Revolutionizing humanitarian cash transfers in Vanuatu
When disaster strikes, getting aid to those who need it, quickly, is a priority. In recent years, Cash and Voucher Assistance (CVA) has increasingly become the chosen method of aid delivery within the humanitarian sector. A CVA program provisions the transfer of cash or vouchers directly to individuals or households within a community to spend at their discretion, rather than giving the money to governments or other state actors. In 2016 alone, it’s estimated that $2.8bn in humanitarian aid was disbursed through cash and vouchers (Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2018; p6). However, the CVA model can be expensive, inefficient and opaque; often a long process, requiring many volunteer hours of administrative work during a time-critical period.
Like many Pacific islands, Vanuatu is vulnerable to a high volume of extreme weather events. Positioned within the earthquake-prone “ring of fire” and at the centre of the Pacific cyclone belt, the island experiences a high frequency of volcanic eruptions, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides. How can NGOs develop Cash and Voucher Assistance programs that connect cash with vulnerable people instantly, ensure that those funds don’t get eaten up by large transaction costs and extract real-time insight to drive program optimization?
The Ethereum Solution
Oxfam engaged Sempo and ConsenSys Solutions to assess the time, cost and quality of digital cash based transfer programs. In May 2019 they launched Project Unblocked Cash: a Cash and Voucher Assistance program pilot built on the Ethereum blockchain mainnet. It connected disaster victims with “cash” aid faster while providing real-time visibility into the flow of funds. The pilot, trialled in Vanuatu in the villages of Pango and Melemaat, aimed to provide Oxfam with a global framework for deploying a more rapid, efficient and transparent CVA mechanism for future disaster relief programs.
Sempo, a blockchain backed cash transfer platform for NGOs, provided the technical solution. Oxfam Vanuatu handled the implementation of the pilot. ConsenSys aided in the initial design of the pilot, provided blockchain advisory and communications support, and evaluated the pilot to make recommendations for future utilisation and scaling potential.
The program was first deployed in Pango. In this community, nineteen shop owners were on-boarded onto the system, and two hundred recipients were given NFC cards that held the balance of their digital wallet. ConsenSys was on site in Vanuatu with Oxfam and Sempo for the pilot in May 2019 to witness both the on-boarding of recipients onto the system, as well as the usage of the system in the community.
The solution distributed capital in the form of NFC cards that held a balance of funds. Participants then used the NFC cards at participating shops throughout their communities. The solution consisted of three main components:
- Pre-funded voucher cards given to each of the recipients
- Phones issued to the shopkeepers with the Sempo mobile phone app installed
- An Ethereum blockchain backend for controlling the flow of digital cash
“By using vouchers backed by stablecoins we create something that grows organically. It’s a system that allows us to create a thriving ecosystem of vendors and a community – [a system that] can really take on a life of its own.”
– Nick Williams, Co-founder of SEMPO
The system in action
Aid recipients were issued a funded NFC card to make purchases at local participating shops. The NFC cards themselves held a balance in the form of an encrypted sequence of deposits and withdrawals.
The local shopkeepers were provided with a mobile phone preloaded with the Sempo mobile app. It had a local database cache of the NFC cards and their balances, allowing it to operate offline. Vendors only needed to connect to the internet once per week to synchronize their devices with an online server, making it a rational solution for a low connectivity environment. The balances shown on the mobile app’s user interface, and in the Sempo backend, were all in the Vanuatu national currency of Vatu (VT). The conversion was done in the software against a fixed VT to USD exchange rate.
The Sempo backend dashboard provided a user-friendly interface for viewing the Ethereum blockchain and for facilitating bulk transactions, empowering Oxfam to make decisions faster and optimise disbursement.
The blockchain used to perform financial transactions in this solution was the Ethereum public blockchain.
Why the Ethereum public chain?
An Ethereum public chain solution enabled donors to see their funds go straight into the project and Oxfam the ability to see the real-time distribution of funds, visualised through the Sempo dashboard.
Established monetary value of Ethereum ‘DAI’ token
The most significant advantage of using the public chain is that monetary value has already been established. Sempo’s solution typically held balances in a token called DAI: an Ethereum token or stablecoin with an established value of $1USD. The token used within the Oxfam Vanuatu program was a “Crypto Collateralized Voucher” (CCV) which “wrapped” the DAI token. This ensured that tokens were only able to be used by participants within the Sempo system. The tokens could only be “unwrapped” into their original DAI form by those on the whitelist. The CCV mechanism was introduced as an AML mechanism, further bolstering the security and regulatory considerations of Sempo’s solution.
By leveraging the established monetary value of Ethereum, Oxfam averted the responsibility of establishing the value of every token they issued on a private chain, and then convincing the world that they could honour the value of those tokens.
“An NGO like Oxfam now has a tool at their disposal to quickly reach people and help people after a crisis, that’s easier and cheaper than existing processes,”
– Nick Williams, Co-founder of SEMPO
Oxfam in Vanuatu has implemented various modalities of cash and voucher programmes. In their experience; Sempo’s solution was found to be more effective than cash, cheques, or vouchers in the following ways:
One of the most substantial efficiency gains was in the initial on-boarding of the recipients. In the traditional model, disbursement dates had to be set for each recipient. Recipients then needed to come back, be re-identified and receive a cheque, voucher, or other form of cash entitlement, such as cash in an envelope or a debit card. Only at that point could the recipient use the funds to purchase what they need.
Providing transparency to permissioned users
The Pango and Melemaat pilots demonstrated another considerable advantage of a blockchain-based solution: the ease of monitoring the flow of funds; the ability to see how aid money was utilised, in real time.
The Sempo solution demonstrated that direct donations (without any intermediaries or administration) are possible utilizing distributed ledger technology. If Oxfam published the Ethereum address of the program operator, any individual or organisation capable of sending the DAI cryptocurrency could donate directly into the program
This method of transfer was also significantly cheaper for small donations. For instance, bank transfers to Vanuatu from Australia cost approximately $20 AUD. An Ethereum transaction, by contrast, averages less than 10 cents in AUD.
A human interface
The technology was easy to use for the recipients, vendors, and for Oxfam and feedback from participants revealed that it is the preferred solution for future disaster contexts. Community engagement in the program was high, and the feedback was positive. ConsenSys is now making key recommendations to Oxfam to refine and expand the program.
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