The use of established technology in achieving social good and the sustainable development goals can be generally accepted, but the question of whether blockchain, as a specific and emerging technology, can contribute to the goals is at very early stages of investigation. We should be aware of the risk of blockchain as ‘a solution in search of a problem’ and of being drawn into the hype surrounding its use and efficacy. In support of the use of blockchain, there are opinions that blockchain “has more near-term potential for social impact than originally thought” (Calvert, 2018), and that new technologies being deployed in developing countries means not having the legacy of existing technologies which can hinder adoption. Of the seventeen goals, some lend themselves more appropriately to, and could benefit more greatly from, using blockchain and distributed ledger technologies.
The World Food Programme has delivered blockchain solutions that contribute to achieving Goal 2: Zero hunger. The programme distributes cash to 28 million people in 64 countries (WFP, 2021) but recognised that in some countries the existing financial solutions were insufficient, unreliable and incurred high transaction fees. The Building Blocks project implemented a private, permissioned blockchain to record transactions made by people purchasing groceries which reduced financial transaction fees and ensured greater security and privacy.
The WFP’s project provides an example of how blockchain can be used in tackling a very specific problem; that of people in refugee camps purchasing food without concerns of centralised third-parties having access to their personal data or losing food vouchers. In this case, it could be argued that blockchain solves more problems for the organisation than it does for its beneficiaries, as it reduces the transaction fees the organisation pays and provides more accurate data about those using the system. Based on this example we can conclude that blockchain can have a role to play in achieving the goal of zero hunger but has a long way to go before that contribution can be considered significant.
Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth, is another goal that blockchain could contribute to. For the 2 billion ‘unbanked’ people in the world, not having access to financial services hinders the economic growth of individuals, families, towns, and entire countries. According to the central bank of Sierra Leone, over three-quarters of the country’s population does not access formal financial services (Ledger Insights, 2019). In an attempt to tackle this issue and so enable economic growth, the charity Kiva set up a blockchain solution to provide microloans to people who are unable to provide a credit history due to their unbanked status. Kiva reports on the impact of its service as an overall but it is difficult to measure the success of the blockchain technologies, either in comparison to a different solution or in achieving the sustainable development goal of “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all” (UN, 2021).
Blockchain technologies, among other emerging technologies, have much potential in contributing to achieving the sustainable development goals but must be approached cautiously and with consideration for the unintended consequences the introduction of new technologies can have. The use of blockchain technology can contribute to specific parts of solutions that contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals but to suggest that a technology such as blockchain can achieve a goal alone would risk straying into more hype than reality.
In tackling some of these issues, the Blockchain Commission for Sustainable Development was set up in 2017 to “develop a multi-sectoral framework to support the UN system, along with Member States, intergovernmental organizations, the private sector and civil society in utilizing blockchain-based technologies to develop local, national and global solutions to urgent challenges.” (IISD, 2018). The IISD works to help other organisations better understand blockchain and it’s real world applications, including aspects such as how blockchain fits within a country’s legislation and telecoms infrastructure. These challenges are important to understand when considering how blockchain can contribute to achieving the sustainable development goals as the question becomes less about the application of blockchain technology and more about how to build the national and international infrastructure that would be necessary for blockchain to be implemented in order for it to contribute to the goals.
Calvert, D. (2018). Can Blockchain Be Used for Public Good? Stanford Business.
International Institute for Sustainable Development. (2018). Commission White Paper Explores Blockchain Use for SDGs. sdg.iisd.org
Ledger Insights. (2019). Kiva sets up Sierra Leone blockchain ID system. ledgerinsights.com
United Nations. (2021). The 17 Goals. sdgs.un.org
World Food Programme. (201). Building Blocks: Blockchain for Zero Hunger. innovation.wfp.org