What potential role could frontier technologies, like blockchain, play in alleviating global poverty? MSc International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies student, Emma Smith, introduces us to Ethereum and it’s potential in the International Development.

Take a moment to think about the biggest development and humanitarian challenges of our day. Then think about the tools being used to tackle them. If you’ve been to the field, you’ve probably used a “dumb phone”. You’ve certainly been to a very slow Internet café. And you remember that low wattage solar panel energy that was so scarce and coveted.

Meanwhile, the latest and best technologies are often solving problems like recommending a new luxury vacation or providing on-demand laundry service. It is time that we look to these frontiers of technological advancement to solve the most consequential of human problems – like hunger, disease, and poverty. This could be done using artificial intelligence. Drones. Augmented reality.

While many technologies demonstrate potential in the humanitarian arena, one in particular stands out: Ethereum and the blockchain. Ethereum provides a decentralized platform that runs smart contracts for various applications. For reasons this article will explore, it is a shining example of how the newest innovations can and should be used to solve humanity’s greatest challenges.

What is Ethereum?

To explain Ethereum, it is important to first define a few terms. Namely, blockchain. Blockchain is a constantly growing list of digital records, or blocks, which are cryptographically secured, linked, and authorized. Once in the record, each block cannot be easily altered. This serves to create a secure and decentralized consensus through an open and distributed ledger. Blockchain is an important innovation because it enables secure, verified, and audited online transactions. It also provides an alternative to slower, less secure, third party based, and more expensive traditional value-exchange protocols. Here is a step-by-step guide to blockchain if you want to learn more. In recent weeks especially, you may also have heard of Bitcoin, the world’s most famous cryptocurrency. All of Bitcoin’s peer-to-peer transactions are recorded on the blockchain.

While Bitcoin is far and away the most well-known, blockchain technology actually has many other applications. In fact, there are thousands. And this is where Ethereum comes in. Until recently, it was very challenging to build applications on the blockchain. It required a significant amount of time and work as it involved not only writing the application itself, but also writing the node software, involving miners, and building a network protocol. Ethereum changes this. It is an open software platform that provides developers with the tools needed to more easily build decentralized applications on the blockchain. Essentially, what Ethereum has done is open up the world to the possibility of new blockchain applications.

Ethereum in International Development

Applications created on Ethereum could have a big impact on development. Not just because of what that these applications can do. But also because of the very way they can do them.

Examples of Ethereum projects that work for the greater good include:

  • A crowd-sourced medicine application that helps make breakthroughs in pharmaceuticals and medical devices more quickly, affordably, and with the best minds collaborating. Imagine what this could’ve meant during the Ebola outbreak of 2014.
  • A video-sharing platform that allows built-in mapping and location verification to ensure the accuracy of recorded videos. Think of the impacts of this to ensure accountability and transparency, to monitor human rights, to protect journalism, to inform search and rescue efforts, and more.
  • An application for rebuilding governance that enables the user to build fully reliable and transparent democratic structures. Ponder what this could mean for rule of law and electoral processes.
  • An application for water rights that utilizes smart contracts to convert water rights into digital contracts. This is huge as water rights are otherwise completely illiquid. There’s also a similar application for land titles.
  • An application for lending that enables loans that are more transparent, democratic, and guarantee fair interest rates. Envision how this could benefit microlending programs around the world.

These are only some of the many applications that could have significant implications for development. And these are just on Ethereum. It is worth noting the ways that Bitcoin and blockchain also can contribute to international development.

These applications are unlocking exciting new capabilities – and doing so in exciting ways. They are using open source in a way that make them accessible by the more than half of the world’s population that has Internet connectivity. They remove the middlemen and run exactly as programmed, which means there is virtually no possibility of censorship, corruption, fraud, or third party interference – which are usually significant obstacles in international development.

Yet, it’s not all sunshine and blue sky. Ethereum applications in development face various obstacles. A big one is the adoption of Ethereum itself, which could be made difficult by low connectivity in the field, acquiring the technical skills necessary to understand the platform, or cultural acceptance. There is a question of how the transition from traditional systems to Ethereum applications would take place and who would facilitate them. Like any new tool in development, bringing forth Ethereum would require a consideration of these obstacles, as well as the social, political, economic, and environmental contexts they exist in.

What’s next?

We live in an amazing time of great, rapid, and unprecedented technological change. We also live in a time where humanitarian and development challenges are more complex than ever before. The rise of new issues like violent extremism and intensifying natural disasters calls for new solutions. We need blockchain innovations to provide solutions for the most vulnerable. We need predictive analytics to mitigate the effects of otherwise unforeseen events. We need robotics to build capacity when human hands are not enough.

Most importantly, this revolutionary era needs you. In the end, human vision and creativity is what it will take to bring these technologies to the problems that require them most. Human pioneers are needed to imagine the gaps that technology can fill, to facilitate partnerships between governments and the private sector, and to build the bridges between technology and local interests. For real results to emerge, forces of development professionals will have to unite to systematically learn and adopt the latest technological tools. I invite you to join the ranks.


Emma Smith (@emmyagsmith) is an MSc Candidate at LSE in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies. She completed her BA at Duke University in International Comparative Studies, Arabic Literature, and Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Her research interests are in technology, private sector, and behavioural insights for crisis preparedness and response.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.