Editor’s Note: Lorelei Kelly is Research Fellow and Smart Congress policy lead with the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation. She is based at The X-Lab. Matthew McKibbin, is a bitcoin enthusiast and industrial hygiene specialist at George Washington University.
News junkies of the world may be forgiven for becoming the latest tech skeptics: 2014 has been a year of global mayhem.
Instead of creating a connected civic safety net, it seems like tech platforms simply amplified messages and images from ungovernable parts of the world. Boko Haram kidnapped girls in Nigeria, and we fought back with mostly futile hashtags. ISIS broadcast its brutality with regular video updates. Russian leader Vladimir Putin perfected networked information warfare in Crimea. Online drug lords distributed their contraband, tarnishing the image of bitcoin — the first global peer-to-peer financial system.
In the midst of these discouraging activities, however, a number of social-platform successes have occurred that garnered less attention, such as the “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong or Kenya’s Election Hub. Similarly, dissidents in Iran have been using cryptographic platforms to communicate with each other for years.
As the information revolution continues to redistribute power from centralized hierarchies to individuals and communities, the impact of this redistribution is often unpredictable, with local public institutions often either non-existent or otherwise unable to adapt, compete or function effectively enough to prevent violence. The Iraqi government and Mexico’s inept law enforcement come to mind.
Yet, there is a reason to take heart. Despite fear and life-threatening circumstances, individuals continue to create civil society in the midst of destruction. Doctors in Aleppo, Syria, have moved their hospitals underground to escape targeting and continue to serve patients. Syrian women negotiate humanitarian access to ceasefires. An island of relative peace, the Kurdistan region of Iraq has accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees.
For those of us who want to see new technologies used to expand free association and improve the human condition, it’s time to step back and assess: How do we make the next decade one of technological development that builds more resilient communities from the bottom up? How might we route around bureaucratic dysfunction? Finally, how can we best support individuals who navigate disruption successfully and then help them rebuild?
What many may not realize is that Bitcoin can help. In many ways it already is. The bitcoin ecosystem has already discovered ways to become a crucial part of the global humanitarian community that assists these efforts and fills the civic gap that occurs in the midst of ubiquitous threats like violent conflict, weather-related disasters and exported extremism and disease. This may be bitcoin’s most important role to date.
The current gap in global governance is an opportunity for blockchain technologies. While large institutions work to overcome their outdated practices, Bitcoin can build bridges between peers in a decentralized, iterative and accountable fashion. It can crowdsource action and match expertise to bring individuals together to create a more timely and effective response to crises.
These efforts are still in their infancy and there is much more work to do. There is enormous potential in the power of the blockchain technology to improve lives around the world if the response to these situations is addressed — and financed — collaboratively.
Humanitarian organizations that utilize the bitcoin network can make the Silk Road narrative a side show by demonstrating that humanitarianism is mission critical for successful long-term global finance. First, we bitcoin fans have to walk our talk. We need to model a vision of global civics, one that shows how the best results can be achieved when rights and responsibilities are decentralized, not the result of an onerous top-down power structure.
Bitcoin is an agile, safe and real-time financing tool for rapid response. These qualities make it ideal for assisting refugees whose lives are shattered and dislocated by war.
Organizations like TentEd are a great example of how this idea is being implemented. TentEd is a rapid impact project for refugee children in the Kurdistan region. Founded by three Iraq war veterans who volunteer their time, this project equips schools based on immediate and local needs assessments. It had a successful first run last summer and is set to return in December.
The Kurdistan region is home to hundreds of thousands of war-displaced Syrians and Iraqi religious minorities seeking refuge from the so-called “Islamic State.” Since 2012, nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced.
There are countless examples of people building resilience and you can help any of them achieve real world results with bitcoin donations. TentEd leverages relatively little money with huge social capital. Like a software development design sprint, the project is led with focused teamwork and builds continual feedback and relationships into the implementation. In June, the project served hundreds of refugee children by equipping them with transportation, books, uniforms, shoes, and other classroom essentials that will create a safe, stable learning environment.
Humanitarian organizations can make larger impacts utilizing the bitcoin model. TentEd shares many bitcoin characteristics: It is nonhierarchical, immediate, collaborative, peer-driven, transactionally transparent and accountable. Moreover, its success is based on trust and a record of commitment. In this way, the project models valuable information management rules for today’s world, where it is getting increasingly difficult to sort the signal from the noise.