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October 2019

 

8 - 10 Minutes

AID:Tech – delivering transparency where it’s needed most

Visa Navigate spoke to the co-founders of this Irish start-up to learn how they are using blockchain technology to bring transparency to the global aid industry, while establishing digital identities for vulnerable individuals

Over six gruelling days, Joseph Thompson ran 151 miles across some of the world’s harshest terrain under temperatures that exceeded 50 degrees Celsius. His feet were swollen from the heat and his eyes stinging, but none of that mattered once he crossed the finish line.

Completing the Marathon des Sables in 2009 was one of Joseph’s greatest personal achievements, and raising $122,000 for a local charity made the experience more special. Every mile of that physical and mental challenge was worth it because that effort was going to make a meaningful difference.

But when he followed up to find out where his donation had gone, the charity couldn’t give him an answer because it couldn’t be accounted for.

At that moment he thought “something needed to change”.

Fast forward to 2012, the then UN General-Secretary Ban Ki Moon spoke about the cost of corruption to society:

“Corruption prevented 30 per cent of all development assistance from reaching its final destination. This translates into bridges, hospitals and schools that were never built, and people living without the benefit of these services. This is a failure of accountability and transparency1.”

Inspired by his words, serial entrepreneur Niall Dennehy reflected on his own experience, thinking deeply about how technology could transform the distribution of global resources and meet current-day consumer demands for increased transparency and accountability.

Having worked together previously, Joseph and Niall joined forces to bring aid and technology together.

The dual mission – traceability and identification

Niall’s experience in blockchain start-ups combined with Joseph’s academic focus on digital currencies led them to agree blockchain stood out as a promising opportunity to advance this mission. A ledger with permanent records, this technology could ensure a transparent process by logging the entire digital journey a resource takes from a government to its citizens, peer to peer and from donors to beneficiaries.

Niall believes “blockchain is valuable where trust is missing. It’s a fundamental building block to fuel transparency.”

Digital identity was another important ingredient that they believed could strengthen this process and drive more impact.

The World Bank estimates that more than one billion people around the world do not have any form of legal identity, resulting in challenges that range from buying a mobile phone to accessing financial services2 and gaining formal employment3. Without being able to reliably verify the identities of their citizens, countries risk not being able “to deliver services efficiently, strengthen their ability to raise revenues and foster growth in the private sector4.”

By providing digital ID to citizens and beneficiaries around the world, the right people could receive the aid they are entitled to, but more broadly, as Niall describes, it would “bring identity to the unidentified”. When combined with blockchain, all those involved in the delivery and distribution process – from governments to financial institutions, charities, donors and beneficiaries – would have full visibility of where funds and resources have come from and where they’re going.

But they both encountered scepticism along the way.

“Education has been a critical component to our journey,” Niall recalls. “We were beginning at a time when blockchain wasn’t well understood. Many had difficulty comprehending the impact it could have. They thought blockchain was bitcoin, so they were averse to associating their efforts with something that could change in value.”

AID:Tech in action

The company’s technology was first field tested with the Irish Red Cross to deliver 10,000 USD of aid to Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon. Donations were digitised and then uploaded onto 500 “intelligent vouchers”. Each voucher was valued at 20 USD that recipients could redeem for aid at local supermarkets, and each contained a unique ID to verify their identity. When the merchant scanned the voucher QR code at point of sale, an image of the customer appeared, verifying they were the intended recipient and how much they were entitled to.

Every transaction was successfully made5 and every penny was accounted for.

This work inspired one of the company’s flagship offerings, TraceDonate, which enables donors to see how their donations are spent, track the contribution history and stay informed.

And they haven’t looked back since.

More recently, AID:Tech fulfilled a similar project with the Department for International Development in the UK and Concern Worldwide in Ireland, which saw them successfully distribute £150,000 worth of equipment to Syrian farmers in need.

With DFID’s backing, Concern runs an annual aid programme that allocates farmers £75 each to spend with local merchants on equipment around the harvest season. In the past, the organisation relied on a paper system that was haphazard with little traceability.

By digitising the programme and entering it into the blockchain, AID:Tech ensured each farmer in need received the aid they were entitled to, offering Concern and DFID the transparency and traceability they’d sought after.

Niall describes that having “transparency integrated into every stage of the process was a first for these organisations. Everyone involved could access our immutable, tamper-proof ledger that traced the payment journey.”

Source: Forbes

Looking back, seeing the technology brought to life and used for meaningful work is what Niall is proudest of. With partners across the public, development and private sectors, AID:Tech's solutions can now be found across other verticals, including cross-border remittances, social welfare and e-health.

Turning to the future, he believes digital identity and blockchain will be critical to driving greater financial inclusion and trust. “Data should be personal, private, persistent and portable. The ability to own your data like you own your physical self is a huge opportunity. And blockchain can be the foundation for people to own it, manage it and even sell it – all on their own terms.”

And this is where he hopes to take AID:Tech next. AID:Tech is currently integrating existing technology with Decentralised Digital Identity, which will enable users to own and manage their personal data when accessing social and financial services. Underpinned by DID, Joseph and Niall aspire to develop a decentralised data exchange.

“We may not be operating at a huge scale yet, but we keep proving we can deliver.”

Reflections and lessons learned

  • Balance selling your mission with turning profits: “We should have started thinking more about creating new business models and projections a lot earlier.”
  • Develop with the fit already in mind: “A lot of companies develop their solutions and then look for a fit after. Your customer needs to be top of mind from the beginning.”
  • Collaborate: “You can’t win on your own. Companies need to be collaborative and serve society. People together make this world a better place”
  • Be prepared to face a lot of adversity: “It’s easy to paint a beautiful picture, but the start-up game and environment is a ruthless one. You need dogged perseverance and persistence to survive. The rug can be pulled out from underneath you at any time.”

 

AID:Tech is part of the InclusiveFintech50, funded by Visa.

1 https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2012-07-09/secretary-generals-closing-remarks-high-level-panel-accountability

2 https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/04/19/financial-inclusion-on-the-rise-but-gaps-remain-global-findex-database-shows

3 https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/global-identification-challenge-who-are-1-billion-people-without-proof-identity

4 https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/global-identification-challenge-who-are-1-billion-people-without-proof-identity

5 Twenty fraudulent vouchers were also intentionally created for point-of-sale testing

Video references:

“Just over a billion people lack a digital identity” - https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/04/19/financial-inclusion-on-the-rise-but-gaps-remain-global-findex-database-shows

“Ban Ki Moon once said that one third of international aid can go missing through fraud, corruption and a lack of transparency” - https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2012-07-09/secretary-generals-closing-remarks-high-level-panel-accountability

“We partnered with Concern Worldwide and distributed out 150,000 GBP to Syrian farmers. Everybody in the process, everybody in the supply chain had complete transparency” – as reported in a post-project report, prepared by Concern Worldwide for AID:Tech

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