by Yana Watson
In the darkest moments following the devastating earthquake two years ago, the promise that Haiti might “build back better” provided a glimmer of hope. Building back better became both a rallying cry and a challenge to the international development community. Could tragedy in fact become a turning point in Haiti’s history? Would the development community be able to do things differently, introducing innovative solutions to old problems?
I have spent several months working in Haiti over the past two years and, like many of my colleagues at Dalberg, have come to love the country. In our projects, we’ve joined with the United States government to help develop a strategy to support the country’s reconstruction, with the Haitian Private Sector Forum to identify critically needed post-earthquake investments, and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to increase access to finance in Haiti. Though much work remains to be done, I have seen instances of innovation in the efforts underway in Haiti that continue to keep my hope of building back better alive.
One of these exciting innovations is the Haiti Mobile Money Initiative, launched in 2010 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with USAID. Like Tameer’s EasyPaisa mobile banking platform, used in Pakistan following the floods, this initiative is an example of innovation empowering the victims of natural disasters: a $10 million prize pool to catalyze mobile money services in Haiti. Accelerating recovery and reconstruction after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti was a central impetus for launching the program, which aims to facilitate financial flows in the under-banked population and expedite humanitarian agencies’ delivery of cash assistance to victims.
Spurred by the prize pool’s rewards for reaching milestones in the delivery of mobile money services, two providers emerged. TchoTcho Mobile was launched by Digicel and Scotiabank, and T-Cash by Voila and Unibank. At present, both service providers offer consumers “cash in, cash out” and “person-to-person” (P2P) transfer services. In addition, Digicel offers mobile airtime purchases. Both service providers are expanding to include system payment functionality, and are developing interfaces to enable mobile wallets’ integration with bank accounts.
As measured by the volume of transactions, the adoption of mobile money in Haiti has been fast and is still growing. Both Digicel and Voila have made significant investments in customer acquisition, agent networks, marketing, and promotion. Although data is held confidential, interviews indicate demand to date has come from consumers and from the non-government organizations (NGOs) that use mobile money to distribute monetary aid and to pay people in cash-for-work programs. Indeed, six out of the 14 established aid programs that use mobile money in the entire world are operating in Haiti.
This fact alone is inspiring. And early research indicates that mobile distribution is indeed increasing recipient access and sense of empowerment. While mobile platforms still have much to prove, and their contribution to the quest to “build back better” remains to be seen, I believe the glimmer of hope for Haiti’s future burns brighter when innovations like this are introduced.