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Caribbean Resilience: Lessons from Malta and the Blockchain

When I arrived in Malta with a delegation from the Government of The Bahamas on May 14th, I already knew that this small “Island Lab” is punching above its weight when it comes to blockchain technology.

That is what brought us to Malta: to learn from its experience and to better understand how countries with similar Commonwealth histories can leverage technology to “jump up” into the 21st century economy. Though what I was really interested in was not the intricacies of blockchain technology itself, but what it actually adds for people as they navigate an increasingly complex path from education to employment and beyond. More than a buzzword, blockchain technology needs to be understood and embraced by the general public.

As the general manager for the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) Caribbean Department, my mandate is to oversee its operations across the Caribbean: Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, The Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago. My roots in this region run deep: I grew up in the Bahamas and now have a special responsibility for the IDB’s initiatives in the region. It is both natural and reasonable that I have a particular interest in seeing the Caribbean region flourish. And resilience is a precursor of prosperity: It is the ability to meet challenges and to adapt in the face of rapidly-changing conditions.

In this picture from left to right: Therese Turner, IDB Manager for Caribbean Countries; Chris Jaggers, CEO Learning Machine; Dr Francis Fabri, Permanent Secretary, Ministry for Education and Employment; The Hon. Evarist Bartolo, Minister for Education and Employment.

The Caribbean is adapting to two sea changes simultaneously: first, the reality of climate change, which is accelerating the frequency and intensity of natural disasters on the region. This places at risk not only human lives, but the very infrastructure that forms the region’s economic backbone. The second regional sea change is the shift towards a global information economy, which has made the development of a skilled workforce more urgent than ever before. It has also added importance and value to the unfettered exchange of skills and knowledge, particularly for small nations. This is nothing new, of course; it has been clear to Caribbean countries for decades. Institutions like the Caribbean Examinations Council (established in 1972) and the CARICOM Skills Qualification (created in 1989) facilitate the recognition of qualifications across borders, opening up a path for study and work in any country in the region to any Caribbean national.

But there’s a very old-fashioned practice still obstructing the resilience necessary for the Caribbean region to fully prosper: a largely paper-based records system which creates documents that are both difficult to verify and preserve, on the one hand, and easy to forge, on the other.

A few salient points regarding old-fashioned paper-based records systems:

  • When people move, switch schools, or change employers, the records get easily lost.

  • Credentials may be issued by small institutions that no longer exist 5 or 10 years later, when the credentials need to be verified again.

  • Natural disasters can wipe out an institution’s paper records and even their digital infrastructure, leading to a cumbersome process of recreating and re-issuing records all over again.

  • Even when credentials can be verified as authentic, verifying who they were actually issued to is a whole different matter. People may share birth certificates, identity documents, and academic credentials, which can switch hands multiple times over the years.

For all these reasons, what should be a simple and transparent process–a Caribbean national applying for a job in any country in the region–can become a logistical nightmare. It creates suspicion and mistrust precisely at the moment when trust needs to be solidified and doors opened.

And that’s what piqued my interest in blockchain, and in Malta.

In 2017, Joseph Muscat, Malta’s Prime Minister, set forth a mandate that his country should become the “Blockchain Nation” of Europe. At the same time, the Maltese Ministry for Education and Employment was quietly launching the country’s first blockchain project: the certification of its students and workforce using the blockchain. The way they decided to implement Malta’s new blockchain strategy was quite simple: they used Blockcerts, an open standard developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab and a software company called Learning Machine. It was then released into the public marketplace for anyone to build on.

Given its small size and its legal status as an EU member state with significant mobility to and from the country, Malta placed its bet on an open technology standard that isn’t tied to any one software vendor or issuing institution. Blockcerts can be verified wherever Maltese citizens choose to learn and work, whether or not MIT, Learning Machine, the issuing school, or even the government of Malta is still in existence. That’s resilience.

When I understood this, “blockchain” went from being a buzzword to something I saw improving educational and employment opportunities for people throughout the Caribbean. If you can go from a paperwork nightmare to a one-click verification of a unique record that is your own for a lifetime — even in the face of natural disasters and institutional closures — your life choices have immediately and measurably gotten better.

This lesson is what I’m bringing home from Malta: the value of a new kind of infrastructure, built at the intersection of blockchain and open standards, and already in daily use by another small-nation lab. From the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, lessons in resilience are powerful, and they are persuasive.

 

About the author

A national of The Bahamas, Ms. Therese Turner-Jones is the General Manager of the Country Department Caribbean Group (CCB), which oversees the Bank’s operations in Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, The Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago. While serving in this position, she will continue to carry out the functions of Country Representative for Jamaica. 

Ms. Turner-Jones joined the IDB in 2013 as the Country Representative in Jamaica. She has over 20 years of experience in the areas of macroeconomics and economic development, with emphasis on the Caribbean. She has held key positions in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) including, most recently, as Deputy Division Chief for the Caribbean II Division, Western Hemisphere Department, and previously as Advisor to the Executive Director for Canada, Ireland, and the Caribbean. Previous to her work at the IMF, she was the Deputy Manager of the Research Department for the Central Bank of The Bahamas. 

Ms. Therese Turner-Jones is an economist who graduated from the University of Toronto and holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. She is a United World Colleges graduate (Lester Pearson College). 

Ms. Turner-Jones’ vision is that the IDB will continue to strive to improve lives in the Caribbean by creating vibrant economies where people are safe, productive, and happy. She believes in deepening client relations and sees the interactions in the countries as being the heart of the IDB’s work. She has many interests outside of work, including family, women’s development, meditation and tennis.

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