by Francisco Osorio
The Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion published this report by Espelencia Baptiste, Heather A. Horst and Erin B. Taylor. The purpose is to study “the variety of ways in which money, people and goods circulate” in Haiti. I will concentrate only on the role of mobile phones given in this study.
The study was conducted in 2010 based on 90 interviews and 5 focus groups, six months after the earthquake the whole world witnessed. The description of current life in Haiti is breath taken, although the report is optimistic somehow and willing to propose solutions to improve life in Haiti.
Following no particular order, the first element I will describe from the report is its opinion about if M-Pesa could be applicable in Haiti. They say “one of the key distinctions between the M-Pesa success in Kenya and the potential of mobile money in Haiti will be the ability to leverage the social and economic power of the diaspora” (p.24). Unfortunately, I don’t understand very well what they mean with leverage. The report acknowledges the huge importance of remittances from abroad, but I don’t see why those remittances should be “leveraged”. In a different reading, perhaps they only argue that the possible M-Pesa for Haiti should consider that in the current context, remittances are one of the strongest sources of income. The report continues saying that “a model for incorporating the diaspora into future financial services in Haiti may be based in the Philippines where remittances and diasporas play a central role in the day-to-day economic affairs of Filipinos” (p.24). The report doesn’t say why this could be the case. Again, in a different reading, perhaps they are saying that it could be interesting to look at successful models, such as the Philippines.
The second element I want to describe from the report is the importance they put on intermediaries in relationship with mobile money services. This is a really important point. Contrary to some literature on mobile phones studies where it’s all about to bypass the middleman, this report argues the opposite: if mobile money services have a chance to be successful in Haiti, it would be by the role played of intermediaries helping between poor people and money services. The argument is absolutely clear. Mobile money services should consider Haitian culture. One element of their culture is the role social networks currently play in relationship to the circulation of money. The infrastructure we know based on banks and ATMs simply is not there yet, so money passes through hands in a social network. A mobile phone service could help to transfer money easily, avoid theft, and allow some form of credit. It is precisely in this new possibility that intermediaries could help by proving support and education because people trust them.
Finally, the report shows mobile phones ownership has been consistently increased during the years. The same trend can be found elsewhere in the world. Other similar findings are that people try to use when possible different phones to speak to different people depending on the network they are (charges between networks are expensive, that’s why in some countries phones use dual sim cards). In the case of Haiti, some people in the border have two phones, one of them from a Dominican Republic network, so they can reach people using that network.
Baptiste, E; Horst, H. and Taylor, E. 2010. Haitian Monetary Ecologies and Repertoires: A qualitative snapshot of money transfer and savings. Report from the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion. November 16, available at http://www.imtfi.uci.edu/imtfi_haiti_money_transfer_project