July 18, 2024

Tech disruption plays out in WFP humanitarian initiative

PUBLISHED : September 05, 2019 - 18:29

UPDATED : September 05, 2019 - 18:36

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INCHEON -- Many humanitarian programs are underway in areas where war refugees are literally caught in the crossfire -- where infrastructure for a better quality of life often seems like a tall order.

For the United Nations World Food Program, however, technology disruption has come into play in one initiative that has benefited over 100,000 people in war-torn countries, Houman Haddad, head of emerging technologies at WFP, told reporters Sept. 5.

The WFP-led initiative “Building Blocks” has allowed war refugees to make purchases without carrying banknotes or remembering passwords, Haddad said during a press conference at Upbit Developer Conference 2019 in Incheon.

Houman Haddad, head of emerging technologies at the United Nations World Food Program, speaks at a press conference during UDC 2019.

Blockchain seeps into real life: UDC 2019

“More and more humanitarian operations rely on information technology and connectivity and smartphones,” said Haddad, who spoke at a UDC 2019 session the same day.

“When we find a risk to be within acceptable margin and opportunity to be large, in a certain sense we lead the way by demonstrating how it can be done.”

Since its launch in 2017 as a pilot project for the WFP’s Innovation Accelerator, Building Blocks has boosted the efficiency of cash transactions and food distribution for war refugees with blockchain technology.

These efforts enabled refugees to carry out cash transfers of nearly $1.8 billion in 2018, setting a record in sync with WFP’s “zero hunger” by 2030 mandate as part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

So far, refugees in countries such as Jordan and Pakistan have used mobile phones and the underlying blockchain technology to make secure cash transactions with greater convenience, according to Haddad.

Houman Haddad, head of emerging technologies at the United Nations World Food Program, speaks at a presentation during UDC 2019.

In terms of security, Building Blocks has worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to make sure the food assistance is “authenticated at every point with biometric authentication to make sure it does end up in the right hands,” Haddad said.

The initiative at the same time suggested a win-win situation for both buyers and sellers of food in the war-torn regions, he added.

“Normally, (shop owners) accumulate the cash throughout the day and they had to transfer this safely with armored vehicle to a bank,” he said.

Building Blocks is partnering with ethereum-based Parity Technologies and Baltic Data Science for its current blockchain-powered financial infrastructure. 

“Our mandate does remain towards hunger,” Haddad said, adding that smartphones and distributed ledger systems would be “outside our mandate.”

By Son Ji-hyoung (

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