Like many European countries, Finland is hosting migrants who have made their way – often in dangerous circumstances – to Europe in the past few years.
For those granted asylum, key challenges remained. Without identification papers, they faced a long wait to get work permits or bank accounts.
And without access to financial services, they couldn’t bank their wages, pay bills, or start to recover their identities.
So one Finnish start-up came up with a solution.
Debit cards without a bank
MONI has developed a prepaid debit card that circumvents the need for a bank account or identity papers. The card is linked to a unique digital identity stored on a blockchain – the same technology that underpins Bitcoin and other digital currencies.
Two years ago, MONI partnered with the Finnish government to provide refugees with their monthly allowance, which until then had been paid in cash.
The cards mean that the refugees can also receive money – including salaries when they get jobs – and pay bills, without the need to open a bank account.
The blockchain technology used by MONI doesn’t require a financial intermediary, such as a bank, to process transactions. Instead, transactions are instantaneous between users, and a unique digital record is kept of each one. It’s a cheaper payment system that is highly transparent.
In addition to paying and receiving money, cardholders can also apply for a loan or credit through their mobile phone, either from friends or financial companies. The card encompasses a “circle of trust” where users choose the friends they would be happy to loan money to, setting a maximum amount, and friends can reciprocate. Loans between friends have no fees and no interest, and the service is free to use.
Credit can also be accessed through MONI’s financial partners.
“As the refugee influx in all EU countries is growing, finding ways to create efficiencies via modern technology in payments is a welcome change, and at the end of day not a solution only for Finland, but for all European countries,” said Jouko Salonen, CAO of the Finnish Immigration Service at the time of the agreement.
Antti Pennanen, MONI’s founder and CEO, told the MIT Technology review: “Our purpose has always been financial inclusion, and especially to help people in developing countries.”
As well as being a system for payments, blockchain is a secure way of keeping track of other kinds of data, for example tracing the provenance of diamonds. The United Nations is looking into using the technology to provide legal identification to 1.1 billion people worldwide with no official documents.
Some proponents of blockchain argue that the technology could help level the playing field for the 2 billion "unbanked" people in the world, and ultimately bring an end to poverty.