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Blockchain for Diplomacy and Development: Hype or Ripe?

By: Thomas Debass, Acting Special Representative for Global Partnerships at the U.S. Department of State

Here we are — nearly 300 people from across sectors gathered together to discuss the latest technology predicted to revolutionize our society. Is the year 1993? Are we discussing the deployment of the internet? The remarks, panels, breakout groups, and conversations throughout the day certainly sound like it, but no, the internet has already proven to change our capabilities, operations, and interactions since its inception. Now flash forward nearly a quarter of a century and we are talking about the next big disruptor: blockchain technology.

Participants from across sectors settle in at the Department of State for a day-long forum exploring blockchain. (U.S. Department of State)

According to Don and Alex Tapscott, authors of Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business, and the World, “The blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value.” Blockchain is, essentially, a digital ledger of transactions that is shared among many networks, instead of just one provider, and promises to transform how we exchange value and assets and share data.

The most striking element of the Tapscotts’ statement is blockchain’s ability to record “virtually everything of value.” Here at the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Partnerships, blockchain’s potential signals that we should learn how we might deploy it to achieve our development, diplomacy, and national security objectives. We believe we can best do this by working with private sector entities and civil society, learning from each other, and leveraging what we each bring to the table.

Participants learn more about current blockchain use cases during a morning “marketplace” in the George C. Marshall Conference Center at the Department of State. (U.S. Department of State)

To better understand blockchain and the host of applications under the banner of “distributed ledger technology,” spark dialogue about its shared value, and initiate potential future partnerships, we convened the Blockchain@State Forum at the Department of State in early October.

Deputy Secretary Sullivan gives opening remarks at the Blockchain @ State forum at the Department of State. (U.S. Department of State)

Deputy Secretary John J. Sullivan started off the morning with opening remarks, expressing blockchain’s potential to expand its footprint “in trade, business, healthcare management, and finance, and we hope at the State Department as well.” Deputy Secretary Sullivan spoke about how blockchain could help State and our interagency partners to streamline government functions more effectively, including increasing transparency, maximizing the impact and accountability of foreign assistance, and improving IT platforms. He also emphasized the importance of public-private collaboration and leveraging the unique knowledge and resources of each agency, organization, and company present at the Forum, encouraging participants to continue to galvanize conversation in order to reach the day when blockchain technology may become as commonplace as the internet.

We heard from a variety of individuals, organizations, and companies exploring current and potential blockchain use cases — including Don Tapscott himself and U.S. Congressman David S. Schweikert, who serves as the Congressional Blockchain Caucus co-chair — which inspired us here at the Department of State to think about how we might utilize blockchain in the future.

Don Tapscott explains blockchain and its potential to revolutionize asset transactions. (U.S. Department of State)

In particular, after Ashish Gadnis from BanQu, Inc spoke about how the decentralization offered by blockchain can empower vulnerable populations to own their own data and assets, I was inspired to think how this could provide verifiable identities for smallholder farmers, women, refugees, and other often marginalized communities, facilitating their financial inclusion in today’s economy. The Bitfury Group’s work in land titling in Georgia and e-governance in Ukraine also led me to think how the adoption of blockchain in government services can promote anti-corruption, transparency, and greater efficiency of resources. Such ideas unleash myriad possibilities and questions in the development and diplomacy space. For example, could the supply chain transparency provided by blockchain help prevent workers’ rights abuses, including labor trafficking, or improve our ability to provide more efficient relief — at home or abroad — in the case of natural disasters or national emergencies? Could we improve efficiency and prevent corruption in the delivery of foreign aid if we were able to track it down to the individual who is receiving every dollar?

Ashish Gadnis from BanQu, Inc presents blockchain’s ability to empower marginalized communities. (U.S. Department of State)

The potential benefits of blockchain are many: assisting the world’s most vulnerable populations, transforming foreign aid and trade, promoting government efficiency and transparency, countering corruption, enhancing cybersecurity, and more. However, it is also important to examine the potential drawbacks that come with the technology. We are confident that the conversation around blockchain only progresses collectively, and I’m looking forward to continuing to explore potential avenues for blockchain’s use and how it might change how we engage in our diplomacy and development goals. The forum was just one of many instances where we’ve opened the door and said, “Welcome to the conversation. We want to hear from you; we want to learn from you; and ultimately we want to explore this new ‘disruptor’ together in partnership, because if it has the power to revolutionize government, business, and other sectors, then we want to be a part of this.”

Flash forward to 2030 — has blockchain lived up to the hype of revolutionizing our lives in the same way the Internet has? Time (and continued exploration and collaboration) will tell.

For recorded livestream sessions of the Blockchain @ State Forum, visit: www.facebook.com/gpatstate

Join the conversation on Twitter: #BlockchainatState and #GeeksandWonks


Editor’s Note: This entry originally appeared on DipNote, the U.S. Department of State’s official blog.