Project “I AM” introduces us to the next wave of development, bringing blockchain to the world’s “forgotten people” – refugees. Project “I AM” approaches refugees not as people in need but as development partners, organizing skill training to empower them to be able to do digital nomad jobs, get paid in cryptocurrencies, and create digital IDs.

This article contains excerpts from a discussion with The Development CAFE team, implementing the project “I AM” – an innovative project using blockchain technology for addressing the refugee crisis. They can be directly reached for queries or partnership at ict4d@dev-cafe.org

What is “The Development Cafe”?

The Development CAFÉ Is a non-profit organization registered in Indonesia as a Yayasan and in Kenya as an NGO. It has been operational since 2001. Its not a typical 9 to 5 organization, rather a platform to connect development professionals, life changers, researchers and social scientists. It acts as a bridge between often simple solutions with needs and grassroots with policy. Through our platforms we have a network of 8000 professionals from nearly 143 countries. We regularly organize “Digital Tools for Development” workshops which builds awareness on use of latest technology for the human development sector, around the world. We primarily work in the areas of Health, Agriculture, ICT4D, Urban Development, particularly in reducing vulnerabilities and building safety nets and coping strategies by building and developing skills. We are self funded, so we work on a small scale but high impact projects and are usually low profile in the global development scene.

What is the ‘I AM’ project?

Project ‘I AM’ is a Research 4 Development project that aims to test the feasibility of using Blockchain Technology to empower refugee groups. Starting with a gap assessment with refugee groups and asylum seekers in Indonesia, and eventually organizing skill training to empower them to be able to do digital nomad jobs, and perhaps help them get paid in cryptocurrencies or alternate banking systems, and create digital ids.

On two levels it’s beneficial because providing a job is the most important intervention for any human being and it empowers a person on so many levels, economically and mentally as well. Secondly, when the refugees groups eventually get to their country of final destination, they have some thing to start their lives with. We also want to see if it can reduce the burden on transition countries in caring for refugees and perhaps start a fresh debate on handling refugee situations.

Indonesia, has close to 18000 refugees and asylum seekers (UNHCR data) and HE President Jokowi has expressed his support to care for the refugees, which is a welcome sign, given that Indonesia is not a signatory of any international accords for refugees, but is a receiving/transitioning country. So, this research study is ideal to be conducted in Indonesia, to test the feasibility of testing the blockchain technology and its impact on the refugee dynamics.

What was the inspiration for the I AM project?

DevCAFE model of operations is ‘Development’ Not ‘Charity’, ‘Real Good’ not just ‘Feel Good’ and we operate through three pillars: Research 4 Development, Innovation, and Capacity Building.

Most often these three pillars are interlinked. We have always harnessed the power of technology, be it ICTs, Agriculture or any forms of technology for the greater good. Its often forgotten that technology is here to serve humanity and not the other way around. The I AM project was envisioned by our Founder, Valentine J Gandhi, who has worked a lot on Migration and Refugee and Poverty and Vulnerability issues around the world and he does not view, the farmers or refugees or asylum seekers as ‘people in need’ but rather as development partners who often only require small interventions or solutions to enable them to improve their lives and livelihoods on their own. That’s why ‘I AM’ project was conceived at a crucial stage in the world, where refugee situation is escalating and with the advancement of technology, it can be harnessed to improve the way this crisis is handled. Its called ‘I AM’ because the fact there is someone present in front of you as a person is reason enough to ensure they have a free life and equal rights and respect  and love, and a right to improve their lives, without the labels and jargons used to describe them.

What stage is the I AM project at?

Now we are in the research/gap assessment stage. We have reached out to the legal bodies and UN systems within Indonesia to ensure we are will within the laws of Indonesia regarding refugees as well as research ethics, and the study will begin immediately after that, which we expect is soon.  Once the gap assessment is complete we will analyse the data and prepare for skills training and possibly link with digital nomad websites and companies.

Who is working with you?

We have strong mentorship from Dr Jane Thomason, who is an influential voice for Blockchains for Development. She has been instrumental in connecting us with the right partners, who have the best interest of the refugees at mind more than commercial interests. We are firm believers that smart businessmen who continue to make profit are those who impact human lives, so we are in touch with people who do good while making a profit, particularly from the blockchain industry. We also work directly with 3 refugee learning centres in Jakarta, Roshan, HELP and Sunrise.

How will the world be different because of I AM?

If our small project is successful we can demonstrate that refugees are people like us, who had to flee their homes for various reasons, and it does not make them ‘not exist’ or any less than any of us. Helping them with jobs and skills, we are helping ourselves, the host governments, and so many other stakeholders.

Its hard for us to imagine, that we all belong to an island called earth and that, despite people talking of going to Mars, we have only one home, and within our home we have people who are homeless, this is not right at all. As President Lincoln said, “a house divided , shall  not prosper” and while we may look different or come from different cultures, and lands, we still belong to our home Earth, so people in crisis are our brothers and sisters and its our moral responsibility to do something about it. This project in small ways is trying to empower the forgotten people, so they are able to build back their lives.

What are your next steps?

We are inviting technology partners. If you’ve ever talked about how Blockchains can help people in need, or the innovative ways in which their solutions can solve the world’s problems, well, here is a real life project involving a very real and global problem. If you wish to partner with us, write to ict4d@dev-cafe.org . It’s a great way to test if your technology is capable of solving real life issues.

What are your tips for other people starting out?

Starting out in the development sector is not easy, particularly if you are seriously considering making a difference in people’s lives. It not a job it’s a ‘Calling’.

Often, we do research, or evaluation or policy recommendations and people who ‘benefit’ from it or ‘impacted’ from it hardly will even know our names. So, its not a field for people who need constant attention or name and fame, but it requires a different level of maturity and magnanimity.

But once you have discovered it, the experience is just worth it.  There are so many fields to choose from, and using tech for good is a great field. Real development work transforms us daily, humbles us and creates a spark and a fire, that cannot be put out, unless we do something about the social issues that surround us. Its worth it and its beyond a 8 to 5 job.