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.

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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

38 thoughts on “Blockchain for International Development: Using a Learning Agenda to Address Knowledge Gaps

  1. Without direct link to the report MERL is risking their credibility as many startups have delivered a product and more than one

    1. Hi Alexi, I’ve asked the authors if they can please share their report.

      I think it’s important to note that the authors are not saying that start-ups have not delivered products. They are asking about evidence of a product making an actual difference, which is what we examine here on this blog and in the monitoring, evaluation, research and learning’ space. We look at how we evaluate the social and development impacts of technologies. In other words, not ‘did you deploy something’ but rather, ‘What difference did it make? How? For whom? Why? Was it better than another option? Why? Did it cause harm? For whom? Why? Was it sustainable? Why?’

      1. I remember reading that the Jordan Refugee blockchain project w/ eye scan showed they eliminated counterfeit tickets used for supplies, which accounted for up to 10% of the requests. I’m sure most of the projects state a 1 liner on the impact they have had at least… but not all blockchains must be open to the public… it takes a lot of programming to turn the private networks public and keep anonymity, considering most of these social projects are not funded nearly as well as crypto… patience…

  2. Thank you very much for your work.

    It echoes concerns expressed by prominent Bitcoiners Tone Vays, Jimmy Song, Giacomo Zucco and others.

    Song and Zucco are developers who worked on Bitcoin and who have long said that blockchain has a very limited use case, and that Bitcoin is the only one that is truly decentralized and which is, therefore, immutable.

    Centrally commanded blockchains, they say, can be gamed, and the features of immutability overcome because of inadequate distribution. They say enterprises (or public/private orgs) just need regular encrypted databases.

    I am not advocating buying Bitcoin by mentioning them, by any means. But they are among the most mature and experienced blockchain developers at this time, and have been calling out fraudulent blockchains for years, somewhat unheeded until recently.

    I am a reporter at Crowdfund Insider.


    1. I agree to some extend. The Bitcoin maximalist view is, however, well…extreme.

      The primary reason for existence of blockchain tech is the strive to remove central points of failure and disperse the high concentrations of power and valuable information currently available.

      In other words, decentralization and security are the main goals. As these systems grow, however, scalaibility and user-friendliness also become concerns. This is even more valid for more complex decentralized systems such as smart contract platforms (or decentralized computers). having in mind that his is really applied R&D in distributed systems, game theory and cryptography, it is simply not rational to expect results after a year, or two.

      DLTs are not blockchain, they are a way of enterprises to ride the wave and MAYBE give up some of the control (in very limited cases). DLTs promising a use-cases is not the same as a public blockchain doing it. Both face different challenges, the challenges of a public blockchain being more significant. Moreover, there are always those projects that “promise you the stars”. At least 95% of ICOs were doing exactly that.

      I am curious to see which are the 43 projects that the report focused on.

      Btw, I am involved in the aeternity blockchain, but am still a huge Bitcoin fan (that’s how I got into crypto in 2013).

      All the best!

    2. I would take odds with the statement that Bitcoin alone is immutable and decentralised. It is neither the only PoW coin, there are many like it, nor is it immutable. At any time a 51% attack can undo EVERYTHING that ever happened on the Bitcoin blockchain, ditto any other PoW coin. This kind of existential crisis will always lurk in the background threatening to destroy the credibility of Bitcoin and all those that follow in its footsteps.

  3. Hello everyone, GAHI will be publishing an evidence review in early 2019 conducted by the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI which looks at the internal evidence base from evaluations, project reports etc and interviews with 35 practitioners to understand the state of evidence of humanitarian uses of blockchain. Based on that, GAHI will also publish a short policy brief proposing some next steps for the field. I’ll circle back with the link when it’s out!

    1. Thanks so much for this heads-up, Laura! I’m looking forward to learning from their work – glad they were able to get purchase with practitioners!

  4. I would also be interested in seeing the report. My colleagues and I wrote a report in 2016 called Bitcoin, Blockchain and Distributed Ledgers: Caught between Promise and Reality which asked some of these questions. I have also been doing work in PNG and found that blockchain ideology, ie blockchain is a solution to every question, had infiltrated the policy domain. At the APEC SME Forum where I spoke on Affordable Internet Infrastructure, I did call out that in a country with limited access to electricity, only 11% of people with access to the internet, very high data costs, low digital literacy, blockchain would be very low on the agenda and it would be social / policy decisions that made the biggest difference rather than choice of database (channeling Kranzberg’s 4th Law). Keep up the research.

    1. Thanks for this comment, Pete! I’d love to read your report – is it shareable?

      You bring up an excellent point about how MERL professionals interact with *any* technology or novel design solution: what is its value? Is that value unique, or somehow more contextually appropriate than existing technologies or solutions?

  5. We have established that everyone wants to read the report. Myself included.

  6. Hi all, I communicated with the authors and they’ve told me that the blog post above IS the report — which makes sense since they weren’t able to find examples of good practices and learning to write about, which was their goal in embarking on the research.

    I assume that what people are most interested in is accessing a list of the 43 use cases, but I don’t believe the purpose of the report was to “name and shame” and I don’t wish to get into anything like that here on this blog.

    I also want to note that the “Futurism” article and its headline (“Out of 43 Start Ups, 0 Have Delivered Products” – do not accurately reflect the point of the post.

    “A use case” is different than “a start up.” The report was not counting “products delivered,” or even whether something was financially successful or technically functional.

    Rather, in the “MERL Tech” space we are generally looking for evidence and impact that a technology or technology-enabled approach is making a difference in the lives of people. We are looking at the social impacts of tech (positive and negative), usually with a focus on vulnerable people and groups and the organizations that work with them.

    I think the point of the post is clear as written above. Please do re-read and ask for clarification if not!

    Some people working with blockchain in the humanitarian and development sectors have been in touch and have offered to write up some of their learning / good practices with blockchain to post here on the blog, so please stay tuned and I will post those as they come in!

  7. My name is John Burg, I am one of the co-authors of this blog, and would like to address some of the questions raised in the resultant comments section with the following six comments/responses:

    1. The purpose of this blog was to present one of many possible ways that development practitioners might move forward with designing pilots in light of the knowledge gap where data and evidence was not easily identifiable. It was not to generate an academic-level deep-dive.

    2. The purpose of this blog was NOT to address the use of blockchain, or any DLT, for digital crypto-currency or even financial applications, nor was it to disparage, debunk, or dispel ANYTHING. We were, and remain, technology neutral. If anything, we would say that more testing is warranted, but would advocate that the results of those tests be publicly and fully available.

    3. There is no report. The only product that resulted from our research process is this blog, as Linda Raftree correctly pointed out.

    4. There were no sponsors of our work. It was work we collaboratively undertook in our personal time as dedicated professionals with a passion to contribute to the literature and body of evidence in our profession with the goal of furthering an important discussion about evidence-based action. The work of MERL Tech and this space online it sponsors is the perfect place for pursuing these types of goals.

    5. A “use-case” is very different from a “case-study”, the former being more conceptual and the latter requiring significant data for research purposes.

    6. Regarding sharing the list of the 43 use cases, Linda was also correct that the purpose of the this blog was not to “name and shame” and doing so risks distracting from the work we felt has achieved its goal, to motivate conversation around these issues. However, we also recognize that a more academic deep-dive is warranted and so we, the blogs authors, are discussing what that would look like and that this future academic deep-dive is where that information would be presented — in a bibliography footnoted to include any responses that those companies or organizations might want to share.

    In closing, I hope this post adequately addresses issues raised in this comment section. Now, we need to pivot to examine if and how we can realistically add similar comments to the rapidly growing list of online sites that have incorrectly referenced the purpose and output of our work. Thanks so everyone!

  8. Dear John, the content of this blog post is extremely interesting, thanks. I think that the post is incomplete and as a reader I end the reading with many doubts on your work. I would greatly appreciate if you and your co-authors complete the blog, either as a second post or as a report. Here the doubt that I have at the end of the reading.
    How the 43 projects have been selected?
    Are the projects selected from a particular sector/application or geographical area?
    Without naming the projects I do not have information that support all the writing, which is really a pitty.
    If you tried to contact the authors of the project and you had no answer, what the problem in mentioning them? Today we are not scarce in term of communication channels, if they want to reply they will find the mean.
    Please complete your work!

    1. Hi Guido,
      Thanks for your interest and your comments. As authors we struggled with what to include and not include in a short blog post, and originally envisioned more than one blog to adequately address all the salient issues, as you rightly pick up on. However, the depth and breadth of this blog being misquoted may force the need for an alternate approach, possibly something more academic. But, as stated earlier, this was a side project for us, and so managing professional obligations and personal obligations, may result in a significant delay before we can return to fully digesting all of the good (and sometimes not so good) feedback and input. This is of course to say nothing of triaging reaction to the widely misquoted coverage across digital media.

      Fortunately some organizations have reached out directly offering evidence and lessons learned, so these important aspects will also need to be factored into whatever comes next. So, thank you in advance for your patience as we slowly sort out what the best next steps could/should look like.

    1. From a purely observational perspective, this is 100% true. Most of these early applications are not well designed pilots with the developmental or formative evaluation approaches that they need. In short, we are too dependent on tech to drive outcomes and forget about homo sapiens. However, we desperately need informed adaptive management for these early applications and that can only result from very well informed MEL frameworks that 1.) have a deep understanding of the technology and the eco system around it, 2.) a deep knowledge of what type of MEL the adaptive management framework needs. I think this article helps in a very, very general sense which is good BUT this “study” has no shared design document that speaks to selection criteria for the cases, etc. Hence I think that MEL professionals, of which I strive to be one, can not expect better rigor from practicioners when we ourselves rarely understand the interventions we are assessing (especially innovations like blockchain). Overall I expect a lot of MEL professionals to throw old water on innovations like this (partly because that is really a big part of the MEL culture) because of lack of “evidence” which mis-understands the maturity model for innovation.

  9. Hi John,

    Thanks for this, very interesting ! One quick question:

    I researched WFP’s project extensively and my impression is that there were indeed savings with regards to transaction costs. Gerard’s concern (which you linked) seems to be the fact that there is a single node on their private blockchain – but WFP’s aim seems to be to eventually have multiple agencies on the platform. By adding more nodes to the blockchain, the entire system would be more decentralised and more secure. Eg if one agency’s systems go down, the presence of other nodes on the blockchain would ensure the system continues to work. The platform could hypothetically also be used in the future for more ambitious projects (digital identities etc).

    Were you able to review these types of potential benefits? I imagine that because they’re all conditional on more agencies joining the chain, they’re not realisable yet – but as such is it fair to assess the project at this stage?

    Many thanks,

    1. Hi Seb, and thanks for your comment. Please bear in mind that my colleagues and I were not looking at potential benefits, which has been done extensively. We were looking for evidence backed up by data – the key here being access to primary source data.

      Speaking only for myself here, I take your point and agree. I am quite impressed by WFP’s pilot (which they wisely piloted in a sort of sandbox rather than at scale) and recently had the opportunity to speak in person with one of the team members at the Second Humanitarian Blockchain Summit at Fordham University, on December 7th, 2018, where as a presenter at the conference, he was quite forthcoming about the work they still need to do if they’re going to scale up their application of blockchain.

      While some online coverage of this blog frames me as an “erstwhile” supporter of blockchain, I actually remain optimistic about the potential of distributed ledger technology, including its variants (such as IOTA’s tangles), for data management purposes. However, the world needs critics like David Gerard, and others, to question claims not backed up by evidence and data. And, this is especially true of DLT applications in the international development space where transparency is an elusive but vital principle regardless of technology.

      I know this seems dichotomous, but I sincerely hope that decision-makers continue to make risky investments in innovative ideas as much as I sincerely hope that cynics and critics continue to demand evidence based on transparent data. When these two elemental forces co-exist to balance each other out, rather than cancel each other out, a virtuous cycle of motivated innovation can create new and enduring solutions to old and persistent problems.

      1. Thanks John – completely agree. Nice to see some debunking of a lot of outrageous claims out there, and critiques like David’s a certainly both reasonable and necessary for healthy discussions!

    2. I think the more interesting question is: why has everyone WFP has approached to join their blockchain said “no”?

      that is – before claiming the potential as of present-day importance (giving a “could” credit as an “is”), look at why it has actively failed to be realised.

      1. Hi David,

        I don’t personally know if that’s the case, but UN Women are partnering with them now I think? Agree that potential benefits not the same as realised benefits, but that kind of ambitious project does take time, so I’m willing to wait before dismissing Building Blocks.


  10. To serve the people who want the details, there’s no need to “name and shame”, nobody needs company person or project names. Just publish a list of the use-cases, i.e. what it should be used for, what had been promised, what was the result (pros & cons), what would be the (better) alternative.

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