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Rebuilding lives, block by block

Samson M.Mahari
October 16, 2018

Diwala was founded on the idea of using blockchain technology to create digital skill identities for youths, as well as those who were forced to flee their homes. Although technology has advanced in recent decades, war and devastation rages on, resulting in people having to flee their homes in search of safety and even the opportunity to start over. Through our digital platform, Diwala aims to assist them by creating “secure” digital identities and providing a certification of their skills and education. We believe this will provide more opportunities for personal growth and independence.

When Bitcoin was created in 2008, very few saw how it would influence the world. But, what’s also interesting to note is how the peer-to-peer network that Bitcoin uses could have other applications.

Complications of Forced Migration

Migration has been a staple of human culture since the dawn of civilization, with the need for relocation arising for any number of reasons. While economic concerns continue to be a factor, persecution, conflict and generalized violence have been the main causes for this latest wave of worldwide migration. This year has seen more than 68 million people displaced from their homes. These figures have steadily grown over the past 6 years, resulting in an increasing number of people seeking refuge and asylum in other countries.

While most would believe that relocation would ensure their security and allow them to flourish, sadly this isn’t always the case. For example, most people who are forced to flee often don’t have the luxury of being able to provide any form of identification, meaning they can’t prove who they are or what kind of skills they possess. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), 70% of Syrian refugees are unable to provide valid identification or land ownership documents. This leads to delays in asylum and often results in deportation. According to Kristian Hollins of the Lowry Institute, there isn’t a “recognized international consensus” on how to establish one’s identity. Another issue regarding the displaced has been the distribution of aid and donations to alleviate their suffering. Currently, there are more than 22 million displaced individuals that require daily support from NGOs and government bodies to survive. However, the aid and donations are usually funnelled through “government middlemen” of some kind. This relationship is dependent on a degree of trust, which isn’t always as developed as one would hope. Even if said trust could be established, there would still be a need to keep track of aid and donations to avoid mismanagement.

Blockchain beyond Bitcoin

Because of the severity of this refugee crisis, organizations have begun to study the potential of using technology to help displaced individuals start over. For example, Mastercard, in collaboration with USAID and several other organizations, announced the formation of a “public-private” coalition earlier this year. This coalition would use multi-sector technologies and solutions to convert refugees camps into digital communities. Starting in Kenya and Uganda (who have some of the largest refugee populations in the world), this coalition aims to provide these refugees with internet/mobile access, clean energy and digital financial tools. In addition, Mastercard has also been working together with Western Union. This collaboration announced a new digital infrastructure model, which would serve as a “scalable blueprint” for these under-served populations. It aims to provide them with access to financial services, in hopes of encouraging an “integrated and sustainable local economy”.

Blockchain technology has been making inroads in alleviating some of the obstacles that plague government bodies and relief agencies as well. According to Robert Opp, director of innovation for the World Food Program,

“There are a number of potential uses for blockchain that could dramatically change the way we reach people in terms of our efficiency, effectiveness, and security”.

A blockchain network can transact stupendous amounts of data through its publicly distributed ledgers. Within these ledgers are blocks of data that are public, time-stamped and near impossible to fake. Therefore, host governments and aid agencies can provide refugees with “digitally-authenticated identification documents” that serves that function, thereby allowing them to access necessities such as bank services, contractual documentation and education. For example, the Finnish government assists newly-arrived refugees by providing them with prepaid debit cards that link the identity of the cardholder to the network. Essentially, they would function as a replacement for a bank account instead of having a rudimentary payment system.

WFP/Farman Ali (Link to article; https://innovation.wfp.org/blog/blockchain-crypto-assistance-wfp)

Another application has been in providing humanitarian aid. After learning from a pilot project that was started in Pakistan, the World Food Program (WFP) developed a practical system in Jordan that would use blockchain technology for authenticating and registering transactions. The WFP started an initiative where they provided thousands of Syrian refugees with “cryptocurrency-based” vouchers that were redeemable in a few select stores. Also, combining pre-existing biometric authentication technology provided by the UNHCR, the WFP also created a system that would allow purchases to be made through retinal identification. Essentially, these individuals can purchase their items simply by walking up to the cashier and having their eye scanned. This would connect to a database that would verify the person’s’ identity and deduct the purchased amount from their allotted bank balance. The project is still going and expanding, as it has resulted in more efficient transactions with a reduced chance of fraud and data mismanagement —

Read more about the project called “Building blocks” here

Also, since blockchain offers transparency and collaboration between governing bodies, private organizations and citizens, reliable information can be exchanged securely. Blockchain “smart contracts” automatically carry out predefined functions. Therefore, governments could create “smart work permits” that would allow asylum seekers to engage with employers directly and handle all related details, such as income taxation.

While this is technology is exciting, it should also be taken into consideration that the technology is at an early stage. Although some governments and NGOs have made a great effort in enterprises, there’s still quite a way to go in terms of research, development and implementation. Nonetheless, with the results that keep popping up from pilot projects - and the huge interest in blockchain worlwide — it does seem very promising.

Diwala’s Mission

Blockchain has proven to have wide-ranging applications, which include allowing Diwala to create digital skill identities. By providing efficiency, transparency and real-time secured data, our platform empowers learners and encourage organizations to collaborate”.

During Diwalas first two pilots in Uganda, in-depth interviews with several educational organisations as well as NGO’s were undertaken. Our research found that despite their admitted need for digitizing their certificates, these institutions didn’t know exactly how to achieve this nor if the data would even be secure

Also, with students’ increasing need to showcase their educational accomplishments, there arose a need for the schools to update data about their students as well. Students and graduates found that backlogging and high costs made it difficult for them to even purchase hard copies of their certificates, which are necessary for them to either apply for work or further education. The burden for both students and administration offices of verify every printed document, is slowing down both processes and time.

This is where Diwala comes in. Our platform will provide an online presence of degrees, transcripts and skill-related certificates which ultimately will give people more opportunities faster. Educational institutions can also use our platform to distribute and manage this data within a network — which again will help them improve their organisations and teachings methods.

The initial implementation stage and development of the platform will focus on students and recent graduates in Uganda, but as soon at the platform is ready to on-board more users, the displaced will be prioritised. By providing “immutable records”, youth and displaced people will get complete control, freedom and ownership of their certified documents. By providing “data analysis” for schools and HR departments, we can enable collaboration across organisations and sectors.

Diwala is a solution that challenges corruption and certification fraud, and gives the control back to the student. As we keep building the platform- we are also looking into how we can map and incentivise personal growth, to those who can’t get these needs covered in traditional settings.

We’re entering a new age in the digital, world where the only way for one to flourish will be for them to be able to navigate their way through it. We believe Diwala can be a guide for those in need of help in this new digital frontier.

Read more about the importance of softskills in Uganda here,
or further about the importance of User-testing in Kampala