Getting money in Haiti can be a harrowing experience: Bank branches are few, most of them are in the capital and a simple transaction can take half a day. Cash machines are scarce, often broken or empty and thieves often wait nearby in the hope of finding an easy mark.
Aid agencies trying to remake Haiti after a catastrophic earthquake are promoting a new way to bypass banks altogether: easy money transfers by cellphone.
The US government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have pumped millions of US dollars into the plan, which lets people save and move money in mobile phone accounts and quickly withdraw it at a network of retail stores around the country.
As yet, few Haitians are buying the idea, which has become one of many post-quake projects to fall short of expectations and a reminder of how hard it is to change a society that has been repeatedly set back by political upheaval and natural disasters.
“I’m not going to invest my money in something I don’t see,” said James Alexis, a 33-year-old truck driver, as he stood in line at a bank in downtown Port-au-Prince, a wait he expected would take two hours. “It could be a trick.”
Backers admit adoption has been slower than expected, though they remain optimistic it will expand, in part because so many Haitians rely on cellphones, often to find jobs. About 800,000 people initially registered for the service, even if only about 22,000 people regularly use it.
The service “has gone on in the face of political violence, political instability, cholera, gas shortages, you name it, and we’re this far,” said Greta Greathouse, director of a US Agency for International Development program to improve financial services in Haiti. “Does it mean we are there yet? No. We want it to be sustainable and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,”
Gates Foundation spokesman Chris Williams, said by telephone from Seattle that the project is a “work in progress,” but that it’s going well.
The project began months after the January 2010 earthquake when the Gates Foundation announced that it was creating the Haiti Mobile Money Initiative with a US$10 million donation. USAID contributed another US$5 million for technical assistance.
The idea was to help the 90 percent of Haitians who do not use banks by replicating a mobile money-transfer system that has gained popularity in countries such as Kenya, Uganda and the Philippines.
Two local cellphone companies, Digicel Group and Voila, rushed to compete for the money by setting up their own mobile money transfer systems, and so far have been awarded a total of US$6.8 million from the foundation.
The system is essentially an account linked to the telephone. Users can transfer up to US$250 at a time to another subscriber, who can then withdraw the money from a network of shops ranging from auto-parts stores to Internet cafes. As much as US$1,500 can be transferred in a month. Currently, international transfers are not allowed.
Digicel-Haiti’s former chief executive Maarten Boute said at a Barcelona conference in February that it was not easy to explain the system.
“Our main lesson learned is how difficult it is to educate customers,” said Boute, who is now a senior adviser to the Jamaica-based company.
The Christian charity World Vision joined the program, seeing it as a simple, cash-free way to pay small rental subsidies to help people move out of the gloomy settlements that sprang up after the earthquake.