Corruption undermines the effectiveness of foreign aid. While precise numbers are hard to come by, numerous press reports suggest that mass “leakages” (a euphemism for probable theft) are all too common. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has reportedly asserted that approximately 30% of foreign aid is lost to corruption, though controversy over the magnitude and impact of the problem remains (see, for example, here, here, and here). The perception of a severe problem has naturally led to searches for innovative solutions, including technological solutions. One possibility that has been garnering some recent attention is blockchain technology. In fact, a few months ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, the think tank Sustainia, and the blockchain currency platform Coinify jointly published a report delineating how blockchain technology can be used to “hack the future of development aid.”
Blockchain systems make use of a shared digital “ledger,” in which each transaction contains the history of all previous transactions; because the ledger is transparent and distributed across many computers, rather than stored in a centralized database, it is (allegedly) not susceptible to manipulation or hacking, and ensures the transparency of all transactions (though not necessarily the real-world identities of those engaged in those transactions). Blockchain is probably best known as the technology that makes possible Bitcoin and other so-called cryptocurrencies. But blockchain technology and its applications are rapidly evolving, and many have already begun to see how this technology can be used as a tool to combat corruption, for example by increasing transparency in land records and by using blockchain systems to support anti-money laundering efforts. Now, companies such as Disberse, AID: Tech, and Donorcoin are developing blockchain-based fund management systems that, their proponents contend, can help reduce corruption in development aid. Blockchain technology would allow donors to transfer money to end users directly (and instantaneously), bypassing the formal financial institutions and corrupt bureaucracies that have often been the source of financial leakage, and preserving a transparent record of all transactions. This would help ensure that aid money goes to where it is intended to go.