatu and the Pacific region, it is certainly a giant leap forward.

Author
Sandra Uwantege Hart

Sandra Uwantege Hart

Sandra is the Pacific Cash & Livelihoods Lead for Oxfam, based in Vanuatu. She joined Oxfam in 2017, and manages the regional portfolio of humanitarian cash transfer response and preparedness projects in the Pacific. Sandra has over 10 years of experience in disaster response and coordination in the Pacific, Asia, the Caribbean, and West Africa – working with NGOs, the UN, and in microfinance. She has an academic background in anthropology, feminism and human development, and is currently enrolled in the Ethereum Foundation DevCon Scholars program to build her learning on all things blockchain.