Blockchain –Unpacking the disruptive potential of blockchain technology for human development :: International Development Research Centre

Sustainable Development – Technology

Blockchain –Unpacking the disruptive potential of blockchain technology for human development
International Development Research Centre
Researcher and author: Raúl Zambrano
August 2017 :: 85 pages

Executive Summary
Technologies old and new are propelling the current wave of innovation around the world. Artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning are all gaining new ground and being deployed in a wide variety of contexts globally. One of the more cryptic but oft-hyped technologies is blockchain, an emergent technology developed as part of Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency invented in 2008. Whereas Artificial Intelligence and robotics innovations
seem to have a dark side, many perceive blockchain technology as a platform for positive and even radical change.

Yet for developing countries, the high sophistication and complex infrastructure requirements (bandwidth, connectivity and high operating costs) of this technology might prove challenging if countries intend to be active players and not just end users or consumers. Exploring the relevance of new technologies to address existing socio-economic gaps and support internationally agreed development targets including the globally-recognized Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is critical for countries in the global South. The question for developing countries is not only how this could be workable but also who could be involved in harnessing blockchain technologies to close
development gaps, foster social inclusion and promote democratic governance.

This white paper explores the potential blockchain technology could have in fostering human development in developing countries. The first part (after the executive summary) provides a non-technical overview of blockchain. It then moves to illustrate the range of applications in development areas and sectors from a public/private goods perspective. The third section examines the actual relevance of blockchains in developing countries. The paper concludes with a series of recommendations for additional research and potential development programming using blockchain technologies. The annexes lay out the information and communications technology for development (ICTD) framework and a more technical presentation of blockchain technologies.

This paper centers on blockchain applications that go beyond cryptocurrencies. The core focus is thus on the use of blockchain technology as a generic application platform in developing countries….

Recommendations [p.55, text bolding from original]
Undertake a series of selected case studies on ongoing blockchain technology initiatives that are taking place in developing countries. While some anecdotal information on such initiatives can be found, little in terms of academic or developmental research is currently available. Indeed, a large vacuum exists here that has helped spread blockchain hype even more.

Undertake further research and analysis on both blockchains for governance and the governance of blockchains vis-à-vis governments and the provision of public goods. In particular, the links between trust, consensus building and representation have not been explored in the existing literature.

Link current and future work on blockchain technology to Artificial Intelligence as the latter is being systematically introduced into the technology and related “decentralized applications” or Dapps. This points back to blockchain’s governance issue and the governance of algorithms in general which are not participatory, nor transparent. Is blockchain part of the solution?

Consider opening new and pioneering research on the governance of algorithms and the impact they can have in society, especially in developing countries. This theme is in turn linked to the notion that technologies are social products. In the end, society ends up shaping how technology is harnessed. However, the prevailing view today seems to be the opposite, blockchain technology included.

Explore innovative approaches and solutions to facilitate blockchain technology access to those sitting at the bottom of the pyramid, focusing on access and use of cryptographic tools. Here, distinguishing technology use and ownership from its benefits is crucial. Previous technology deployments have shown that poor communities can benefit from them without directly using or owning a particular technology. Community networks and shared mobile telephone use are well-known examples here.

Explore the role of ongoing innovation initiatives and existing tech hubs in developing countries to support blockchain deployments. Africa and Asia, in particular, have a considerable number of technology hubs which can furnish adequate expertise to deploy blockchain technologies with local expertise and to target the provision of public goods.

Consider funding or supporting small blockchain pilots or prototypes focused on specific development themes, the SDGs or local priorities in developing countries. Funding need not be large but special attention should be placed on the human development impact. As mentioned above, identity and government services using blockchain technologies are the most relevant at this point and have already been implemented in other contexts.

Support or help create a network of blockchain technology innovators and entice them to support applications that foster public goods provision. Attracting local innovators in emerging and developing economies is of critical importance here.

Support the creation of a blockchain for blockchain-related projects in developing countries, or consider the creation of a related sustainable knowledge base. Partnering with international experts and other innovators on a global scale should be part of such initiative.

There has been some action by multi-laterals and overseas development funding agencies on linking blockchain technologies to the implementation of the SDGs. Development agencies and development practitioners should join these efforts to track the latest developments and
eventually undertake further research on the topic.

Launch or help organize a ‘blockchain for development’ network, or a decentralized autonomous organization with key donor countries and organizations. The main goal of such a network could be to keep the development perspective atop, and above blockchain itself.