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Cryptocurrency in Conflict Zones: Risks and Opportunities

For the past two weeks, the world’s attention has been firmly fixed on Afghanistan. One critical challenge, both for those fleeing and those left behind, is access to money.  The banking system is on the verge of collapse, with many branches closed and those which are open quickly running out of cash. There are long-term concerns for what Taliban rule will mean for the economy and for people’s livelihoods. In the face of this uncertainty, a small but increasing number of Afghans are reportedly turning to cryptocurrency as a way to shore up their savings, evade Taliban oversight, and maintain international access.

There have been similar developments in other conflict zones and politically unstable countries. According to a Guardian article earlier this year, Libya, Palestine and Syria neared the top in online searches for bitcoin and other digital currencies, and there are reports of growing usage in troubled countries including Venezuela, Iran, Zimbabwe and Lebanon. Many of these countries have a substantial middle class with moderate levels of savings and financial literacy and high internet penetration rates – the ideal conditions for crypto adoption. The phenomenon has gained scholarly attention; Boston University convened a task force in 2015 to explore how cryptocurrencies could provide assistance in conflict zones. So how realistic is this idea?  And what financial crime challenges would wider adoption bring in its wake?

Unlike in developed markets, where crypto adoption was initially driven by ideology and later by speculation, in fragile states adoption is mostly driven by practical need. Virtual currencies can offer solutions to a number of critical problems:

  • Inflation: despite the inherent instability of crypto assets themselves, they can be a good hedge in jurisdictions afflicted by severe currency depreciation. Both Venezuela and Iran have witnessed increasing crypto adoption in the face of dramatic inflation – in Venezuela’s case, peaking at 10,000,000% in 2019. Wealthier individuals in such countries have previously turned to stock markets and physical assets such as gold and property to protect their wealth, but crypto offers a more accessible option to those with smaller amounts to invest.
  • Circumventing sanctions controls: crypto is sometimes the only solution for those in sanctioned countries who cannot move money abroad any other way. Many small businesses and freelancers in Iran, for instance, choose to be paid in crypto as they are not able to receive international bank transfers or use services like PayPal.
  • Avoiding currency controls in countries with restrictions on the amount of currency that can be moved abroad. For instance, during the Lebanese financial crisis which broke out in 2019, customers’ savings were effectively frozen by banks imposing informal capital controls and blocking transfers abroad. New regulations were introduced in May 2020 to permit foreign currency withdrawals, but these were limited to $50 to a few hundred dollars a month, with transfers abroad capped at $50,000 a year for “necessary matters” only. Growing numbers of Lebanese citizens are choosing to keep their savings in cryptocurrency to maintain control and prevent losing it to bank- or state-imposed restrictions.
  • Uncensored: while the lack of centralised control was originally a purely ideological plus point, in conflict zones this is often of practical importance. The censorship-resilient system reassures users who have lost faith in their national financial systems and want to keep their assets out of reach of the authorities, and safe from seizure, freezes or other restrictions.
  • Price and speed: Perhaps most obviously, crypto offers faster and cheaper overseas transfers. While this is a positive anywhere, it’s especially useful in unstable countries which have large diasporas and are heavily reliant on remittances (e.g. Somalia where remittances account for a huge 23% of GDP). It is also a key consideration in countries deemed to be high risk and “derisked” by global banks, where the local banking network is poorly connected internationally, resulting in higher fees, longer waits, and greater inconvenience.

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Nevertheless, there are still clearly numerous barriers to more widespread adoption. Top of the list in most emerging markets is a lack of awareness, and unreliable access to the internet. In high-risk and fragile states, there are additional barriers in the form of access to the banking system. Crypto may seem like a good solution for the unbanked, but not being able to use a bank account or credit card to trade restricts the type of platforms available. Users may also lack the ID documents required to open accounts with the larger exchanges.

For this reason, crypto activity in fragile countries rarely takes place on international, centralised exchanges. It is mostly driven by decentralised P2P exchanges, which do not require KYC and allow users to buy and sell in cash – either through local crypto-to-cash brokers or in-person payments. Social media is also increasingly used to match local buyers and sellers. These platforms help customers avoid restrictions imposed by larger exchanges such as geoblocking; under pressure from their banking partners, a growing number of exchanges have banned users based in Iran, for instance. In other instances, users buy and sell crypto with the help of friends or family based abroad with fiat bank accounts and credit cards, who can purchase and hold crypto on the user’s behalf. In a creative blend of the old and the new, hawala dealers can also facilitate purchases, either by sending or receiving money from friends and family overseas, or by letting people cash out by selling their coins to the dealer in exchange for local currency.

Conflict zones are inherently high-risk for financial crime including arms trafficking, sanctions evasion, corruption, and terrorist financing, and P2P activity on decentralised exchanges only exacerbates these risks. The absence of KYC controls and the use of cash are ideal for criminal actors as well as civilian users. Having associates or hawala dealers making purchases and holding crypto on behalf of a user in a fragile state clearly obscures the true owner and source of the funds. The use of P2P exchanges is also risky for users themselves, as they are more exposed to fraud and theft when making cash payments or using exchanges without escrow services.

Unsurprisingly, governments in conflict-affected and fragile states are unlikely to be too concerned with developing the cryptocurrency regulatory environment. The onus therefore falls on financial institutions to find ways to monitor developments and address the risks posed.  One clear lesson is the need to understand the broader context, looking at political and security developments to predict and engage with peaks in demand.  Widespread adoption remains unlikely, given the numerous challenges around infrastructure, trust and education.  Nevertheless, it is clear that crypto will remain an appealing option for some, as long as the traditional financial system fails to offer a better alternative. Finding ways to reduce the risks and integrate these users into a regulated crypto ecosystem could provide new options for financial inclusion for the most vulnerable.

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By Maya Braine, September 2, 2021, published on FINTRAIL

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