How can Emerging Digital Technologies Alleviate Poverty in the Context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

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Goal 1 No Poverty of the UN Sustainable Development Goals aims to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. This includes the facets of poverty such as gender inequality, power dimensions between developing and developed countries, the impact of environmental disasters and the exclusion of those living in remote areas. Extreme poverty disproportionately affects women, those living in small conflict-affected countries and also affects those who work. In 2018, 8% of employed workers globally still lived in extreme poverty (UN). 

The targets and aims of this goal are ambitious, and can be seen as a rallying cry for changes to the institutionalised practices and structural causes of poverty to enable greater access and inclusion to basic needs, rights and resources for the poor and vulnerable. Whilst emerging technologies, such as blockchain, cannot act as silver bullets which can cut through the complexities that surround extreme poverty and the empowerment of the poor, they can be used as tools to enable greater access and inclusion. 

Emerging technologies such as blockchain can bypass traditional institutional channels and help to enable a legitimisation of individuals, for example in their inclusion in health services, access to economic resources via, for example, microloans. Technology can also fill institutional voids, for example by providing a secure platform for property rights and secure equitable access to land and resources.

Ultimately how data is transacted and stored can be more secure and efficient with blockchain based platforms giving assurance to all parties involved, which importantly includes the provider as well as the user. This in turn can help increase the access and inclusion to resources, rights and services for the poor. A few examples of the specific contexts blockchain can be used to help address these issues are given below. 

Ownership and Land Rights

Proving one’s identity, ownership or access rights to resources, such as banking or education, through accountable records is especially difficult for those living in poverty, regions of conflict and remote areas according to the UNDP. For example, documentation to land rights are often lost in natural disasters or individuals do not have official birth certificates. Capitalising on the immutability and transparency of a blockchain ledger many private and government backed land registries are being set up to create digital identities for individuals as well as creating a permanent record of rights and access to resources. 

The government of Rwanda has established the Rwanda Government Blockchain project with Microsoft and WiSeKey to help deliver a number of blockchain supported initiatives including a digitised land registry. The specific aim of this project is to ensure the ‘correct’ ownership of land, through creating digital identities of the owner, and in turn boost agricultural production and long term investment into the land (Reuters). 

Financial Inclusion 

Blockchain based apps which allow secure money transfers have the ability to increase access and inclusion of many who are unable to use traditional banking services, which currently stands at 1.7 million adults according to the World Bank. This bypasses institutionalised forms of banking opening up cheaper and more efficient methods of transferring money, for example to family members, as well as providing a secure method for proving a person’s identity, to help build up their credit history which benefits both the credit user and issuer. 

BanQu is a non-cryptocurrency blockchain based app which aims to reduce extreme poverty by providing the poor with an economic identity which gives them access to financial resources and services. Through the distributed ledger BanQu creates a digital identification for the end users, the poor, and connects them to government organisations, financial services and businesses and allows transactions to be recorded from property rights to medical records. 

Micro Finance 

Blockchain based transaction models mean that the transaction fee of financial payments can be kept low and therefore facilitate transactions for small, ‘micro’, amounts of money (Kshetri, 2017). Developed similarly to the revolutionary success of M-Pesa in Kenya, which facilitated money payments via people’s mobile phones, a new blockchain based payment system has been created, BitPesa. This blockchain based payment platform aims to increase payments ‘in and outside of Africa’ (Bitpesa) creating a global method of digital exchange. 

These are just a few examples of the specific contexts blockchain could be used to help transform how giving a digital identity to those living in poverty can enable access to financial resources and verification of land ownership. Many of these cases are still in the early phases of development so it will be interesting to see what impact they may have in the future and how these can contribute to achievement of the sustainable development goals.