Playing digital catch-up: Finding opportunities for Haiti

04/06/2017 10:44 am ET

Haiti is behind the rest of the world in the digital revolution. Internet coverage remains limited and expensive. Just four percent of households have access, and fewer than 1% of Haitians have mobile Internet. Some government processes that are digitized elsewhere are still done here in the old-fashioned way. This reduces opportunities for Haitians and slows down economic growth. Haiti could be richer with faster Internet and more digitization.

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The research project Haiti Priorise is releasing two research papers that examine different ways to get more from the digital revolution.

The first paper is by Dr Pantelis Koutroumpis, Research Fellow at Imperial College Business School. He says what Haiti really needs is a holistic National Broadband Plan with targets for coverage, capacity, and competition. In its absence, he proposes improving the infrastructure that powers Haiti’s Internet, along with the government’s processes.

In Haiti Priorise, expert researchers from Haiti and abroad conduct cost-benefit analyses on specific investment proposals, which are released to help foster a national conversation on what policies should be done first. In May, an eminent panel of Haitian experts and a Nobel laureate economist will examine all of the research, as will a youth forum with attendees from around the country.

Dr. Koutroumpis’s first proposal is to install a second under-sea cable to generate faster Internet speeds. This will boost mobile broadband access from less than 1% today, to 50 percent by 2021.

Each kilometer of cable costs $90,000 (6.2 million gourdes). It would need to cover around 250kms, so the cable’s price is $22.5 million dollars (1.5 billion gourdes). The Internet transmission would cost an increasing amount each year, hitting $14 million (966 million gourdes) in 2021.

In all, this investment would require $841 million (56 billion gourdes) – so it is not cheap.

The increased connectivity combined with improved connection speeds (3G/4G) and low prices will help start new businesses that digitize everyday activities, while individuals will be able to better monitor their business activities and interact with the government.

Dr. Koutroumpis predicts the increase in Internet speed will boost Haitian economic growth each year by 0.1 percent. That may not sound like a lot, but in the year 2021 it means Haiti will be about 4 billion gourdes richer.

More money will be made each year in earnings from internet connections – around 571 million gourdes in 2021.

In total, every gourde spent on this initiative is expected to bring benefits worth 12 gourdes.

The second approach is to digitize bureaucratic processes. Dr. Koutroumpis zeroes in on a range of examples where he finds digitization could make a lot of difference.

Currently, it takes 97 days to register a new business and 6-9 months to register property, both a lot longer than the Latin America and Caribbean average. These inefficiencies cost money and time.

By digitizing the processes, Dr. Koutroumpis estimates that the time taken to start a business could be cut to 12 days, and property registration to just 11 days. Similarly, he suggests setting up a credit bureau to increase and improve access to finance from 1.6% to 20% of small- and medium-sized businesses.

There would be set-up costs associated with all of these digitization initiatives, but there would be benefits. For every gourde spent across digitization endeavors, the researcher estimates that there would be nearly 5 gourdes of benefit to Haiti.

A second researcher focuses on a specific area where digitization could help Haiti: the civil registration system.

Moïse Celicourt, Economics Professor at the University Notre Dame of Haiti (UNDH) finds that nearly 30% of children aged under four do not have a certificate of birth registration. This deprives the child of fundamental rights and it risks condemning him or her to exclusion in society.

Prof. Celicourt proposes computerization of the birth registration process in order to provide birth certificates to all newborns, and children up to the age of four.

The civil registry has already started undergoing a process of modernization, which culminated in the creation of the National Identification Office, whose mission is to identify all Haitians from birth. However, this is focused on registering adults.

Because the majority of Haitian mothers give birth at home, registering a child can be a time-consuming process involving repeated travel to registry offices.

More than 340,000 young children have no birth certificates. Prof. Celicourt’s proposal would affect 2 million children.

Digitization would save the applicants time and transportation costs, and would save the government money. In financial terms, these benefits would each be worth around $3-4 million dollars (200-270 million gourdes).

But the benefits would continue throughout the children’s lives: they would be guaranteed the right to vote, and access to the financial system.

The costs and benefits vary depending on whether a lack of birth certificates is preventing children from going to school. While education regulations stipulate that students cannot sit state exams without a birth certificate, it is difficult to gauge whether this is enforced. If it does happen, then each gourde spent on this initiative could create benefits worth ten gourdes to society. If it is not a widespread practice, the benefits are considerably lower – although it is safe to assume that there is potential in the system for corruption, which birth certificates would eliminate.

While today Haiti is behind other countries on Internet access, these investments would help it to catch up, and compete in the digital age.

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