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UNICEF Eyes Blockchain As Possible Solution to Child Poverty Issues

(@mpmcsweeney) | Published on February 3, 2016 at 19:16 BST

Blockchain technology could provide a solution to issues facing the world’s impoverished children, according to Christopher Fabian, one of the co-founders of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) innovation effort.

In a new interview with CoinDesk, Fabian said that UNICEF has spent months discussing blockchain tech internally and how it can be used to address payments and identity problems in conflict areas.

Potential applications aside, Fabian said that he does not believe the technology is mature enough today to address problems UNICEF aims to solve. Yet, that hasn’t stopped the organization, including its global network of field offices and laboratories, from weighing possible blockchain applications.

He explained:

"I don’t think it's quite there yet, but when we're looking at problems like giving someone an identity when they don’t have a sovereign identity granted to them, or how you allow movement of money from one place to another quickly, those are things that blockchain starts to hint at.”

The organization, founded in 1946 and based in New York City, recently announced that it’s Innovation Fund is accepting applications from open-source projects that are focused on new technologies, including blockchain.

Those selected will receive as much as $50,000 in funding, as well as additional resources from the UNICEF community. UNICEF set a deadline of 26th February for applications, and intends to announce its initial investments sometime in April.

Quiet approach

According to Fabian, UNICEF has spent the past year observing developments in the bitcoin and blockchain ecosystem, but that to date it has not taken any steps to invest in startups or develop any in-house solutions.

"We been kind of tracking blockchain for about a year, but we thought it would be a nice time as we launch this innovation venture fund to invest in it," he told CoinDesk.

"So we haven't done an investment in it like other technologies, but we have a pretty good track record of testing out and prototyping stuff, and then getting solutions to market that benefit the world’s most vulnerable children.”

Fabian went on to cite conversations with groups like the MIT-based Digital Currency Initiative, as well as investors working in the space.

He said that beyond the Innovation Fund effort, UNICEF plans to make further investments in blockchain-focused projects.

Focus on identity, payments

For now, UNICEF is looking at two primary uses cases for blockchain technology: micropayments and identity.

"We see huge potential [for blockchain technology] in the near future," he said. "One is around internal cash transfers, small transfers of money that are happening with cash that could be made faster and be monitored to make sure people got that money."

Perhaps more pressing, he suggested, is the use of the technology as a means to provide a form of identification.

According to a 2013 report from UNICEF, more than 200 million children under the age of five worldwide lack any kind of registration at birth, a situation that exposes them to economic hardship and possible exploitation.

"We know that if you don’t have access to an identity and you're a child and you're in a war zone, you're most likely to be trafficked or hurt," said Fabian.

Ultimately, he indicated, the blockchain applications that grow out of the organization's efforts will likely result from work conducted at UNICEF program sites worldwide, saying:

"Many of our teams in the field and our labs and country offices have expressed need for things that we think could be answered with an application of blockchain."

Image courtesy of UNICEF


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