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Fixing Aid | Can blockchain help fix the I.D. problem for a billion people?

‘Because of my long journey and having to escape from home, I had no I.D. paper, this makes claiming asylum more difficult.’

In this episode of our podcast series, Fixing Aid, host Alae Ismail explores whether blockchain technology offers an efficient and secure solution for people who need to create digital identities and access credentials - especially for refugees and others living in vulnerable environments. 

When forced to flee your home from one moment to the next, grabbing birth certificates, school diplomas, and other papers that prove you are who you say you are might not be the first thing that comes to mind. And without those credentials, everything is more difficult when it comes to starting a new life or picking up the pieces of an old one: applying for asylum, applying for a job, or registering to receive aid and other kinds of support.

Over a billion people live without any form of identification – whether because they never had it in the first place or it was lost, stolen or confiscated as they fled conflict, disaster, or political persecution.

Ismail looks at the concept of self-sovereign identity, which asserts that individuals must have ownership over their personal digital data and identification, and how that idea influences efforts to create efficient, secure digital identities for people in the midst of humanitarian crises. 

She talks to two for-profit start-ups, Tykn and Gravity. Both draw on the concept of self-sovereign identity as they use blockchain technology while attempting to solve digital I.D. problems for people in need of aid. They share how they put their technologies to work to help people after a hurricane in the Caribbean; refugees in Turkey; and Kenyan communities where residents needed to access cash transfers during the pandemic. They also discuss how they work alongside humanitarian agencies and the challenges they face in reaching sustainable growth while focusing on social impact projects. 

Guests: Khalid Maliki, co-founder of Tykn; Sharanya Thakur, project manager at Gravity.

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Transcript | Can blockchain help fix the I.D. problem for a billion people?

Alae Ismail:

Hey listeners, welcome to Fixing Aid!

I’m Alae Ismail, and in this podcast series by The New Humanitarian, we look at innovations meant to improve the lives of people in humanitarian crises – from those fleeing conflict to communities facing flooding, prolonged drought, and hunger.

Today, we look at how to help people who have fled their homes or live in vulnerable environments access their personal documents – from I.D.s to diplomas – in a secure and streamlined way. Two startups offer some solutions – and, yes, blockchain is involved!

Imagine having to flee your home. Because of an earthquake, a war, or political persecution. When forced to flee from one moment to the next, grabbing your birth certificate, school diplomas, and other papers that prove you are who you say you are, might not be the first thing that comes to mind.

European countries are making an exception for Ukrainians fleeing right now, automatically granting refugees residency permits for up to three years via a streamlined administrative process.

Newsclips, Feb 2022 to March 2022:

“And I think this is a really great day, when we managed to have a unanimous decision on the temporary protection directive.”

“A temporary but unprecedented move, anyone arriving from Ukraine can soon go to any EU country.”

“EU countries say they will offer immediate protection to Ukrainians fleeing the war.”

Ismail:

This allows them to quickly work, access healthcare, education, housing, and other services without having to go through a long, document-intensive asylum process.

But most refugees face a different situation. In 2020 alone, over 26 million people were forced to flee from their homes. So many needed to start their lives over, from scratch. Doing that is even more difficult when you don't have any identifying documents.

Abdulaziz arrived in the United Kingdom in 2021, after fleeing his home country, Sudan.

Abdulaziz:

I am from Darfur, Sudan. I was in my last year of studying electrical engineering in Khartoum, the revolution started in 2019. The university stopped because of the protests. I am also an artist, a painter, and, during the protests, I would do street paintings on the walls, with a message to the government. The message is peace and justice and freedom.

Ismail:

The protests in Sudan, sparked by the rising cost of living, led to a call for a new government and democratic reforms. Despite the removal of longtime ruler Ahmed Al-Bashir, Abdulaziz says the new people in power were going after people like him, people who had been involved in the protests.

He fled Khartoum for his home, a village in the western region of Darfur. But Darfur wasn’t safe either. His village was attacked by militia forces. One day, he saw more than 100 people killed, including his brother. He fled to Chad, a neighbouring country, and then tried to make his way to Europe:

Abdulaziz:

I move into Libya, eventually, after getting lost in [the] desert, kidnapping by smugglers, and forced to work. I [came] to Europe via boat. And then to the UK, on truck.

Ismail:

Abdulaziz, who is now in his late twenties, hoped to restart his life when he arrived in the UK last April. But the journey to a place where he wouldn't be persecuted for being part of democracy protests wasn’t easy. He had to start his asylum application without any sort of I.D. or other documents to back up his story:

Abdulaziz:

Because of my long journey and having to escape from my home, I had no I.D. paper. This makes claiming asylum more difficult. I can’t go to school, I can’t work. They told me to wait, but you don’t know for how long. It's very difficult. Some people wait for years.

Ismail:

Without papers, his trip was more difficult: he could be arrested at any time in each country he passed through.

It’s not only refugees and asylum seekers who sometimes need to cope without identity papers. More than 1.2 billion people in the world do not have any form of identification. Sometimes that’s because they live in remote locations and can’t travel to get the papers they need, sometimes it’s because of administrative challenges, and so on.

Is there a way for people, especially those in vulnerable circumstances, to gain the power to be in charge of their identity? How can they access the documents that identify who they are and what academic and other qualifications they’ve earned?

A concept called “self-sovereign identity” tries to address these issues.

Khalid Maliki:

Self-sovereign identity came along as a concept where the identity is owned by you.

Ismail:

That’s Khalid Maliki, he is the co-founder of Tykn. Tykn is a for-profit tech startup based in The Netherlands. It uses blockchain to create the infrastructure that allows people to control their identity documents. The idea of self-sovereign identity is the foundation of this:

Maliki:

Let's assume you get a digital passport from a government, issued to your personal wallet, which could be living on your phone or on the cloud. And you own that identity. And, every time, let’s say, you want to onboard yourself on an online bank or access service – maybe you want to create an account on a website – they don't have to go back to the issuer, they just can mathematically verify that this information coming from you is actually issued by the real government. And they don't have to do a lot of verification processes. So for the end user it makes the life easier, because they can selectively disclose information about themself. But at the same time, it also makes the life easier for those verification parties.

Ismail:

Ok, this sounds difficult, but it’s actually straightforward. People’s I.D. data is stored in a so-called “wallet,” an encrypted cloud, that is either accessible on your own device, like a smartphone, or on a cloud. That data could be anything that has to be verified, from your address to your date of birth or other details that are needed when accessing or setting up a new service, like opening a new bank account.

Blockchain plays a small but important role: it’s secure because recorded data cannot be deleted. Blockchain is only used to identify the organisations that are issuing verified data about you. It confirms that the data in your wallet was verified by a real government or other institution with the power to grant and verify official documents. You, as the owner of that data, decide how much information you share, and with whom.

So how does this apply to people in Abdulaziz’s situation? People who are forced to flee their homes and must prove their identity to a foreign government. How relevant are these technologies for them?

Maliki:

For the people fleeing from disaster, not directly, because we are a technology provider, right, we are not a government. We can’t just issue legal identities to people that either have lost it or never had one, in some cases. That's why we believe that identity is just a tool. What is really important for those people is to have access to the services and to basic human rights, because that's really what matters for a lot of people.

Ismail:

Tykn cannot go back in time and provide people with IDs before a disaster strikes. It doesn’t have the legitimacy that a government does. So, they work in partnership with NGOs to help people without identity documents.

They’ve worked with the United Nations and humanitarian organisations across the Caribbean, and Eastern Africa. They also have projects running elsewhere – in a few Asian, Middle Eastern, and European countries.

One of the first pilot projects Tykn did was on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, just after the 2017 Hurricane Irma. Irma was one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes. It destroyed the homes of millions of people.

Newsclips, Sept 2017:

“Since hurricane Irma hit on Wednesday, there’s been no fresh water, no power, and no access to information.”

“Thousands of people are still desperate for help on St. Maarten and Anguilla.”

“There is no food, no water, no nothing. It’s terrible here.”

Ismail:

Tykn noticed that aspects of delivering emergency aid were time-consuming and thus very expensive. Usually, when an aid organisation comes in after a disaster, people need to be registered and verified before they receive aid. NGOs don’t always work together when collecting registration data, so the onboarding process is repeated, as people apply for different types of aid, from different NGOs.

Places like St, Maarten face hurricanes every four to five years. Each time there’s a hurricane and humanitarian aid is needed, the onboarding process starts over again, from scratch: personal details are not saved from one hurricane to another due to regulatory requirements. That’s where Tykn comes in:

Maliki:

With this technology, the identity is owned by the end-user. That’s why it’s called self-sovereign identity. But we can’t prove that this was issued by an exact NGO. So it’s not a fake NGO, no, it’s a real NGO – which is the Dutch Red Cross in this case – it has issued these credentials to the end-users, or to the beneficiaries in this case. And now we can start kind of connecting with them very quickly instead of doing the whole onboarding process all over again. And that's why it's so powerful and meaningful for the end-users as well.

Ismail:

Tykn undertook another pilot project, this time in Turkey, which hosts the largest number of refugees in the world: over 4 million people, mainly from Syria. Together with the UNDP, Tykn wanted to see how its technology could improve the refugees’ livelihoods. Many need some type of I.D. or other documents to work legally in the country, and many didn’t have that.

The Turkey project seemed like the perfect challenge to prove that the self-sovereign identity solution could benefit refugees and others on the move. But it soon became clear that the technology developed to increase access to and ownership over one's verified identifying information had to reach employers first, not refugees:

Maliki:

The refugees themselves, told us: ‘I want to get a job. I want to be part of society.’ So we kind of pivoted and said, ‘Okay, let's see then, how can we help you get access to the job market?’ And basically, we didn’t target the refugees. We went to the employers and interviewed them. And what we found out is that for them to be able to hire refugees in Turkey, they need to obtain a work permit. And that process was a big hassle. So what we did is just digitised that process and made it very simple to get credentials for the employer, on their wallet. And with that they could apply for a work permit very quickly, by just selectively disclosing the information that was needed, and then [sharing] that with the Ministry of Labour. And with that, the Ministry of Labour could verify these credentials, and then provide a work permit to the employers, which then had a positive impact on the refugees.

Ismail:

The pilot project did well enough that Turkey wants to introduce the technology in other sectors, such as education and health care, Tykn told us.

Tykn isn’t the only start-up active in this space of self-sovereign identity, blockchain encryption, and wallets on the cloud. Gravity is based in France and Kenya and tries to address similar issues. Like Tykn, it’s a for-profit start-up also focusing on social impact projects.

While Tykn and Gravity are competitors in theory, they’ve actually worked together in Turkey in 2019 and in Kenya last year. As believers in self-sovereign identity, they believe that no single company should control the technology that allows you to access your data in the wallet. It’s like using different web browsers to access your email or social media. This is safer, in the event a company goes bankrupt, but also because the data is always owned and accessible by the user. The idea is that no company should be able to monopolise this space, which would take away ownership from the individual.

Sharanya Thakur is a project manager at Gravity. She started her career in the humanitarian world. After joining Gravity, she realised that it took a lot to implement Gravity’s offering on the ground. Working in Kenya, she was focusing on using digital identity to help people access cash transfers as a form of relief during the Covid pandemic.

Sharanya Thakur:

So, we targeted two populations in Kenya. The first was a more urban population that was in an urban settlement just outside Nairobi, called Mathare. And another one was more of a rural setting up in Turkana, so near the border with Somalia and Sudan, etc. Humanitarian organisations deal with a lot of data, they deal with a lot of sensitive data, especially on vulnerable people. And so it's extremely important for them to firstly, be able to handle this data and move it from point A to point B in a secure manner. And secondly, to respect an individuals' privacy. A lot of times, individuals on whom data is collected – who are vulnerable and may not be digitally or normally literate as well – don't necessarily have those conceptions of what are the best practices in terms of being able to share my data securely and to store my data securely, etc.

Ismail:

Sharanya says that about 95 percent of the people in need of assistance in those two Kenyan projects did not have any form of identification. That caused the same lengthy onboarding procedures as Khalid witnessed in St. Maarten, after the hurricane.

Gravity came up with the idea of giving people who were eligible for assistance a QR code containing their digital identity, secured by a pin code.

This would help people prove who they are and what they are entitled to. That meant, after they completed one registration, the next should be faster and easier. But implementing this plan wasn’t so easy:

Thakur:

One of the biggest constraints that we saw was that people really did care about is that my data should not fall into the hands of someone that I don't want it to fall into the hands of: I don't want to be tracked by the government. On the other hand, they do express a very strong preference for sharing their data. Only if it helps them to access a service.

Ismail:

Another challenge was the lack of digital knowledge. Sharanya says that asking people to add a pin was oftentimes a challenge, as many didn’t know what a pin was and why it should be added.

So, a new feature was added: those receiving aid could choose to use an organisation – in this case the Red Cross – to act as a sort of guardian of their data. These guardian organisations can store data on your behalf and provide access to other entities that you authorise.

Gravity isn’t alone when it comes to adjusting their approach so that their technology works best for the people it's intended for. Khalid from Tykn says they also had to make some pivots:

Maliki:

We were one of the first companies in this space to basically go to the field to understand if this is working, yes or no. And then we fall on our face a few times, because this concept doesn't work everywhere, because of either lack of smartphones, penetration in some areas, but also connectivity is a big issue. But also a different understanding of what the identity is, right? Identity is a very vague, broad concept. And it's been perceived in different ways. So a lot of people actually also were afraid on the ground because they said, ‘I want to stay hidden. It’s either you can help me or not.’

Ismail:

As for-profit businesses working alongside humanitarian organisations, the aim is to improve the lives of people in need, like refugees. But, where does the money come from? Tykn had some early adopters and investors, while Gravity has an angel investor. Both also operate in other sectors that have nothing to do with humanitarian aid or improving the lives of refugees.

To have real impact, this kind of technology service should be free of charge to the end-user. The institutions using the online verification process are the ones picking up the bill – whether that’s a government, humanitarian agency, or commercial party.

So, in the long run, can money be made by securing encrypted data for vulnerable individuals? Is there a place for profit?

Khalid explains that as much as social impact is part of his company's DNA, his shareholders still want to see some kind of revenue or growth. The humanitarian sector mostly works with grants linked to a funding cycle:

Maliki:

Even if those grants are big, it's not a sustainable way to basically create more revenue and generate more growth in the company. And since last year, people can just buy a package, for example, on our website, ‘I want to authenticate or verify, let's say, a thousand users.’ And we have a fixed price for that, which is relatively very cheap, just to make it possible for other organisations to start playing with and adopting this technology in a very easy way.

Ismail:

For Gravity, they’re creating two different types of revenue models – one for the humanitarian sector and one for the private sector:

Thakur:

What we do for the humanitarian use case, we charge a sort of license fee based on the number of months that someone is using and what components of the solution they're using. So this is usually fixed per month. Then we have a variable component, we're trying to implement this in the humanitarian side as well. And what we do in our other use cases and other markets is something called pay-per-data, which means that per piece of data that any entity requesting data receives, they pay per data point, and depending on the type of data that it is.

Ismail:

From giving people more ownership of their personal data, to simplifying the process that allows them to access humanitarian aid or apply for a job in a new country, digital identities through blockchain could be really useful to people who are starting over or who are picking up the pieces in the aftermath of a disaster, like a hurricane.

But there are still some hurdles to implementing the technology, as well as financing it. And there’s still the question of the more than 1.2 billion people without any identity papers to begin with: what will it take for them to access a digital I.D. that is safe, verified, and widely accepted?

India launched a nationwide biometric I.D. system, known as Aadhaar, in 2009. It’s the largest I.D. system in the world. Once an Indian resident has their unique 12 digit number, they should be able to access financial services, like subsidies, or file their taxes without verifying their identity over and over again. But, privacy and security concerns have sparked controversy and several supreme court rulings since implementation.

But for someone like Abdulaziz, the student protester from Sudan who we heard from earlier, the tech solutions offered by Tykn and Gravity could have been really helpful.

Instead of waiting for many months in the UK – with nothing to do because he was not allowed to work or study – he believes his asylum process may have gone much more quickly if he was able to prove his identity earlier. The average waiting time is usually between one to three years. After one year, Abdulaziz has just received a letter inviting him to start the in-person asylum interviews, where he will try to explain why Sudanese authorities were after him.

Abdulaziz:

If I would have had my papers to identify myself, things would have been so different for me. It would have been easier to prove who I am, and that I had no choice but to escape from Darfur to the UK.

That’s it for this week’s episode of The New Humanitarian’s podcast series: Fixing Aid.

We have more episodes coming up, and in all of them, we’ll start with asking people who are in need of aid or who receive aid, what they need to improve their lives. And then we’ll look at how to help solve those issues by talking to the innovators who are trying out new ideas and solutions.

Send us your feedback. Find us on Instagram or Twitter: @NewHumanitarian, or send us an email: [email protected]

Don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review.

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian. This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf. And I’m Alae Ismail. See you next time!

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