Dee Keilholz

Master of Global Affairs (MGA) alumnus Zachary Skeith had only a basic knowledge of blockchain technology when he started working at Three Lefts, a research and development startup. Regardless, he strongly believed that technology should be leveraged for more than just profit.

The more he learned about blockchain – a digital ledger in which transactions of value are recorded – the more he realized the enormous potential of this technology for social good. What he previously only understood as the system behind Bitcoin, the world’s most famous cryptocurrency, he came to look at as a potential tool to alleviate hunger, settle land claims or ensure that humanitarian aid reaches people in need.

“I spent most of my childhood moving around different continents. I was very lucky to see a lot of the world but it also made me very aware of the many global challenges we’re facing,” Skeith says. “It’s really exciting to me to see the immense potential of blockchain to change entrenched power structures.”

In basic terms, blockchains are digital logs of information that are stored across a network of personal computers. Blockchains use cryptography to make sure that individual records can’t be altered or counterfeited. The decentralized nature of blockchains ensures that no one person or institution can control the system, yet everyone can use it.

While blockchain technology is mostly being used in the private sector for now, blockchain-based initiatives that focus on humanitarian aid have started to take root in the nonprofit sector.

Vanessa Ko, a current MGA student, started researching the potential of blockchains for humanitarian organizations last year during an internship with the United Nations. In October 2017, she published a white paper outlining how blockchains can help streamline aid projects.

“One potential use could be to track the supply chain of aid items. With the help of the blockchain, you could trace exactly where aid comes from and where it goes. That could be a huge help in coordinating between different agencies and keeping everyone accountable.”

Because anything of value can be stored in the blockchain, the applications are endless, says Ko.

UN Women, for example, held a 36-hour long blockchain hackathon, which, among other innovations, resulted in an app that helps female business owners around the globe make secure financial transactions. The World Food Program (WFP) is another example of blockchain’s potential in global development: in 2017, WFP used blockchain technology to distribute more than $1 million in aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Three Lefts has also taken steps to leverage blockchain technology to empower people. The company is exploring a blockchain-based foundation that would give marginalized communities access to first stage business funding. Instead of a board of directors controlling how funding is allocated, this project will leverage the decentralized nature of blockchain to allow every member to vote for business ideas and collectively decide how funds are distributed, Skeith says. Another one of Three Left’s projects is aimed at helping Indigenous groups secure and control their intellectual property. A third project focuses on combating forced labour in supply chains.

Like any disruptive technology though, blockchains present challenges in terms of ethics and governance – problems that Skeith works to address before they arise. Part of his job at Three Lefts is to spark conversations with clients, colleagues and industry regulators about what an “ethical future” of blockchain might look like. What sets him up for success in his role are the skills he was able to hone as an MGA student, he says – namely lateral thinking and the ability to facilitate between people from various backgrounds.

“Because of my global affairs background, my focus is the political and social impact of technological innovation,” says Skeith. “Whereas most people in the tech space think they need to scale up first and governance will come later, I believe the opposite is true. We need to think about social capital first.”

Reports about the consequences of companies scaling up without building governance and ethical guidelines into their products have become a common occurrence. Facebook, for example, has recently come under fire in the media for spreading fake news, allowing companies to exclude older workers through age-targeting, and letting advertisers racially discriminate in housing ads.

“I think we’re at a point where we need to define how we want this technology to work. If we treat the blockchain like we’ve treated most technologies from the early nineties, then the blockchain is going to become just another status quo tool,” says Skeith. “And that would be a shame because it has the potential to fundamentally improve our society.”

February 28, 2018