citizen.” It might, for example, help a refugee prove his or her
professional background or family connections.
Who controls it?
It will take a while to achieve that grand vision. Haddad’s idea for
Building Blocks was to start by creating an account on a blockchain for every family of Syrian refugees in a Jordanian camp.
Families wouldn’t then have to wait days for local banks to transfer their money, or have to share identifying information with the
banks, where some unscrupulous employee might steal or misuse
it. Meanwhile, the WFP, instead of forwarding money before it’s
spent, could itself tally all refugee purchases and pay participating
stores afterward in local currency. That’s a big deal, since upwards
of 30 percent of UN assistance is lost to corruption.
In an early test of the Building Blocks payment idea in Pakistan, however, the transactions were slow and the fees were too
high. Haddad decided one of the problems was that the system
was built on the public Ethereum blockchain. The current version of Building Blocks—the one now in use in Jordan—runs on
a “permissioned,” or private, version of Ethereum.
On a public blockchain, anyone can join the network and
validate transactions. Such a system makes it difficult for any
one person or agency to tamper with or forge transactions, but
transaction fees tend to add up. On a permissioned blockchain,
a central authority decides who can participate.
The upside of the permissioned system is that Haddad and
his team can process transactions faster and more cheaply. The
downside is that since the WFP has control over who joins its
network, it also has the power to rewrite transaction histories.
Instead of cutting the banks out of the equation, it has essentially become one.
For Bassam and his fellow refugees in Zaatari, the distinction may not matter. Bassam told me he’d bought groceries with
an iris scan even before Building Blocks was implemented, but
in that case an actual bank handled the transaction. And before
that, he had a card the cashier would scan, but sometimes it
wore out, and it could take weeks to get it replaced. “The new
system works better,” he says.
“It’s a major success,” says Haddad, who explains that it
reduces costs and the risks of sharing refugees’ data, while
simultaneously improving the WFP’s control, flexibility, and
accountability. “Now if we get a call that 20,000 people are
coming in the night, we can have everything ready for them
in the morning,” he says. “The old way would have taken two
weeks and required paper vouchers.”
But because Building Blocks runs on a small, permissioned
blockchain, the project’s scope and impact are narrow. So nar-
row that some critics say it’s a gimmick and the WFP could
just as easily use a traditional database. Haddad acknowledges
that—“Of course we could do all of what we’re doing today with-
out using blockchain,” he says. But, he adds, “my personal view
is that the eventual end goal is digital ID, and beneficiaries must
own and control their data.”
Other critics say blockchains are too new for humanitarian use. Plus, it’s ethically risky to experiment with vulnerable
populations, says Zara Rahman, a researcher based in Berlin
at the Engine Room, a nonprofit group that supports social-change organizations in using technology and data. After all,
the bulk collection of identifying information and biometrics
has historically been a disaster for people on the run. Think of
the Holocaust, or the more recent ethnic cleansing of Rohingya
A matter of courage
Ultimately, the question with Building Blocks or any similar
system is whether it will put ownership of digital IDs in the
hands of the people being represented or simply become an
easier way for corporations and states to control people’s digital existence. Bob Reid, CEO of a blockchain identity startup
called Everid, told me he expects a battle over this question in
the next few years. “Either it goes to individuals or it goes to
“Now if we get a call that
20,000 people are coming in the
night, we can have everything
ready for them in the morning.”