September was a hard month for Mexico, which was rocked by two major earthquakes, notably the 7.1 magnitude quake that hit Mexico City and left almost 300 people dead. While both local and international aid organizations rushed to help, Bitso – Mexico´s cryptocurrency exchange market – was right in the heart of it, collecting Bitcoin, Ethereum and Ripple donations for victims.
Only one week after launching their donation campaign, Bitso collected the equivalent of $1,223,688 MXN (approximately $69,000 USD) through Bitcoin, Ethereum and Ripple donations, and promised to match 50% of the amount raised. They then divided the donations between the Mexican Red Cross and the local earthquake rescue team, Brigada de Rescate Topos Tlatelolco. The campaign isn’t over, however, as Bitso continues to raise funds for the re-construction phase.
But using cryptocurrencies to raise money isn’t just a fancy gimmick. According to Bitso´s Marketing Manager Ernesto Contreras, collecting cryptocurrency donations has some very important advantages over traditional currency: it´s faster, there are no transfer fees, and it´s totally transparent.
“It literally globalizes the possibility of getting help, and democratizes the possibility of helping,” said Contreras from the Bitso office in Mexico City. “It´s not only people who have a lot of money in the bank and can afford to pay a bank transfer of $15-20 [who are donating], but people can also help with less than a dollar,” he said, explaining that the lack of bank fees make these smaller donations worthwhile for small donors.
Bitso attracted all kinds of donations from people all over the world, ranging from the equivalent of 4 MXN to 100,000 MXN per person, said Contreras.
But transparency is another major benefit of cryptocurrency donations, since they operate on the blockchain distributed ledger that tracks the coin movement.
“One of the principal fears that people have when they’re making a donation is, how much money does the organization actually get? And what do they use it for?” said Contreras, adding that blockchain´s transparency is “one of the most powerful and beautiful parts of this technology,” he said.
Bitso is currently looking towards partnering with more local organizations for the rebuilding stage, not large NGOs like the Red Cross where full transparency is lost once the money reaches the organization. More local groups have the ability to get to the more forgotten affected regions, and get to know victims on a more personal level, making it easier to track your donation from the time it leaves your digital wallet to the particular family it´s going to, Contreras explained.
This isn’t the first time humanitarian aid workers are pairing with the Blockchain technology to find faster and more efficient ways to deliver aid. One of the biggest projects to date is a program by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) that is using the Ethereum blockchain to bring food to Syrians in refugee camps in Jordan. The platform was built by Parity Technologies, a startup lead by Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood, and Datarell, a blockchain big data firm.
Jordan is currently the second largest refugee host country in the world, with over 727,000 registered refugees, while over 655,000 people are from Syria. They often enter the country with nothing, including ID papers that would allow them to apply for jobs, putting a major strain on the local economy. Under the WPF pilot project known as ´Building Blocks,´ refugees can buy food at certain select locations with their WFP donations, which are recorded on a blockchain-based computing system. This makes the cash-based transfers “cheaper, more secure and faster,” said Parity Technologies Representative Fabian Gompf, since you eliminate third party intermediaries, such as banks.
“You basically cut out these middle men, and you have a block chain system where the WFP is on a platform [connected directly] with the refugees, and local food stores,” said Gompf.
But since it couldn’t be assumed that all refugees have a smartphone in order to make purchases with this digital currency, refugees actually pay using their registered biometric data – in this case through eye scans.
“This is very high tech,” said Gompf, “But often the answer to, lets say, a not very technology-wise advanced environment is using technology yourself to overcome these hurdles.”
So far the project is still in a pilot phase, but it is providing aid for up to 10,000 Syrians in the Azraq refugee camp.
The blockchain technology is gaining a lot of momentum in the realm of humanitarian aid, said Gompf, where there is a lot of potential for growth. Financial solutions, such as donations and payment schemes, are obvious places to start, he said, but once you build that core infrastructure you can put any kind of application on top of it. This, as well as other peer-to-peer and mobile technologies, have the capacity to restructure the way humanitarian aid is delivered, and transform the lives of people in need.