Blockchain for Refugees

[09-06-2022 09:50 AM]

BY Margie Cheesman

In the east of Jordan near Saudi Arabia, Azraq refugee camp is surrounded by little other than miles of arid desert. Since 2014, the camp has been run by the Jordanian government in partnership with United Nations organizations, national and international NGOs, and a host of other agencies. There are close to 40,000 Azraq residents, people displaced by the Syrian civil war, and they can rarely leave the camp. Azraq is organized into four districts which are spread out sparsely, giving an air of scarcity and dereliction. One of those districts, Village 5, is a high security location where whole families may be sent for vetting by the Jordanian authorities. Like most big refugee camps, Azraq hosts basic humanitarian services (housing, healthcare, energy, water, food, cash, education) at a large scale, while also facilitating the permanent surveillance and economic and mobility control of refugees.

One morning in December 2019, I hitched a lift into Azraq with UN Gender (GEN), an organization that runs a cash-for-work scheme for women as part of their work supporting gender equality, advocacy, and women’s empowerment. Refugee women employed by GEN undertake jobs such as cleaning, weaving, embroidery, teaching, and childcare, for which they receive a small monthly salary (1–2 Jordanian Dinars per hour, roughly equivalent to £1–2). Most of the job contracts are for 3–6 months.

As part of my fieldwork in Azraq and Jordan’s other major refugee camp, Za’atari, between 2017–19, I was conducting ethnographic research in four women’s centers with women participating in the cash-for-work scheme. This included 40 in-depth focus group discussions with roughly 300 women in their workplaces. That morning, my collaborator Dina Batshoun and I sat with five seamstresses, all in their 30s or 40s. These women all worked on the sewing machines making sets of baby clothes, which were distributed to new mothers in the camp. They led the discussion, speaking effusively about their salaries from GEN. Leaning into the table and gesticulating to us, two women complained about the new salary payment system, which had been launched two months before: “We never know what each salary payment is for, we might think it’s for this month and it might be for the previous one,” Aya, one of the senior seamstresses, said. Her colleague Fatima added, “We wish there was clear information somewhere telling us how much we received based on how many days of work, and when we received it, and how much we withdrew and if there’s anything left.”

These refugee workers were the end-users of GEN’s innovative pilot project, which used blockchain technology, coupled with biometrics, to deliver cash salaries. They were critiquing the new system, which in 2019 began delivering their salaries to a digital wallet rather than as cash in hand at the women’s center. GEN’s blockchain-based digital wallets were designed to empower the women by enabling their greater financial independence, flexibility, security, and ability to save. Each month, refugee women workers now withdrew their salary — whenever they wanted and, in any amount — at the refugee camp supermarkets rather than from GEN staff.

Famously, blockchain is a type of database system underpinning cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Blockchains are decentralized digital infrastructures: they do not have a central point of control but instead distribute authority across a network of nodes. Each node maintains a continuously updated ledger. That ledger gives a transparent record of every transaction, which can be cryptocurrency-related and financial or otherwise (using, for example, identity records, votes, or medical information). Every node in the blockchain network shares the same consensus algorithm — a way of allowing transactions to be completed and information to be synced, even if those in the network do not trust each other. Blockchain is about automation: it’s advocates hope it will replace human intermediaries, institutions, and bureaucratic processes with trusted code and automated decision-making and resource allocation.

The adoption of blockchain reconfigured how GEN moved money around, and therefore how and when workers accessed their cash salaries. It reformulated the institutional arrangements workers dealt with and thus where and who they went to for payment problems and information (1). But no one explained the blockchain to these women workers: as a concept, GEN staff treated blockchain on a “need to know basis,” deeming the technical complexity inappropriate because of workers’ mixed literacy and numeracy skills and technical capacities. From the workers’ perspective, their wallet (maHfadda) was a kind of bank account; the camp supermarket was the equivalent of a bank. Since this was not a mobile money initiative, workers could not add money to the account, only withdraw it. When their eyes were scanned by the supermarket cashier using an EyePay machine (manufactured and managed by the company IrisGuard), the biometric check authenticated the transaction by triggering a cryptographic private key — which the women did not know they had. Refugee women workers made new data points whenever they completed a transaction, but the ledger was not made visible to them. The only transaction records they were able to access were the paper receipts provided by supermarket cashiers.

Left to one’s own devices: Keeping receipts in a blockchain accounting system
The seamstresses complained that the receipts provided by the supermarket lacked important information. While they noted the amount of cash withdrawn from the account and the remaining balance, the receipts did not outline which hours worked corresponded with which payments, or when GEN’s payments came into the account. The workers did not have a way of accessing their account records or salary information, and so the receipts — which they could only generate by going to the supermarket and checking or withdrawing their salaries — were workers’ main way of keeping track of their salaries. Receipts were important to the workers, who conceptualized money as a tangible physical asset. When they talked about “receiving my salary,” they meant having the cash in their hands — not the digital value in their GEN wallet.

Refugee women workers often supplemented the receipts with personal ledgers documenting the hours they worked. Samir, who worked as a security guard at the women’s center gates in Azraq, told us that his two wives had devised their own system for keeping track of his salary. He rolled his eyes as he spoke, his tone tongue-in-cheek but frustrated:

“Let me tell you, like the sign-in sheet here at the center I have one at home that logs how many days I have worked. I have 2 signatures from each wife checking off the hours every day. At the end of the month, we look at the sheet at home and can calculate the full sum I am owed by GEN. When I collect the salary, I have to bring my wives back the receipt too.

Old-fashioned accounting technologies like receipts are typically overlooked in high-tech innovation projects. Yet they play an essential material function in people’s financial lives. Women kept the receipts safely in their bras during the workday and brought them out when discussing or contesting salary issues with GEN or the supermarket cashiers. Many times, women workers took receipts out to show me, the thin paper folded to prevent the ink from rubbing off. The information on the receipts was printed in Roman script and English numerals. Almost none of the refugee women workers spoke English, but accounting practices were usually collective, relying on those who could best interpret the information.

Blockchain is the protagonist in promotions of UN Gender’s pilot project: its proponents see added value in the way it provides a transparent, shared record of real-time transactional information. But in Azraq and Za’atari camps, this key benefit was not extended to refugee women workers. Rather than empowering refugee workers with a new accounting tool, GEN’s implementation of blockchain introduced new challenges for their financial management. Refugee workers incorporated receipts into their arsenal of socio-technical resources where the blockchain ledger was nowhere to be seen.

Biometric checks: an unhealthy habit
United Nations agencies in Jordan have adopted biometrics as an efficient way of automating and targeting aid (2). Iris scans are widely used by humanitarian organizations as a part of their population management strategies: to link people to the data about them, their aid entitlements, and their consumption patterns, and to authorize people’s access to basic services like refugee registration and food provision. For GEN, the iris scans were less laborious than checking through employees’ papers and handing out cash envelopes each month. Along with the receipts, the EyePay machines were the main way refugee women workers interacted with the new blockchain payment system.

Most workers described the iris scan machines as easy and normal (sahl and 3ady) — a testament to how, with regular use, new technologies quickly become mundane. A few people mentioned that the iris scans were obligatory, unless the machine didn’t work on your eyes due to cataracts or other ocular complaints. Some expressed preference for other forms of ID, such as cards (3). But their single most common concern with biometrics was the health implications. Women workers expressed a range of fears and perceptions about the bodily effects of regular iris scanning: from “We will go blind from the amount of eye scans we do,” to “I fear for my eyes and my health,” to “It’s all the time for the salary and the food and every time we want to buy bread too. My eyes burn after I scan them, it’s too much.”

Some people worried about the effects of iris scans on pregnant women, or on reproductive organs more generally. These health concerns were not necessarily irrational, especially for women who were pregnant, or who had medical issues like cataracts. The refugee women workers — and I, as the researcher — raised these concerns to GEN, but they were not addressed by any outreach efforts. When I tried to discuss these health anxieties with GEN staff they readily dismissed them. Rather than taking these concerns seriously as expressions of embodied discomfort, and distrust in and resistance to technological change (or considering the implications for managing informed consent) GEN staff delegitimized them, reifying the divide between traditional/unscientific/indigenous and rational/modern/Western thought which has long persisted in the aid industry.

Toward mindful blockchain innovation?
Inmy fieldwork with refugee women workers, I was examining the impact of an invisible, unknown infrastructure. We did not discuss blockchain per se, but the salary payment system. Understanding how blockchain was affecting refugees involved taking a wide, long-term lens on the socio-economic dimensions of payment infrastructure: workers’ experiences and practices of financial management and accounting, and their attitudes to biometrics. This case demonstrates that what blockchain is emerges with people, in practice. Blockchain cannot exist without the media it connects with; it relies on other technologies — money logs and receipts, identity authentication mechanisms like iris scans — to function as a viable payment infrastructure.

The ironies of the radical, emancipatory rhetoric surrounding blockchain live out in Jordan’s camps. GEN’s new blockchain system promised financial autonomy and empowerment for women, but demanded difficult reconfigurations and ruptures. The blockchain pilot project fostered informational opacities, complicated new reliances on supermarket cashiers and physical receipts, new and burdensome labors of calculating, checking, and scanning, and offered no new transferable financial skills.

Residents of refugee camps are already subject to systemic patterns of paternalism and precarity. In Azraq and Za’atari, social control is established through internet restrictions, surveillance and social media monitoring, and restricted rights such as political and labour representation, work opportunities, property ownership, mainstream financial services, and movement. Ultimately, having a digital wallet to manage money cannot solve the root problems of abject poverty and oppression. Responsible, just, and mindful innovation is a matter of understanding people’s concerns, subjectivities, resources, relationships, and choices. Humanitarian agencies and their corporate and government partners promote big data technologies, high-tech infrastructures, and the insights, targeting, and optimization they facilitate. But refugee women workers’ perspectives show that sometimes the optimum technology is a humble envelope or a folded up receipt.


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