U of T news
  • Follow U of T News

Master of global affairs students look at blockchain as a tool for altruism

Pics of Vanessa Ko and Zachary Skeith

Vanessa Ko, a master of global affairs student, and Zachary Skeith, an alumnus of the program, believe there is enormous potential of blockchain technology for social good

Zachary Skeith, an alumnus of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, had only a basic knowledge of blockchain technology when he started working at Three Lefts, a research and development startup. Regardless, he strongly believed that technology should be leveraged for more than just profit.

In basic terms, blockchains are digital logs of information that are stored across a network of personal computers. Blockchains use cryptography to make sure that individual records can’t be altered or counterfeited. The decentralized nature of blockchains ensures that no one person or institution can control the system, yet everyone can use it.

The more Skeith learned about blockchain – a digital ledger in which transactions of value are recorded – the more he realized the enormous potential of this technology for social good. What he previously only understood as the system behind Bitcoin, the world’s most famous cryptocurrency, he came to look at as a potential tool to alleviate hunger, settle land claims or ensure that humanitarian aid reaches people in need.

“I spent most of my childhood moving around different continents. I was very lucky to see a lot of the world, but it also made me very aware of the many global challenges we’re facing,” says Skeith, a graduate of the master of global affairs program. “It’s really exciting to me to see the immense potential of blockchain to change entrenched power structures.”

While blockchain technology is mostly being used in the private sector for now, blockchain-based initiatives that focus on humanitarian aid have started to take root in the nonprofit sector.

Vanessa Ko, a current master of global affairs student, started researching the potential of blockchains for humanitarian organizations last year during an internship with the United Nations. In October, she published a white paper outlining how blockchains can help streamline aid projects.

“One potential use could be to track the supply chain of aid items. With the help of the blockchain, you could trace exactly where aid comes from and where it goes. That could be a huge help in co-ordinating between different agencies and keeping everyone accountable.”

Because anything of value can be stored in the blockchain, the applications are endless, says Ko.

UN Women, for example, held a 36-hour-long blockchain hackathon, which, among other innovations, resulted in an app that helps female business owners around the globe make secure financial transactions. The World Food Program is another example of blockchain’s potential in global development: In 2017, it used blockchain technology to distribute more than $1 million in aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Three Lefts has also taken steps to leverage blockchain technology to empower people. The company is exploring a blockchain-based foundation that would give marginalized communities access to first-stage business funding. Instead of a board of directors controlling how funding is allocated, this project will leverage the decentralized nature of blockchain to allow every member to vote for business ideas and collectively decide how funds are distributed, says Skeith. Another one of Three Left’s projects is aimed at helping Indigenous groups secure and control their intellectual property. A third project focuses on combating forced labour in supply chains.

Like any disruptive technology, though, blockchains present challenges in terms of ethics and governance – problems that Skeith works to address before they arise. Part of his job at Three Lefts is to spark conversations with clients, colleagues and industry regulators about what an “ethical future” of blockchain might look like. What sets him up for success in his role are the skills he was able to hone as an master of global affairs student, he says – namely lateral thinking and the ability to facilitate between people from various backgrounds.

“Because of my global affairs background, my focus is the political and social impact of technological innovation,” says Skeith. “Whereas most people in the tech space think they need to scale up first and governance will come later, I believe the opposite is true. We need to think about social capital first.”

Reports about the consequences of companies scaling up without building governance and ethical guidelines into their products have become a common occurrence. Facebook, for example, has recently come under fire in the media for spreading fake news, allowing companies to exclude older workers through age-targeting, and letting advertisers racially discriminate in housing ads.

“I think we’re at a point where we need to define how we want this technology to work. If we treat the blockchain like we’ve treated most technologies from the early ’90s, then the blockchain is going to become just another status quo tool,” says Skeith. “And that would be a shame because it has the potential to fundamentally improve our society.”