THE BLOG

Can Cell Phones Rescue Haiti?

01/12/2011 10:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I visited Haiti in November, I saw one of the most effective weapons in the fight against poverty -- an intervention that may well be the key to Haiti's long-term recovery. It wasn't a doctor combating cholera, a new shelter for the homeless, or food being distributed to hungry families. It was a cell phone.

Cell phones are very popular in Haiti. Haitians -- like most people around the world -- use phones to keep in touch, find jobs, and maintain networks during times of emergency. Cell phones are substantially cheaper than in the U.S., and in a country where land lines are sparse, cell technology has allowed Haitians to leapfrog the lack of a wired network. It is estimated that 85 percent of Haitians have access to a cell phone.

What most Haitians don't have is a bank account. That means they have no way to accumulate, spend or manage their money. They cannot save to purchase medicines or pay for school fees for their children. They cannot send money to needy relatives across the island. They are always at risk of being robbed. For impoverished families, this lack of financial services is crippling.

In Kenya, a service call MPesa has allowed millions of people to access financial services via cell technology, using their phones as "mobile wallets" to securely store and transfer funds and pay bills. MPesa's success has not yet been replicated in any other part of the world, but Haiti is showing great promise.

I saw this technology at work in Mirebalais, a city in Haiti's Central Plateau where many earthquake survivors have fled. Mercy Corps is providing thousands of families with vouchers to buy food and cash to purchase other essentials. In partnership with the wireless service provider Voila and the Haitian bank Unibank, people receive this assistance through cell phones.

Here's how it works: A voucher recipient has a cell phone account number. Mercy Corps transfers money directly into her mobile account using a technology called USSD, similar to SMS messaging. In a store, she interacts with the sales clerk, using her PIN number and the code for the store to deduct the price of a bag of rice, obtain a confirmation message on her phone, and leave with her rice in hand. Transferring money works in a similarly simple and secure way. All of the unused money is stored on the phones.

Haitians have embraced the mobile wallet. Benita Bellevue, one of the Haitians receiving assistance from Mercy Corps told me, "I like that mobile payment is discrete. No one knows when I receive the money." Benita won't have to carry cash with her or store it in a can or under her mattress, always worried about theft or loss. She can accumulate savings right on her phone.

Cell phones are not the silver bullet that will solve all of Haiti's problems. One year after the earthquake, Port-au-Prince is still devastated with over one million people living in make-shift tent camps. While Hurricane Tomas' center did not hit Haiti this fall, heavy rains left the city's poor wading through flooded streets and sleeping in mud. Cholera, which hasn't been seen in Haiti in 50 years, made an unexpected return and has killed more than 3300 people. It's clear that Haitians need more than cell phones.

Yet when you ask Haitians what they want most, the overwhelming majority will tell you they need money to support their families. After Haitians get clean water, food, shelter and medicine -- all the trappings of traditional aid packages -- they will still lack basic economic opportunities. That's where the cell phones come in.

Although Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, there are opportunities to use technology in innovative ways. As Jokebed August, another mobile wallet participant explained, "I am proud to be a part of this technological innovation. I want to spread the word."