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Exploring the transformative potential of blockchain for sustainable development at the 30th UN/CEFACT Forum

Blockchain is a rapidly evolving area of information technology with potential for huge benefits in terms of security, reliability and cost efficiency in the exchange of information.

Blockchain offers the advantage of a shared “end to end” record of information related to transaction history, which because it exists across a network rather than as single or multiple copies, cannot be altered or corrupted.

What are the possible implications of this new technology for trade and government services? How could it be used to advance the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Could existing United Nations' standards for data and processes be used for its implementation? These are just a few of the questions addressed at a conference hosted by the Italian Trade Agency in Rome as part of the 30th UN/CEFACT Forum, which gathered around 150 experts from all over the world.

“Blockchain can help to achieve SDG 2 for ending hunger” according to Giovanni Pio, Head of Global Change Management at the World Food Programme (WFP). WFP has implemented a pilot blockchain project to transfer benefits to refugees in Jordan with a blockchain application. As a result, related transaction fees have been reduced by 98%, and the time required for transferring benefits by 3 to 5 business days. Blockchain technologies can therefore be a useful tool in supporting the poorest and hardest to reach populations - thereby contributing to SDG 1 for ending extreme poverty.

How can blockchain-based services support transparency and efficiency in the shipment and handling of containers in international trade? Sean A. McKenna, Senior Research Manager at IBM Industry Academy, talked about a joint project with Maersk for tracing containers, which has been tested and is about to be rolled out. Daniel Sarr, Director of Partnerships at Gainde 2000, said that they expect blockchain to eventually “ ease the submission of e-certificates and other licenses for trade transactions in Senegal – thus making trade easier and faster”.

Now, the question is how to bring this technology to maturity and develop applications with the critical mass needed for providing benefits at a global level. Building-up the necessary ecosystems for engaging all stakeholders developing necessary standards and resolving security issues are key pre-conditions for accelerating its adoption.

The United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT), hosted by UNECE, is working with a team of experts on the preparation of two white papers on blockchain technology for  trade and economic development. These white papers will discuss: the strategic use of blockchain to support trade facilitation; how existing UN/CEFACT standards could be used by blockchain application developers; and any new deliverables (or revisions of existing deliverables) that should be proposed. These deliverables are being prepared for consideration by the next UN/CEFACT Plenary in April 2018.

For more information on the conference, please visit: http://www.unece.org/tradewelcome/un-centre-for-trade-facilitation-and-e-business-uncefact/meetings-and-events/uncefact/other-meetings/2017/uncefact-conference-on-blockchain/doc.html