#3 Could Blockchain Ease Governments’ Chronic Legitimacy Crises?

Hi from the beautiful islands of Stockholm, Readers — check out the third post in my five-part Medium.com blog series exploring tech’s impact on global risk; it builds on my past HuffPost blog series explaining the ongoing global legitimacy crisis. It is inspired in part by discussions with my NYU grad students and key ideas in my award-winning political comic book, The Global Kid.

Stockholm: view from the old town. I was in this stunning city to participate in the Global Challenges Foundation’s first ever New Shape Forum. #stockholm #sweden #gcfnsf #workingholiday #picsfrommytrip

Let’s face it, it’s a pretty tough time to be a politician. Whether led by a political novice or seasoned veteran, governments everywhere are struggling to tackle major risks — and citizens have figured that out. In recent years, frustrated citizens have done everything from throw food at their elected officials (e.g. in Brazil, Germany), slap their politicians (e.g. in Nepal, India), set themselves on fire outside state offices (e.g. in Morocco, Greece), launch mass demonstrations against specific policies (e.g. in the US, Chile, Poland) and even bring down entire regimes (e.g. MENA). Democracy or dictatorship, citizens are clearly unhappy with their governments — and they are not afraid to show it. This is a global crisis of political legitimacy where the political status quo is recurrently being challenged by protesting citizens armed with technology. But could technology, especially blockchain, also help ease this legitimacy crisis?

Let’s investigate:

First, citizens have been notably unhappy in both democratic and nondemocratic countries for awhile — and technology has facilitated their very public anti-government frustration. It perhaps began with the Arab Spring’s Facebook revolution in 2010, as citizens leveraged social media to rise up against decades of dictatorship (even if eight years later, many are still dissatisfied). But look beyond MENA and it’s undeniable — citizens in democracies and nondemocracies in many other parts of the world have protested the legitimacy of their governments and policies for many years. From education protests in Chile to the movement against judicial reform in Poland and anti-military junta protests in Thailand that persist, the average citizen — armed with tech — is more informed and activist against government. There’s a recurring feeling among more citizens that there must be a better, more legitimate way to govern in most countries and political systems.

Second, corruption is one reason for this recurring citizen frustration against governments globally, contributing to the chronic legitimacy crisis. Consider the anti-corruption protest movements in Brazil in 2015–2016 and in South Korea in 2016–2017 that ultimately led to the ouster of both presidents, Dilma Rousseff and Park Geun-hye. This year, in Latin America, Peruvians have been challenging the administration of Martin Vizcarra about systemic corruption following reports of judges accepting bribes. In the Middle East, Iraqis’ anti-corruption protests have led to the ouster of one allegedly corrupt minister with links to fake contracts. In Africa, Kenyans (especially youth) have protested corruption scandals involving missing public funds. In Europe, Slovakia’s citizens have demanded more resignations over government corruption, even after their protests brought down the prime minister. And so on. A major struggle for political leaders continues to be how to regain the confidence of a very suspicious citizenry such that they can effectively govern — and of course tackling corruption itself.

Third, blockchain technology could be one way to repair the strained citizen-government relationship while also reducing corruption. Yes, this simple technology — a digital ledger in which transactions can be recorded chronologically, transparently and in a decentralized system — was first created in 2009 to track bitcoin. But it could also be precisely what governments need to restore citizen trust. Blockchain would mean all financial transactions involving public funds would be traceable, in theory reducing the chance of government corruption. In fact, some governments are already testing out this technology, including in countries known for endemic corruption. In Mexico, blockchain is being developed by the government to track bids for public contracts. In India, Andra Pradesh is the first state to use blockchain to manage land records in a country where over 65% of civil cases are property-related. In Kenya and Nigeria, local startups are also exploring how blockchain could reduce corruption in land ownership. And so on. Could blockchain restore citizen trust over time, ultimately curing governments’ chronic legitimacy crises?

Technology, i.e. social media, has clearly empowered the average citizen in recent years to challenge policymakers in a way that is unprecedented. The relationship between citizen and government in most countries (whether democratic, authoritarian, or hybrid) is at a considerable, perhaps all-time, low — and perceived government corruption is clearly one contributing factor. But technology, i.e. blockchain, could also be the tool to tackle this legitimacy crisis, increasing government transparency so corruption is reduced.