This Just In: Monitoring & Evaluation Professionals Calling Blockchain Dead

The Blockchain Is Dead

Shocker: Three self-described “Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Learning” — MERL professionals googled for evidence on “blockchain for development” and did not find much.

Or, at least, what they found did not satisfy their old school, MERL-approved criteria. On account of that they proceeded to dismiss the whole technology.

This is a nearsighted mistake. But before I go further let me say that I actually sympathize with the authors’ frustration and I am myself very careful and suspicious with hype around Blockchain or any other emerging technology. In fact, I am regularly advocating for off-chain solutions for many of the use cases that get shilled as opportunities for blockchain. The sooner we get over all this hype the better for everyone.

However, superficially dismissing a potentially industry-changing opportunity after a few google searches is equally ridiculous.

Particularly if the people that do the dismissing earn a living off an industry that is fundamentally threatened by the technology in question.

That’s right. If blockchain goes to scale in international development the first people to lose their jobs are the MERL professionals.

MERL as we know it is a an anachronism, ripe for disruption. An industry built around complicated, dogmatic theories and frameworks that get pushed on hapless frontline workers forced to generate tons of paper-forms chock-block full of spurious data that, after a several months-to-several-years journey, ends up justifying retroactively whatever theory fits this donor’s or that implementer’s agenda at that particular point. This adds shocking levels of costs to any impact implementation, puts unacceptable pressure on already overwork frontline workers and creates massive amounts of friction across the whole sector. New, better models are already evolving that will hopefully change this dismal state of affairs.

Now back to this article, here are a bunch of things that need to be considered when reading it:

  1. Blockchain is only a few years old. I would risk to say that in traditional development circles blockchain has been a topic for maximum one year, if at all. As such, expecting MERL evidence this early is ridiculous (and a bit rich, coming from an industry that has no problem waiting for impact evidence for 5 or more year).
  2. It is a always a mistake to leave innovation to vendors/ consultants.This is sadly too common in international development, and a key reason why large scale projects typically fail to leverage technology to its full potential. The model is usually: patently tech-un-savvy people decide to roll out exponential tech, but they are unwilling to learn or change basic processes. Instead they contract a “vendor” who is expected to bring in cost savings and efficiency. I have seen this patters over three successive waves of exponential tech: Mobile, Cloud, Smartphone. Every. Single. Time. As a consequence, you have a whole category of companies that sell shitty tech to non-profits, concurrently with an entrenched perception among decision-makers that technology is usually a gimmick, not worth considering in project design.
  3. In typical international development fashionBlockchain-powered models are adopted/ tested out in isolation. Decision makers are reluctant to roll them out for real, mostly because they are reluctant to abandon some of the traditional MERL elements. Unless the donors create an environment where that is acceptable, any new model — blockchain or no blockchain — will be perceived as an additional expense. As a consequence, when they are implemented this is done halfheartedly, and in isolation .

Long live the Blockchain

In conclusion, yeah, there isn’t much scale in Blockchain-powered projects. But the technology grows and improves as we speak, every day. It’s a big mistake to dismiss it just because it doesn’t have scale yet. Remember this guy? In 1994 he declared the death of e-commerce (and the whole internet, really) simply because his local mall was making more money in one afternoon than the whole internet, ever. Don’t be that guy.

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