Despite the promise that technology can hold for poor communities or those struck by disaster, it's far from a panacea. This certainly seems the case with the Haiti Mobile Money Initiative, a mobile banking system backed by USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Designed as an alternative to brick-and-mortar banks with few branches and long lines, the system has still encountered resistance from customers who find it difficult to use or distrust it. "I'm not going to invest my money in something I don't see," says one traditional bank customer. "It could be a trick."
In some cases, they may be right. The initiative involves a virtual account linked to a customer's cellphone; they can send money by phone or collect cash from local stores that participate in the program. But if these stores run out of money (as has happened on at least one occasion), users could be left stranded. It's also subject to the same infrastructure problems as the rest of the country. "The electronic system in Haiti is not standing on its feet yet," says Ernst Figaro, a local cab driver. Although 800,000 people were registered, only 22,000 use mobile transfers regularly in a country of about 10 million.
Nonetheless, the initiative's backers expect it to succeed eventually, especially since mobile phones are so widely used. Government programs can use it to distribute subsidies to more people, and carrier Digicel plans to offer features like a mobile lottery or international wire transfers. And development workers like Greta Greathouse admit that the going has been slow, but still refer to it as a potentially successful work in progress. "We want it to be sustainable," she says, "and there's a lot of work that needs to be done."