In the aftermath of the January 2010 catastrophic earthquake that devastated Haiti, claiming almost 200,000 lives and displacing millions, Digicel partnered with Scotiabank and the Gates Foundation to roll out a mobile payment system that initially offered domestic transfers, payroll and deposit and withdrawal services.
The system, which has since expanded to provide mobile bill payments, point-of-sale purchases and electronic disbursement of remittances, opened the door for Haitians to engage in daily banking using their mobile phones.
While almost 90 per cent of the country’s population has a cellular device, a large section of the population has failed to embrace the new platform.
“The people that provide the system need to figure out how to make Haitians understand how to trust it,” said anthropology and sociology professor, Dr. Espelencia Baptiste, who was in Toronto last week to deliver the Diana Massiah lecture in Caribbean Studies at York University. “Mobile banking needs to make itself more aspirational and make people want to do it and it also needs to engage what I call ‘the influencers’ who are the 15-24 age demographic.”
The theme of Dr. Baptiste’s lecture was “Banking the Unbanked: Mobile Banking as Recovery in Post-Earthquake Haiti”.
An associate professor at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, Dr. Baptiste has experienced the challenges of banking in Haiti.
“When I was there two years ago, I spent four hours in a bank trying to make a deposit,” she said. “Doing the actual deposit took about three minutes, but the line of people waiting to do transactions was long and the process was tedious at times.”
She said frequent power failures are also part of the challenge of doing business in a bank and automated teller machine (ATM) network use is very limited.
“Do you want to go to an ATM machine for fear that someone might be watching you and you can be robbed?” asked Baptiste, who has conducted research on education, ethnicity and nationalism and state formation in St. Lucia and Mauritius. “I don’t think so.”
Born and raised in Haiti, Baptiste migrated to New York in 1986 to join family members. She completed high school in New York and her undergraduate degree at Colgate University prior to successfully pursuing her doctorate in 2002 at John Hopkins University.
A frequent visitor to Haiti to reunite with family members, including her parents who re-migrated seven years ago, Baptiste said the rebuilding process is going well.
“In my assessment based on my first visit after the earthquake in March 2010 and my last in July this year, the recovery has been amazing,” she said. “While the government recovery has been timid in terms of many buildings still being in ruins, Haitians – who are resilient people – have rebuilt their homes with some government help. There are not as many tents on streets as they were a few years ago, roads are being constructed and telephone service is being introduced in places where there was none. There are many positive things happening in the country.”
The three-year lecture series was established in 2013 to celebrate Massiah’s 65th birthday two years ago. A graduate of Queen’s College in Barbados, she migrated in the mid-1980s and has been active in the Barbadian community in the Greater Toronto Area.
Massiah is a former Harrison-Queen’s College Alumni Association Toronto chapter president and Barbados Ball board director.
Following the lecture, sponsored by York Centre for Education and Community and supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada; Jamaican PhD student, Denese Gascho, was presented with the $5,000 Grace & David Taylor Graduate Scholarship in Caribbean Studies.
The scholarship is intended to support doctoral students at York University whose research is related to Caribbean Studies so that they might focus on research during the fieldwork phase of their studies or while writing their thesis.
Enrolled in the joint communication and culture program at York and Ryerson Universities, Gascho is researching the impact of international copyright agreements on the development and growth of subscription television in Jamaica.
“There are almost 50 operators in Jamaica and I am in the process of talking to people about their experiences with cable TV,” said Gascho, the mother of two young children. “The scholarship will assist with my field research on the island.”
Completing her high school education at St. Andrew High School for Girls after spending five years at Immaculate Conception, Gascho did her undergraduate studies in media & communications at the University of the West Indies and her Master’s at the University of Westminster where she was a Quintin Hogg scholar.
While attending university in England, she produced a short documentary on the social and environmental effects of the government’s plans to build two runways in the south east of the United Kingdom.
Gascho, who worked as a senior political reporter and producer at Television Jamaica and taught at the University of Technology, plans to graduate next year.