Tag Archives: knowledge gaps

Blockchain for International Development: Using a Learning Agenda to Address Knowledge Gaps

Guest post by John Burg, Christine Murphy, and Jean Paul Pétraud, international development professionals who presented a one-hour session at the  MERL Tech DC 2018 conference on Sept. 7, 2018. Their presentation focused on the topic of creating a learning agenda to help MERL practitioners gauge the value of blockchain technology for development programming. Opinions and work expressed here are their own.

We attended the MERL Tech DC 2018 conference held on Sept. 7, 2018 and led a session related to the creation of a learning agenda to help MERL practitioners gauge the value of blockchain technology for development programming.

As a trio of monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning, (MERL) practitioners in international development, we are keenly aware of the quickly growing interest in blockchain technology. Blockchain is a type of distributed database that creates a nearly unalterable record of cryptographically secure peer-to-peer transactions without a central, trusted administrator. While it was originally designed for digital financial transactions, it is also being applied to a wide variety of interventions, including land registries, humanitarian aid disbursement in refugee camps, and evidence-driven education subsidies. International development actors, including government agencies, multilateral organizations, and think tanks, are looking at blockchain to improve effectiveness or efficiency in their work.

Naturally, as MERL practitioners, we wanted to learn more. Could this radically transparent, shared database managed by its users, have important benefits for data collection, management, and use? As MERL practice evolves to better suit adaptive management, what role might blockchain play? For example, one inherent feature of blockchain is the unbreakable and traceable linkages between blocks of data. How might such a feature improve the efficiency or effectiveness of data collection, management, and use? What are the advantages of blockchain over other more commonly used technologies? To guide our learning we started with an inquiry designed to help us determine if, and to what degree, the various features of blockchain add value to the practice of MERL. With our agenda established, we set out eagerly to find a blockchain case study to examine, with the goal of presenting our findings at the September 2018 MERL Tech DC conference.

What we did

We documented 43 blockchain use-cases through internet searches, most of which were described with glowing claims like “operational costs… reduced up to 90%,” or with the assurance of “accurate and secure data capture and storage.” We found a proliferation of press releases, white papers, and persuasively written articles. However, we found no documentation or evidence of the results blockchain was purported to have achieved in these claims. We also did not find lessons learned or practical insights, as are available for other technologies in development.

We fared no better when we reached out directly to several blockchain firms, via email, phone, and in person. Not one was willing to share data on program results, MERL processes, or adaptive management for potential scale-up. Despite all the hype about how blockchain will bring unheralded transparency to processes and operations in low-trust environments, the industry is itself opaque. From this, we determined the lack of evidence supporting value claims of blockchain in the international development space is a critical gap for potential adopters.

What we learned

Blockchain firms supporting development pilots are not practicing what they preach — improving transparency — by sharing data and lessons learned about what is working, what isn’t working, and why. There are many generic decision trees and sales pitches available to convince development practitioners of the value blockchain will add to their work. But, there is a lack of detailed data about what happens when development interventions use blockchain technology.

Since the function of MERL is to bridge knowledge gaps and help decision-makers take action informed by evidence, we decided to explore the crucial questions MERL practitioners may ask before determining whether blockchain will add value to data collection, management, and use. More specifically, rather than a go/no-go decision tool, we propose using a learning agenda to probe the role of blockchain in data collection, data management and data use at each stage of project implementation.   “Before you embark on that shiny blockchain project, you need to have a very clear idea of why you are using a blockchain.”  

Avoiding the Pointless Blockchain Project, Gideon Greenspan (2015)

Typically, “A learning agenda is a set of questions, assembled by an organization or team, that identifies what needs to be learned before a project can be planned and implemented.” The process of developing and finding answers to learning questions is most useful when it’s employed continuously throughout the duration of project implementation, so that changes can be made based on what is learned about changes in the project’s context, and to support the process of applying evidence to decision-making in adaptive management.

We explored various learning agenda questions for data collection, management and use that should continue to be developed and answered throughout the project cycle. However, because the content of a learning agenda is highly context-dependent, we focused on general themes. Examples of questions that might be asked by beneficiaries, implementing partners, donors, and host-country governments, include:

  • What could each of a project’s stakeholder groups gain from the use of blockchain across the stages of design and implementation, and, would the benefits of blockchain incentivize them to participate?
  • Can blockchain resolve trust or transparency issues between disparate stakeholder groups, e.g. to ensure that data reported represent reality, or that they are of sufficient quality for decision-making?
  • Are there less-expensive, more appropriate, or easier to execute, existing technologies that already meet each group’s MERL needs?
  • Are there unaddressed MERL management needs blockchain could help address, or capabilities blockchain offers that might inspire new and innovative thinking about what is done, and how it gets done?

This approach resonated with other MERL for development practitioners

We presented this approach to a diverse group of professionals at MERL Tech DC, including other MERL practitioners and IT support professionals, representing organizations from multilateral development banks to US-based NGOs. Facilitated as a participatory roundtable, the session participants discussed how MERL professionals could use learning agendas to help their organizations both decide whether blockchain is appropriate for intervention design, as well as guide learning during implementation to strengthen adaptive management.

Questions and issues raised by the session participants ranged widely, from how blockchain works, to expressing doubt that organizational leaders would have the risk appetite required to pilot blockchain when time and costs (financial and human resource) were unknown. Session participants demonstrated an intense interest in this topic and our approach. Our session ran over time and side conversations continued into the corridors long after the session had ended.

Next Steps

Our approach, as it turns out, echoes others in the field who question whether the benefits of blockchain add value above and beyond existing technologies, or accrue to stakeholders beyond the donors that fund them. This trio of practitioners will continue to explore ways MERL professionals can help their teams learn about the benefits of blockchain technology for international development. But, in the end, it may turn out that the real value of blockchain wasn’t the application of the technology itself, but rather as an impetus to question what we do, why we do it, and how we could do it better.

Creative Commons License
Blockchain for International Development: Using a Learning Agenda to Address Knowledge Gaps by John Burg, Christine Murphy, and Jean-Paul Petraud is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License