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Outcomes for Impact

Social Impacts of DLTs

This research sets out to identify who benefits from distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) in the global development context and in what way. It asks: what are the most promising applications of the technology in this context and what must development practitioners ask of technologists to align this technology to the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Year: 2018
Collaborator/s: RMIT*
Images: Of_Substance
Figure 1: Delphi participants asked to predict the potential of DLTs in humanitarian interventions in round one.



Distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) promise to fundamentally transform economic, institutional and even social systems, including the way people interact via distributed networks. The extraordinary capacity of DLTs to deliver trust, transparency and cost-saving efficiency represents an enormous opportunity for disaster response and development interventions to drive social impact and improve quality of life in alignment with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Many of the most influential humanitarian and global development actors, as well as scores of impact-oriented organisations, have signalled an investment in DLT-based applications. But there remains little evidence of their impact, or who benefits from DLTs in the global development context and in what way. This study set out to determine which of the myriad applications of DLTs are the most promising in the development context, who benefits and how. What are the social impacts of DLTs in development interventions and what questions must development practitioners ask of technologists to align this technology to the SDGs?

Figure 2: Comparing the potential of DLTs. 


This study applied the real-time Delphi method to address the exploratory nature of the research question. This structured group communication process provides means for experts to deal with complex problems and collectively arrive at a reliable consensus with the aid of intensive online surveys interspersed with controlled feedback. For this purpose, 19 experts were recruited from a pool of 47 potential technologists, humanitarians, academics and development practitioners. Each of the three rounds was developed to identify specific elements of DLTs' social impacts. The results of first-round informed the questions of the second, which informed the questions of the last.

Figure 3: Identifing the most promising applications of DLTs.

Figure 4: Breakdown of the most promising applications.


Technologies that promise to improve quality of life at low cost while also streamlining the mechanisms by which public and private sectors interface are understandably appealing at a time where humanitarian and development budgets are under increasing pressure (Pisa & Juden, 2017). To that end, this study found that the potential of DLTs in the humanitarian disaster response and global development sectors is greater than that of today's prevailing applications. From a list of 20 potential applications, over 50 percent of the panellists nominated financial inclusion, cash transfers, supply chain, identity, land titles, banking and finance, remittance and voting, as those with the most promise in a development context. While digital currencies and financial technologies are the most dominant of the moment, half of the applications considered the most promising by the participants of this study are yet to see robust, widespread implementation in any context. These are supply chain management, identity, land titles and voting. An improvement in any of these areas by any means would be a triumph regardless of the context. However, it is important to note the unique way by which DLTs solve the issues underpinning these applications and how this one technology can unify them.

Figure 5: A list of the most promising applications of DLTs in the humanitarian context.

Considering those without a legally recognised identity often have no means of accessing services essential to their survival, digital profiles could provide some 2.4 billion people with secure and tractable access to an array of services often taken for granted (Mishra & Deichmann, 2016). However, a conventional (off-chain) "... solution requires trust in an identity provider, or many of them, to protect your data and ultimately serve as gatekeepers for access to the verification of your identity", the respondents emphasised. The immutable characteristic of the DLTs addresses the issue of data integrity, while its ability to disintermediate facilitates self-sovereignty, allowing an identity to exist independent of incumbents while still presenting as trustworthy. As one expert adds, "self-sovereignty, if and when it becomes used, greatly increases the power and dignity of the 'beneficiary'..." beyond simply responding to a basic need. Once identity is established, the same ledger could confidently facilitate the supply of goods to that individual, with every actor held fully accountable to both ends of the exchange by way of DLTs' infinite transparency—a characteristic overwhelmingly agreed to be the most important to development interventions at this moment by the expert panel.

Figure 6: Future of implementaions of DLTs within development contexts will likely be both public and private.

Even though some applications of the technology are largely untested in the field, the majority of this study’s respondents expect to see solutions that would not be possible off-chain in less than five years. However, the participants added that without much more involvement from humanitarian and development practitioners, there is no guarantee that the technology will perform its forecasted role in delivering the SDGs and Grand Bargain commitments. A number of experts feel that the hype over DLTs is prompting practitioners to ask the right questions regarding efficiency and cooperation, but better tools without appropriate governance will not foster greater alignment.


This research provides us with a guide of where to look for the most significant impacts of the technology and what to look for. Now we can dive deeper into the lived experience of DLT-based interventions and begin to unpack the social implications of a transparent, immutable and decentralised future. DLTs may be a revolution to digitally augmented exchange, but the nature of the revolution depends on the development sector’s careful and clear-eyed implementation.

* The study drew from 19 experts, representing 16 organisations, including: The Australian Red Cross, the Center for Global Development, DiploFoundation, Fordham University, Horizon State, HumanityX, the Internet Society, Mercy Corps, Nedbank, Oxfam Australia, RMIT, Royal Holloway, Södertörn University, Tallinn University of Technology, the University of Edinburgh, and UNOPS.

📋 Round One Summary
📋 Round Two Summary
📑 Report

Longform: Medium, Shortform: Twitter.

Of_Substance acknowledges the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation as the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet and work. We recognise that sovereignty over the land has never been ceded, and pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.