Odd Bedfellows? Blockchain Developers Can Learn to Love the World Bank

Michael J Casey
Oct 19, 2017 at 12:00 UTC
OPINION

Michael J. Casey is the chairman of CoinDesk's advisory board and a senior advisor for blockchain research at MIT's Digital Currency Initiative. 

In this opinion piece, one of a weekly series of columns, Casey assess the unorthodox role that multilateral organizations can play in developing blockchain technology.

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At first glance, the World Bank looks like an ill-suited partner for any self-respecting blockchain developer intent on disrupting the financial order.

This isn't just a bank, it's one that’s owned by the world's governments. It would seem the very embodiment of the centralized third party that Satoshi Nakamoto sought to disrupt.

But working with the World Bank's new Blockchain Lab offers more opportunities for change than it sounds. And the bank is not the only strange bedfellow within the international community that blockchain innovators should be making. The International Monetary Fund also wants to collaborate. So, too, do many U.N. agencies.

Multilateral organizations are warming to blockchain technology, driven by a belief that reducing the economic rents charged by trusted intermediaries can advance social-impact goals such as financial inclusion. Serious crypto developers should seize a chance to jointly promote decentralizing, open-source applications before corporate interests beat them to it with more centralized solutions.

'Massive disruptions'

During last week's IMF and World Bank annual general meetings in Washington, blockchain technology was a hot topic. In separate CNBC interviews on the sidelines, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said it is "something that everyone’s excited about" and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde predicted that digital currencies would soon unleash "massive disruptions."

Such comments mean nothing without commitments. So it's heartening to see both international financial institutions, as well as some of their smaller siblings such as the Inter-American Development Bank, ramping up resources and creating research partnerships.

Perhaps the most unlikely convert is the United Nations, where various agencies are now engaged in blockchain pilots. Bernhard Kowatsch, who heads the innovation accelerator at the U.N.'s World Food Program, says a test of an ethereum-based system for tracking cash disbursements, payments and food distribution to 5,000 Syrian refugees produced such resounding efficiency gains that it will soon be rolled out to a further 100,000 refugees in Jordan.

It's understandable that developers intent on disintermediating business processes might be wary of these giant entities. They helped perpetuate a 20th-century political-economic model dominated by centralized government and corporate institutions. And they are run by hulking bureaucracies whose members are as interested in self-preservation as those of any incumbent organization. "Innovation" isn't a word one associates with the World Bank.

Interests aligned

Still, in some ways, the interests of the staff of these international agencies are more closely aligned with those of the crypto community than those of national governments and established companies. Having neither taxation nor profit-seeking capacity, they too often find themselves as outsiders in global capitalism's battles for economic and political supremacy. Yet they do retain enough clout to influence certain governments and with which they could foment the kind of policy environment that cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology need.

Socially motivated crypto people can also find common ground with these organizations’ mission statements. The World Bank has a mandate to reduce poverty, a part of which is its ambitious goal of universal financial inclusion by 2020. The U.N. is all about its SDGs – Sustainable Development Goals – for 2030. It's tempting to see these as hollow slogans, but the positive branding gives social impact-focused blockchain innovators something with which to hold these institutions to account.

The international financial institutions (IFIs) have their own motives to change, too. With the U.S. backpedalling from its substantial international commitments, they are forced to do more with less. It's one reason agencies are looking to disruptive technologies to extract new efficiencies.

There's even a subtle but healthy strain of quiet subversion among this new breed of blockchain enthusiasts, a desire to reform their institutions from within.

When Yoshiyuki Yamamoto, a veteran employee of the U.N.'s Office for Project Services, wanted to launch a blockchain initiative, he knew that creating a formalized U.N. unit would get bogged down in a bureaucratic no-man's land. So he unilaterally created the UN-blockchain.org website – the homepage of which opens by comparing Satoshi Nakamoto to John Lennon – and invited U.N. staffers from any agency anywhere to reach out if they were interested in exploring pilots.

Within a few months, he had attracted an ad-hoc group of more than 75 staffers from seven separate agencies. Many are now engaged in blockchain research, including with government partners. Yamamoto had created something remarkable: a distributed organization inside the ultimate centralized bureaucracy.

Of course, the governments that fund them can and do constrain these institutions' ability to push for disruptive solutions. That's especially so when the disruption is targeted at politically connected businesses. But their influence over policymakers is not insignificant either, and innovation partners can exploit that. After all, the regulation environment can be a major determinant of whether a blockchain venture succeeds.

Influence over policy

While the IFIs have no sway over big shareholder governments like the U.S, that's not the case with emerging-market countries, where they can place conditions on funds disbursement.

That's not without controversy, of course. The IMF and World Bank's role in promoting "Washington Consensus" free-market policies drew the ire of many in the post-Cold War era, when they were viewed as agents of the U.S. (With a 17.46 percent stake in the IMF, the U.S. holds unique veto power over the IMF's policymaking, which is based on 85 percent majority voting.)

But, for now at least, the U.S. is agnostic on how blockchain technology is deployed. That creates a window of opportunity for these organizations' blockchain labs to autonomously make a difference. And because of their mandate for social good, they can act as honest brokers on behalf of their innovation partners. When World Food Program staffers explore blockchain technology to improve food supply chains, they are not doing so to maximize profits, protect entrenched interests, or further Washington's geopolitical agenda. They're driven by a need to deliver sufficiently safe food to 80 million people worldwide.

There are no assurances these institutions will promote the principles of open-access and permissionless innovation, however. And without that, they could sell this technology short. Banks and other large corporations, smelling dollars, are courting them with promises of permissioned blockchains run by familiar names and centralized payment solutions. These offer short-term solutions to the scalability challenges of public blockchains but ultimately reinforce old economic power structures.

So it was good to see the value of public blockchains recognized during a summit on Friday that the World Bank co-hosted with the Blockchain Trust Accelerator. The event, held at the New America Foundation, highlighted bitcoin infrastructure provider BitFury's work registering land titles in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The Georgian government's support for that project, in which a snapshot of the national land registry is periodically hashed to the bitcoin blockchain, is an encouraging endorsement of the permissionless model. Ukraine is now pursuing a similar arrangement with BitFury.

Using that experience as a model, the World Bank and other international institutions can play an influential role steering other governments to support this approach.

Well-intended or not, the Washington Consensus failed because it was built on the old, centralized organizational structures of the 20th century. Now, these centralized behemoths, the offspring of that world, are in a unique and ironic position. They can help us forge a 21st-century economic model that's based on decentralization, open access and a level playing field on which all get to compete.

World Bank image via Shutterstock

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