Vanuatu pioneers digital cash as disaster relief

Vulnerable to cyclones, volcanoes and the impacts of climate change, the Pacific archipelago is using blockchain technology to provide aid money directly to families recovering from natural disasters

The most at-risk country on earth to natural disasters, Vanuatu has endured two major volcanic eruptions and two category five cyclones in the past half-decade, affecting more than half the population.

Through resolute border closures, the Pacific archipelago has escaped infection from Covid-19, but the resultant loss of tourism revenues has devastated the local economy.

Vanuatu is a country, sadly, too used to fighting back from disaster. But it is a country, too, seeking new paths to recovery.

Vanuatu is pioneering Unblocked Cash, a mobile-based development project using blockchain technology, along with tap-and-pay cards, to provide direct assistance to families recovering from disasters or acute financial distress.

The cards can be ‘loaded’ with money, to act like a debit card, allowing families to directly buy food, medicine, clothes, and other emergency supplies, even hardware to rebuild destroyed homes.

Sandra Uwantege Hart, head of Pacific cash and livelihoods for Oxfam in Vanuatu, told the Guardian the project emerged out of an effort to “shift the delivery model for humanitarian assistance… from goods to cash and vouchers”.

The approach “is more market-friendly, [and] gives people more dignity and flexibility”.

Four-year-old Nickson’s home in central Pentecost Island was destroyed by Cyclone Harold.
Four-year-old Nickson’s home in central Pentecost Island was destroyed by Cyclone Harold. Photograph: Bobby Shing

It’s also, proponents argue, more efficient. Traditionally, it typically costs between $2 - $3 to deploy $1 worth of aid post-disaster. The digital model reduces aid distribution costs by up to 75%, Oxfam claims, taking only three minutes to register each new recipient on the network. Older approaches could take over an hour.

Over the next few months, over 35,000 new participants across Vanuatu are expected to be enrolled in the project, jointly funded by New Zealand and Australia.

Hart and over a dozen local partner groups have spent several years seeking ways to put money directly into the pockets of those most affected by disaster.

Financial services infrastructure across Vanuatu’s islands “is our weakest link”, Hart said. Unblocked Cash, she said, establishes a cashless payment system with few overheads.

The project doesn’t use cryptocurrency directly, but every transaction is tokenised and stored on the Ethereum blockchain. Personal data is kept separate in compliance with international privacy standards. The project’s software – most of which is open source and can be freely shared and adapted - was written by Melbourne-based Sempo.

Traditional disaster responses are often ‘top-heavy’, and rebuilding local economies is rarely prioritised. Local businesses are often bypassed, and find themselves competing directly with external contractors, who flood recovering communities with goods at low or no cost to consumers.

The Vanuatu Business Resilience Council was founded in 2017 as a counter this, and to establish a greater role for the local private sector in disaster response.

Nicola Barnes, who helped local businesses set up for the project, said, despite some issues with digital and financial literacy, the roll-out has been broadly accepted.

She said the new system was a potentially transformative method of delivering disaster relief, and said blockchain technologies could even be integrated with existing local systems, such as QR codes installed on national ID cards.

“If it was blended in, it would make us more disaster resilient, and it would make it much quicker and easier to use immediately after a disaster.”

Trust of the unfamiliar seems to have been the biggest hurdle. One recipient said, “the first time that I have been shopping, I was afraid that there was no money on the e-voucher, but after the first time I think it was just easy”.

The project is being rolled out across the Pacific region, and around the world.

Vanuatu trainers are assisting with trials in Goroka, Papua New Guinea. A Solomon Islands project is slated to begin early in 2021, and pilot projects are underway in Colombia with collaboration from Spain.

Unblocked Cash won’t work everywhere. Places with robust electronic banking systems don’t need it. But in remote or badly damaged areas, or in places suffering hyperinflation, it offers a lightweight, efficient and low-impact means of putting cash in people’s pockets.

Centralised disaster response has often been a magnet for inflated no-bid contracts, wastage due to spoiling and theft, and favouritism when aid is distributed.

Cash, by contrast, has proven surprisingly resistant to corruption. One rollout to 2800 Vanuatu families saw three abuse complaints. Only one proved valid.

Spending is tracked and profiteering is easily discovered.

Hart also suggested that a pure cryptocurrency version of the app could be used by thousands of Pacific seasonal workers to send money home without the often-exorbitant fees and long delays of traditional remittance services.


Dan McGarry in Port Vila

The GuardianTramp

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