In August, 2021, United States and NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan after a nearly 20-year presence there. As a result, the government that had been supported by the US quickly dissolved, chaos ensued, and the Taliban returned to absolute power after a long absence.
Ninety seven percent of the Afghan population lives below the poverty line. Almost 20 million people – half the population – are suffering from high levels of food insecurity according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), and many are on the brink of starvation, including more than one million children under the age of 5 who are in the throes of prolonged malnutrition. For those children lucky enough to survive, the maladies that will afflict them for the rest of their lives are daunting. In this context, perhaps more than in any other, the need for humanitarian aid is not only crucial, it is a matter of life and death.
If this grinding poverty weren’t enough, drought, global food price increases, and a withdrawal of the expenditures that accompanied international forces have plunged Afghanistan’s economy into a hopeless place where work is virtually nonexistent, and the struggle to survive is a daily endeavor.
Sanctions, frozen assets, a paralyzed banking sector, and a shortage of physical currency are drastically constraining liquidity in Afghanistan’s economy which exacerbates the humanitarian crisis. Often the only resources available to the average Afghan come from agencies like WFP, UNICEF, or large Non-Governmental Organizations. In the face of all of this, an Afghan company called HesabPay has built a payments platform on the Algorand Blockchain to facilitate digital payments from international relief organizations directly to recipients.
HesabPay issues digital Afghani (Afn) – the Afghan fiat currency – based on fiat deposits, and settles transactions on the Algorand blockchain network. To aid in humanitarian relief efforts and bridge the financial exclusion gap in Afghanistan, anyone can send and spend their digital Afn with any phone that has an account. Users can make digital payments using the network to shop at merchants, buy airtime, pay electric bills, and go to the nearest HesabPay offices to on-ramp and off-ramp their fiat and digital Afghani. These locally managed HesabPay offices are spread across the country, providing easy access to all users. And if the user only has a basic feature phone, not a smartphone, HesabPay provides these users with a QRCode card to represent the user’s account. When at a merchant, the user can present this QRCode and the merchant will then scan the QR code to request the payment from the customer’s account; the customer will receive a verification SMS message with details required to confirm the payment.
This video shows the onboarding process that occurs, and the clear instructions that allow for easy and efficient use regardless of digital literacy.
HesabPay has a rigorous risk-based compliance program with tiered KYC. Integration with WorldCheck ensures no sanctioned individuals can open accounts, and with Chainalysis guarantees rigorous monitoring of all network activity. HesabPay ensures no duplicates, eliminates distribution costs and does not require paper currency. So far, there have been 4.5 million transactions by 400,000 users with 3,000 merchants across all 34 provinces. HesabPay transactions are very low cost on the Algorand blockchain, and through Algorand’s contribution, they are free to all retail users and merchants.
The humanitarian impact in Afghanistan of a direct payment system that is fast, reliable, and traceable is profound. Recent evaluations have documented the positive changes that occur when women are the direct recipients of payments, and what that means for their families and their communities. HesabPay also demonstrates that low digital literacy is a barrier that can be overcome , with extremely vulnerable Afghan women accessing these much-needed resources through digital-only transactions.
When we decide to support projects in the Impact space at Algorand, we look at a number of different factors. Is blockchain the best technology to address the challenge? What are the implications for the most marginalized? If positive, can these solutions scale? Are these solutions environmentally sustainable?
In the case of HesabPay, it was apparent to us from the beginning that the solution they were offering regarding fast and reliable access to desperately needed resources was critical for the world’s most marginalized people. The Algorand Blockchain was a perfect fit, and it is becoming increasingly clear that through blockchain, financial inclusion can scale and improve in many places around the world where the need is enormous. Think Syria, Iraq, Somalia and on and on and on.
On a personal note, I worked on and off in Afghanistan when I was leading efforts for a project out of the MIT Media Lab called One Laptop per Child in 2010 and 2011. Our objective was to improve critical thinking skills and increase access to learning by bringing kids and schools sturdy, low-cost laptops filled with content to engage children from the youngest to the oldest levels. Our mission was designed specifically to reach girls who had been out of school for many years, and who were still struggling to attend formal schooling. We ran successful pilots in several places, and watching young girls who had never been to school learn to code and interface with the laptops was magic, and the confidence they showed when called upon to demonstrate their extraordinary work was contagious.
I fell in love with Afghanistan during my visits there. The stark beauty of its mountainous landscape, the seemingly infinite kindness of the people I met and who hosted me remains with me to this day. But what I remember the most was the determination of so many Afghans to use technology as a way for children to learn to think differently and to connect with the world far beyond their borders.
Fundamental needs were great then, and they are far greater now. Partnering with HesabPay is something that we are proud of at the Algorand Foundation, as we continue to support those who harness the world’s greenest blockchain to help the world’s most marginalized people.