Darwazah’s 48-Hour Data for Good Hackathon Engages Students in Improving Foreign Aid Management Big Data & Blockchain, Alternative “Therapy” for the Lebanese Economic Depression

We are experiencing a triple whammy that have brought the country to its knees: one of the top 3 most severe economic crises worldwide since mid-19th century with a poverty rate at 50%, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a stalemate that has paralyzed political institutions. It is widely acknowledged that at this stage, only international donor facilitated aid can unlock private investments and economic growth to start getting the country back on its feet. Yet foreign donor disbursement has been explicitly tied to transparent and efficient aid management processes and systems.

Since 2018 CEDRES agreement, it is no secret that these funds are in the pipeline already. However, there are informal estimates that aid disbursement will be subject to a 10% “waste” and “leakage”. Unlike what many would assume, causes of this waste are not limited to corruption, as inefficient processes and outdated procedures are also contributors. For example, surprisingly, the government apparatus cannot easily answer simple questions such as: “How do we make sure the right people are identified and receive the right amount of aid and they can purchase the right kinds of goods and services with proper oversight?” This is one example of potential waste and leakage, and there are many more. Now imagine if, 10% of the 6 billion dollars in CEDRES grants is subject to this waste and if we can reduce that waste to half by having more efficient and effective technology-enabled disbursement process and management systems; that would give us a saving of 300 million fresh dollars which could support many poverty-stricken vulnerable households in the coming years.

That is the promise and potential of new Big Data and Blockchain technology-enabled solutions, and that is what led the Darwazah Center for Innovation Management & Entrepreneurship to organize its first ever hackathon on Data for GoodI Code for Lebanon at the end of May 2021, in collaboration with the Olayan School of Business Master’s in Business Analytics (MSBA) and Inventis Corp. This 48-hour hackathon, was in two tracks, a themed track focusing on Improvements to Foreign Aid Management processes, and a general track encompassing any relevant idea that employs data for doing good in any social and economic sector. The goal was to engage students’ technical skills and their youthful energy in designing solutions for Lebanon’s foreign aid management and other problems using Big Data and Blockchain technology.

Our private sector partner had intimate knowledge of the hackathon’s focal topic: a renowned subject matter expert, Ms. Zeina Kassem, Economist and​ Senior Expert at Inventis Management Consulting and Strategic Advisory, presented key processes and issues of foreign aid management.  “Big Data and Blockchain can be leveraged for a sustainable foreign aid framework in Lebanon, and the Data for Good hackathon is the right vehicle to tap into our youth’s skills for devising solutions that can lead to better targeting, enhanced efficiency, transparency and accountability of aid management,” she stated.

In order for participants to have the knowledge of the state-of-the-art technology frameworks for their solutions, the technical subject matter experts Dr. Wissam Sammouri, the director of the MSBA program, and Dr. Elie Nasr, a Senior Lecturer in the MSBA, conducted workshops for participants on how a protype can be developed with the right tools and demonstrated as well as how relevant Blockchain functionalities should be incorporated into their solutions. The four competitively selected teams (out of 10 teams) prepared a pitch deck, developed a high-level functional requirements document and designed a screen-based demo of their target system.

At the pitch event, each team did a pitch in front of a distinguished jury panel and demonstrated their proposed solution. One team proposed “Block Donate”, a Blockchain-based platform that connects donors to grassroot NGOs in order to ensure the transparent disbursement of funds to households and businesses affected by the August 4 (2019) Port Blast. To support, in part, the World Bank economic crisis recovery funds, another team proposed a solution to aid management called “LebAid”, a Blockchain-based platform for crowdfunding that directly matches donors with the most in need beneficiaries, the vulnerable households. This solution leverages NGOs who have most intimate knowledge of the socioeconomic status and location of neediest households in the most economically disadvantaged regions of Lebanon.

Another team’s solution was in support of another World Bank funded project to address economic crisis facing small-scale farmers called “Ziraatech”. This is a platform that includes the key stakeholders, and facilitates the disbursement of $300 vouchers to each of the 26,000 farmer struggling to supply raw material and ensure operational continuity—heavily hit by the 90% devaluation of Lebanese pound. The remaining team, within the general data for good track, focused on a “Career Coach” which tackled a pressing problem in Lebanon, and the region, i.e., education-to-employment facilitation, through a platform that provides data-driven recommendations for students to enhance their degree major choices in order to obtain a better fit between their education and job market requirements.

The first prize winners were LebAid, while Ziraatech came second and Block Donate was third receiving respectively $500, $300 and $100 in addition to being awarded the privilege of “fast tracking” to the Darwazah Startup Accelerate semi-finals in 2021. After announcing the results, the first prize was matched by one of AUB Alumni and recent OSB EMBA graduate, Mr. Sami Kteily, the Executive Chairman of PEB Steel Buildings Ltd, who doubled the first place prize with another $500.

During the closing ceremony, Dr. Bijan Azad, the Director of the Darwazah Center stated “The teams did an amazing job, and provided practical but innovative solutions that could enhance the aid management procedures in Lebanon. The results of this hackathon are proof positive that our youth are ready to roll up their sleeves and provide concrete solutions to address pressing pains in society. We at the Darwazah Center along with our partners, experts, mentors, and jury are ready to be catalysts in this much needed process.”

Background information: Since late 2019 Lebanon has been hit by the one of the worst economic, financial and fiscal crises in its history, which resulted in a devaluation rate of 90% and a significant increase in unemployment, inflation and poverty rates. Subsequently, the Darwazah Center for Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship has doubled down on activities that focus on local economic problems of import substitution, export promotion as well as unblocking foreign aid so we can facilitate the economic recovery of Lebanon.

​​​​​The establishment of “Samih Darwazah Center for Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship” at OSB was made possible in 2011 through a generous gift by the Darwazah Family, founders of the largest MENA-based pharmaceutical company with global reach—Hikma headquartered in Jordan. The Darwazah Center’s mission is to transform entrepreneurial thinking and practices within the MENA region and help organizations become innovative. The Center develops and promotes evidence-based approach to establishing, operating and growing ventures and businesses. Its work agenda includes entrepreneurship-innovation research, developing teaching case studies, venture acceleration & scale-up programs, running competitions, mentoring, and conferences.