UNICEF’s Innovation Fund slides from “blockchain” into cryptocurrencies

UNICEF — the United Nations Children’s Fund — has had some unfortunate dalliances with blockchain hype, mostly courtesy the UNICEF Innovation Fund.

UNICEF’s February 2018 initiative to mine cryptocurrency for charity has, thankfully, quietly disappeared — some time between October and December 2018.

A December 2018 press release lists six blockchain companies the UNICEF Innovation Fund has funded for 2019. All of these appear to be building standard blockchain applications — doing things that absolutely don’t need a blockchain and don’t benefit from one. Except when you’re applying for funding.

Of the six companies’ home pages, one has a “This is your website” generic placeholder page, and another has a bad SSL certificate — that is, a cryptocurrency company not quite managing cryptography.

UNICEF’s latest initiative, though, breaks new ground in bad blockchain innovation — they’re funding the next round of these with cryptos. UNICEF will accept donations of Bitcoin and ether, then pay the blockhain developers with the cryptos.

The press releases I saw describe this as funding “open source technology” — where “open source” is what blockchain developers call themselves now, for better feel-good points than admitting you’re into cryptos.

The press releases claim this news is “embargoed” until early October — and never mind that the Ethereum Foundation themselves blogged about this in August. (Crypto PR is mostly terrible.) I contacted the New York office to ask about the initiative; I’ll update if they reply.

The first round of donations will be from the Ethereum Foundation, who will also supply “mentors” to the developers. Using a private instance of Ethereum as your back end datastore is the hip and happening architecture in 2017 — just ask the World Food Programme!

UNICEF straight-facedly claims that the mere act of using cryptocurrency for this new programme is a “transparency” initiative — though the problem you actually need transparency for is how humans select other humans to get the funding in the first place. Deniable malfeasance works perfectly well on the blockchain.

One piece of cryptocurrency transparency I’d really like to see from UNICEF — a full conflict-of-interest accounting of the crypto hodlings of everyone at UNICEF involved in these blockchain initiatives.

UNICEF charity money will be spent on blockchain nonsense, blockchain marketers will cite this as further evidence of how cool blockchains are for the next three or four years, and any production system will have an inefficient Ethereum-based backend bodged into place by some dedicated ETH hodler.

Waste happens when you’re funding innovation — and that’s fine. The whole point is to do things you aren’t sure of. Not everything works out, and a certain percentage of snake oil merchants are going to slip through.

But “blockchain” has a sufficiently bad track record that no-one at UNICEF has an excuse not to know better. This is like chemistry innovation funding phlogiston, or medical innovation funding anti-vaccine activism.


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