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Haitians Find Hope in Mobile Money

Leon Kaye | Friday October 1st, 2010 | 0 Comments

Haitians have endured a most excruciating year.  Recovery from the January earthquake has progressed far too slowly, funds promised for the relief effort have been slow to arrive–and funds deposited have often been squandered.  Reconstruction has been painful–much of it has been done by hand.

But technology should have a role in rebuilding one of the first independent republics of the Western Hemisphere.  On Tuesday Mercy Corp has announced a partnership that will offer financial independence for Haitians who have no access to banking.  Now many workers who earn a living that also rebuilds their nation in turn can save, spend, and deposit money safely and easily.

Mercy Corps has partnered with Trilogy International to bring mobile banking to Haiti.  Residents enrolled in cash-for-work projects, or who receive cash and vouchers through emergency programs, can now securely store their money on mobile phones.  The beauty of this innovation is twofold.

First, the 100,000 participants have flexibility.  They can withdrawal funds, purchase goods from participating merchants, and transfer money to family members who are in need.  But perhaps even more important is that the service offers safety.  Transactions can occur discretely, and consumers do not have to carry cash, which is often risky in any volatile region.

What is exciting about the mobile money is how quickly Haitians have taken to the system.  Users love the discretion, ease, and safety that is has brought “banking to the unbanked.”  For now the program is between the cellular provider Voila and UniBank, but the enthusiasm is convincing Mercy Corps that other banks could participate as well.  For non-profits who have been criticized for wasting money, this shift will also force transparency.

Haiti’s financial revolution is a sign of how banking will evolve in the next decade.  Text-to-donate programs are already the norm, but our smartphones will become even more indispensable as they allow us to carry out more and more transactions.  The UK, for example, is phasing out paper checks by 2018, and other countries cannot be far behind.  Non-profits should benefit from this new technology paired with social media, and more consumers will develop an affinity for this system as well.  Perhaps in a decade, we will roll our eyes upward when someone uses that antiquated debit card at the checkout line instead of a smart-phone–the way we do now when someone dares to write a handwritten check in the express line.

A land in crisis may just give the rest of us a glimpse into the future.


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