Problem:

Food, clothing, and shelter are the first and most important response to famine or war. They are essential to stay alive. Once disaster victims have been stabilized and are able to get the food and clothes they need, more help can become a burden.

Aid organizations have realized that cash contributions are more efficient and faster to distribute than physical items to help disaster survivors rebuild their lives. This temporary receipt of money aid allows recipients to choose the agency they want to work with to rebuild their lives.

Cash aid is not without its problems. In many disasters and after-disasters, moving physical cash is dangerous and difficult. Cash can lose its value, and in some cases corrupt middlemen can steal it. To reduce this risk, a number aid organizations are using digital cash transfers.

Humanitarian organizations must act quickly with digital cash transfers to find delivery systems that are effective wherever the crisis occurs. The organizations must be able to accept cash in many currencies from well-meaning donors, convert the money into a currency the recipients can understand and use. They also need to be transparent to show donors how they spent the funds. The aid organizations must also provide the cash in a cost-effective and efficient manner, as the basic principle of humanitarian assistance is that the recipients do not pay.

Projects to Watch: Reclaiming Purpose for Crypto

(Stellar Aid Assist)

Stellar Assist is a concept.

Is crypto the answer if cash is important in times of crises, but it’s difficult to move physical cash and digital bank transfers cannot reach recipients without a bank account?

Stellar Development Foundation, the nonprofit organization that supports the development and growth of the decentralized open-source Stellar Network, certainly believes so. SDF began developing a platform for disbursement of cash aid shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

In less than 10 month, SDF launched Stellar Aid Assist with input from UNHCR (the U.N. refugee agency).

Stellar Aid Assist enables humanitarian organizations to send large stablecoin payments in the form Circle’s USDC (dollar-pegged USD coin) to recipients who are in need. Payments through Stellar Aid Assist are made in a safe, fast, and transparent manner, without any middlemen. The service is also free.

Tori Samples is a senior product manger at SDF, who oversees Stellar Aid Assist. She said that an aid organization would need to make approximately 100,000 transactions in order to see a dime of gas charges. The wallet that Stellar Aid Assist uses – Vibrant wallet- is free as well, although Samples stated this could change in future.

Samples stated that “one of the principles of humanitarian aid is that recipients will never be charged to receive money.” Vibrant could become a paid wallet in the future. “That would require a negotiation with the off-ramp, the sending aid organization and Vibrant to ensure that recipients do not receive any fees.” These fees will be charged to the organization upstream.

The platform of Stellar Aid Assist does not just simplify things for humanitarian aid organizations. The end-users also benefit, as they can get cash fast and securely without a bank.

Samples emphasized that unlike local currency donations, USDC is protected digitally and can be used as a hedge to protect against inflation or devaluation of the local currency. The aid recipients are able to exchange USDC at any MoneyGram branch in the world for local currency in either a digital or physical form.

Battle-tested

Samples says that Stellar Aid Assist is designed to help Ukraine.

Samples explained that the development of Stellar Aid Assist was a reaction to the full scale invasion of Ukraine last February. Samples said that people have been making cross-border payments using Stellar since 2014. But [the war] was when the need for a mass payout system became clear.

Currently, there are two public pilots that use Stellar Aid Assist for cash distribution to refugees in Ukraine. One is through the UNHCR while the other is through the International Rescue Committee. The IRC was founded by Albert Einstein at his request.

These pilots seem to be very small. According to a article in Wired published recently about Stellar Aid Assist, the number of test-users in Ukraine that have received donations is less than 100. The size of the pilots is confirmed by the samples that were declined.

Though that number is miniscule compared to the estimated 5 million Ukrainians who received cash assistance last year, it serves as a proof of concept that stablecoin-denominated cash payments could seriously improve the way humanitarian aid is done.

Samples stated that the SDF had been working to expand the platform so it could be more customized for future crises where the recipients might not be as digitally and financially literate as Ukrainians.

Samples said that the SDF had “conversations” with many humanitarian organizations, but so far only two pilots from Ukraine are known.

Prioritizing the ease of use

It is important that Stellar Aid Assist be simple to use by everyone, whether it’s the administrators of the aid organizations or the recipients themselves, even if they have no crypto experience.

Stellar Aid Assist was developed with the user in mind, according to Denelle Dixon, CEO and Executive Director of Stellar Development Foundation.

Dixon explained that the design of the user experience is different and simpler. It’s more like what users might expect when using Venmo, a payment wallet, or other similar services.

Dixon said that the project is aimed at ensuring ease of use and efficiency, rather than converting users into crypto-users.

Dixon stated that the goal of aid was to deliver it to the recipients so they could use it. They can hold it or do whatever they needed to with it. The aid should not be used to make them addicted to anything else.

Off-ramps are important for traffic flow.

MoneyGram is a Dallas-based company that specializes in cross-border money transfers and payments. This partnership has been going on for many years.

Dixon told CoinDesk that the partnership had been in development for nearly four years when Stellar Aid Assist was launched in December.

Dixon stated that “we’ve always focused on the on-and-off-ramps. We recognize that if crypto- and blockchain-based solutions are truly solving the problem of the unbanked or underbanked then you shouldn’t require a credit card, a bank account, to be able join the solution.”

Dixon continued, “Focusing our efforts on the cash on-and-off-ramps was an important part of our overall work. MoneyGram, with their 400,000 agents around the globe, was the ideal partner to help us achieve this goal.”

Dixon called the platform’s relationship to MoneyGram “transformational”, but added that the project – which was launched immediately after the spectacular collapse of FTX cryptocurrency exchange in November – hasn’t received much attention from the media or legislators.

Dixon said that it did not really matter if anyone was watching – as long as the platform helped get the aid to the right people.

Dixon stated that it doesn’t really matter because “we’re going do this, we’re doing the right thing, and we are using this technology to its full potential.” “It’ll get the attention it deserves from policymakers, regulators and people when they are ready to accept it.”

Dixon stated that Stellar Aid Assist is a great demonstration of the benefits of blockchain technology. However, it’s also a tool that aid agencies can use to reach more people.

Dixon stated that “giving [relief organisations] a tool to help them put more dignity into the hands those who may not feel that at the moment is a beautiful and effective way to demonstrate the value of payment and reach out to both the people on the receiving and giving end of the aid distribution.”

Jeanhee Kim is the editor.