By The Librarian
United Nations secretary-general António Guterres says the intergovernmental giant needs to embrace blockchain. In a statement provided to Forbes by the secretary-general’s office, Guterres touted the technology first made popular by bitcoin as a crucial component of the organization that generate’s $50 billion in revenue annually.
Coming at a time when the president of China has touted blockchain as a national priority, and the $6 billion United Nations Children’s Fund has started accepting bitcoin and ethereum donations for some of its projects, the statement from Guterres shows that cryptocurrency and the underlying blockchain technology is being seriously explored at the highest levels of the largest organizations in the world.
While China seems largely focused on using blockchain as a way to prevent money laundering and better track its citizens’ transactions, the United Nations work has been more focused on giving donors increased assurance their donations are being spent how they wish, while reducing waste in the organization’s giant supply chain.
“For the United Nations to deliver better on our mandate in the digital age, we need to embrace technologies like blockchain that can help accelerate the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals,” said Guterres in the statement provided exclusively to Forbes.
In October Guterres presented a United Nations budget to the national committee for the first time in 45 years. Among the $2.87 billion set aside for 2020, was an additional $3.3 million, about 10 percent increase over last year, for the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and other technical projects that required inter-agency cooperation.
This isn’t the first time Guterres prominently mentioned blockchain. In September 2018, he gave a speech in English, Spanish and French on the global lack of trust, or what he called a “trust deficit disorder,” that could in part be solved by blockchain, with support from artificial intelligence and other technologies to help shine a light on the inner operations of global organizations.
In that speech, given at the United Nations general assembly in New York, Guterres warned about the potential misuse of “near anonymous cryptocurrency payments,” even as he touted the potential of blockchain to achieve the SDGs. First set in 2015, the 17 SDGs, including ending poverty and responsibly producing and consuming goods, are expected to be completed in the 2030s.
There are five blockchain projects in the United Nations Innovation Network set up to facilitate inter-agency cooperation. For example, the United Nations International Telecommunications Union and Food and Agriculture Organization have partnered to track pig supply chains in Papua New Guinea; the United Nations Capital Development Fund is exploring blockchain for remittances in Nepal; and the United Nations Development Programme is using blockchain to track the cocoa supply chain in Ecuador, according to the site.
In October 2019, Unicef received its first bitcoin and ethereum donations from the Ethereum Foundation, with the expressed purpose of using the cryptocurrency to fund international startups using blockchain to solve problems that support United Nations initiatives. At launch, Unicef USA, Unicef France, Unicef Australia, and Unicef New Zealand had joined the project, which is now being explored by other national offices.
The difficulty for an organization the size of the UN to accept cryptocurrency and build other applications with blockchain cannot be overstated. It took years for Unicef to get sign off from dozens of internal stakeholders just to accept cryptocurrency donations, all for the potential benefit that anyone anywhere in the world could give or receive the same asset.
Other blockchain applications, which promise to reduce waste and redundancy between the UN’s occasionally competing agencies, and give donors increased trust that the funds they donated were appropriately spent, could take even longer to build. Research firm Gartner predicts that 90% of blockchain projects will fail in the next three years.
While secretary-general Guterres doesn’t have direct contact with the UN’s blockchain projects, he is in a way behind all of them. In September 2018, the former prime minister of Portugal and chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Economy, Finance and Planning, published a 20-page strategic plan for using technology to accomplish the sustainable development goals, in which he explicitly called for further support of the Innovation Network’s use of blockchain and artificial intelligence.
In the plan, called the “UN Secretary General’s Strategy on New Technologies,” Guterres placed the responsibility for the coordination and implementation of the plan within his own executive office, with the support of a new technology reference group, initiating quarterly meetings to provide him updates on the progress. “As we learn what is working and what is not,” he wrote. “we will revisit the strategy and update it, ensuring its relevance to support a culture of innovation, and that our global efforts are benefiting from experiences at the country and regional levels.”