Blockchain Helping UN Interventions to End Poverty and Hunger
Innovative use of a refugee cash transfer initiative using blockchain has helped the United Nation's bodies to make its interventions to end poverty and hunger more effective. The initiative resembles more closely to the working of a fintech company or development bank, according to a study by researchers Tina Ambos and Katherine Tatarinov of the Geneva School of Economics and Management (GSEM) at University of Geneva. By providing a platform for aid delivery, the organization is now helping its partners bypass unstable third-parties and save on transaction costs. “Such new activities often stretch the original mission of the organization”, explains Tina Ambos.
UN faces challenges on handling data on vulnerable groups which make it impossible to outsource projects. Hence the institution has focussed on upgrading its institutional knowledge and creating new teams to manage digital projects. Internalisation of technical skills and human-centred design approaches have helped in country level innovations. Innovation units were found to be key in helping the UN scale initiatives by driving forward dynamic solutions. Such units nurture initiatives through boot camps, cross-sectoral connections, helping teams overcome internal barriers, and broadcasting new learnings to the entire organization. The UN also involves local people to ensure sustainability and maximize social impact. End-users, such as refugees, are often active members of development teams, helping ensure that projects ‘do no harm.'
Innovations often start life in UN country offices, where staff need to respond quickly to unfolding crises. To circumvent slow central procedures, in-country innovators may decide not to involve the headquarters. Good ideas then spread from country to country, such as an anonymous SMS polling tool designed to gauge opinions on taboo topics in remote communities. “The idea grew organically, as other country offices could see the value of access to data on taboo topics”, says Tina Ambos. Such country-level innovations can achieve scale and have been shown to change the organization’s culture when digital technology is involved.
Innovation champions at the country level are willing to employ workarounds to avoid head office bureaucracy, because they are motivated to solve an urgent problem – rather than by internal rewards or recognition. They are therefore able to access funds and forge partnerships which may have been disregarded by the large, centralized machinery of the UN, but which nevertheless align with broader organizational values. “Strict hierarchies, risk-averse donors, and lengthy sign-off processes can stifle ideas, yet international organizations need to innovate to stay relevant”, says co-author Katherine Tatarinov. “Greater public scrutiny, funding challenges, and the push towards digital means that bodies like the UN need to reinvent themselves – their culture, identity, and management styles. By becoming more responsive and fostering innovative ideas, they can better achieve their missions and our shared global goals.” The study findings show that the seed from one good idea can grow throughout a complex organization like the UN, changing it from the inside, and creating new space for enterprising ideas to flourish.
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