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Probably most of Haiti had a cell phone before I did

January 30, 2011

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This past year I found myself in the middle of a culture clash. It wasn't because I went to Haiti for the first time – though that did happen too. It was because Mercy Corps wanted to help bring first-of-its-kind mobile technology to Haiti. And I found myself thinking: Why?

I was new on the job of reporting back on Mercy Corps’ progress on helping Haitians recover from the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that all but destroyed Port-au-Prince and killed thousands of people.

And I started to hear about this new initiative that we'd started up, to use mobile phones to deliver humanitarian aid – specifically cash – to families struggling to survive.

On principle, I thought, introducing mobile technology to deliver aid to Haiti was a great idea. But, I wondered, was it the right time for us to invest time and resources toward bringing something brand new to Haiti, when instead we could just focus on delivering services there in the safer, tried-and-true kind of way?

Regardless – our mobile money initiative moved forward, in partnership with cellphone company Voila and Haitian bank Unibank, and in large part due to the heroic efforts of project manager Kokoevi Sossouvi. She, in turn, was wholeheartedly backed by our leadership.

This could be huge, they told me. By using cellphones to deliver aid we could help drive the adoption of cell phones being used like debit cards across Haiti. Once this catches on, Haitians would be able to use their phones to store savings and pay bills and transfer money. Millions of Haitians would get banking services for the first time. It would change the way that commerce happened in the country and give families greater economic stability and security – in fact, really, there was no telling all the types of economic developments that could take place as a result. And we didn't know entirely if it would work. These types of accounts have worked in Kenya, but could you bring it to Haiti too? Nobody knew.

I felt uncertain. And then realization crept in … See, I'm a late adopter. I mean, I only got a cell phone a couple years ago. On a personal level, I realized, with some amusement, I'm kind of at odds with my organization's culture of forward-thinking social innovation. I like to take risks, but in a very deliberate, measured way. And, certainly technologically, I'm not that out there. Last night I met up with a friend who was raving about her new ipad. As she extolled its features with all the fanaticism of an early adopter, I smiled and thought, "Five years from now, when they put an iphone, ipad and imac all in one – and it comes down in price – that's when I'll get one."

And it has struck me as funny ever since because this culture of innovation and trying out new ideas is one of the most important characteristics of Mercy Corps for me, and what makes it different.

Today, Mercy Corps has made some great progress on helping introduce mobile money to Haiti. In St. Marc, we have trained 1,500 families to use their phones to purchase food (we give them $40/month in assistance) and we have nearly 50 stores participating as vendors. A few weeks ago, Jason Beaubien from NPR came out to check out what we've been doing, and his story ran in today’s Weekend Edition.

The point that Mercy Corps are working toward now with our partners Voila and Unibank is how to get mobile money to go viral and spread quickly across the country. It hasn't happened yet, but it could just be a matter of time. My most recent realization about mobile money is that next year when I visit Haiti, I might be able to use my phone to buy a mango from a street stand. Amazing. That Mercy Corps would have had a part in that happening in Haiti is very cool. As so many of us have seen in the last year, creating long-term change in Haiti is a really difficult thing to do. But that's what this investment in mobile money is all about -- and it still looks like it will succeed. I have to give it to my colleagues and leadership: That's some big thinking.

On a personal level, I've learned a lot from seeing it in action.