More than a year after an earthquake rocked Haiti’s southern peninsula, Wilson Colin is still waiting for financial aid. He had expected it to arrive quickly, since it was supposed to be delivered digitally — unencumbered by the logistics of moving physical goods around, able to pass effortlessly over ruined roads and through the air, deposited as a payment to a SIM card by international aid bodies like the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM). But the SIM card never arrived.
“We’re still waiting,” Colin told Rest of World. The 39-year-old has been unable to work as a mason since he was shot by an armed group this past November. “We’re living badly, surrounded by bandits and insecurity, without any support,” he said.
In previous disasters, aid in Haiti mainly took the form of food distribution and reconstruction projects. Now, it’s done in large part through direct cash transfers via fintech services, like MonCash — part of the Jamaica-based telecommunications company Digicel, which is one of Haiti’s largest and most powerful mobile providers.
Fintech-based aid was supposed to provide faster, more secure, and inclusive assistance by cutting out intermediaries and sending money directly to beneficiaries’ cellphones. But aid workers, residents, local journalists from the commune of Beaumont, and officials from the Directorate for Civil Protection (DPC) — a national disaster management and distribution organization — told Rest of World a large portion of these funds never reached victims. This has been attributed to a variety of issues ranging from technical glitches that delay payments for weeks to widespread allegations of corruption, including claims that local officials have simply been keeping the SIM cards that contain the aid provided by international organizations.
Jessica Hsu, an anthropologist and researcher who has been working on advocacy for over two decades in Haiti, told Rest of World that technological innovation was failing to solve old problems born of poor infrastructure, disinformation, and cronyism.
After a massive earthquake hit the island nation in 2010, the amount of aid delivered to Haiti reached four times the country’s total internal revenue — $13.5 billion in donations coming mostly from the U.S. According to reports from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a think tank and anti-corruption watchdog, the majority of that aid went to cover overhead costs of international companies or to development projects that did not materialize.
Fintech promised to change the way aid was delivered. Hazem El Zein, head of the Cash-Based Transfer Unit for the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), told Rest of World cash transfers now account for more than 40% of its operations globally. In Haiti, only 15% of WFP’s aid transfers are done digitally, but that’s a fivefold increase since the pandemic started, said El Zein. The use of digital cash transfers in Haiti by CARE, an international humanitarian agency focused on development and emergency relief, went from 15% to around 75% in the same period.
Sixty-five percent of the Haitian population has a mobile device. Beyond aid, digital wallets have become a basic way in which people send and receive payments. Given ongoing gas shortages and armed conflicts, road travel has become nearly impossible in certain places, making it difficult to move cash around.
The ability to transfer aid immediately across the country lowers handling costs. MonCash’s fees range from 2% to 6% for aid agencies like WFP. For CARE, that rate is around 5.5%. Around 10% more goes towards overheads, like paying staff. After factoring in the cost of distribution and security, for every dollar of donor money sent to Haiti via fintech transfers, around 84% ends up in the beneficiary’s hands versus 74% in the case of traditional aid distribution, said El Zein.
“[Aid organizations] are pushing for more and more digital transfers because they provide the flexibility for us to respond in a very short time … and they provide traceability,” he said. “Basically, we can show our donors where the money is going.”
But, while digital wallets ensure that aid assistance continues to flow into Haiti, fintech solutions have not been able to bridge issues on the ground.
A prominent complaint among Haitian disaster victims has been that they have not received promised aid relief after registering with MonCash or aid organization agents. This is often where the promise of aid delivered straight to a phone comes up short. Though the money transfer itself is digital, most beneficiaries, like Colin, need to be sent the special SIM card, adding a necessary physical component to the process — a difficult prospect due to Haiti’s earthquake-ruined infrastructure. “Before February 2023, a deteriorating security situation caused delays to e-money distributions,” Pedro Rodrigues, a communications officer for WFP, told Rest of World.
Even when the SIM cards do manage to arrive at their destinations, the digital infrastructure too is found wanting. Internet and mobile access is limited, and payment delays have also been attributed to spotty cellphone coverage, Fiammetta Cappellini, country representative for AVSI Haiti, an international aid organization, told Rest of World.
Both aid organization representatives claim there have been few complaints. According to Rodrigues, “the [SIM distribution] program is now fully operational and active.” But the accumulating issues generate mistrust and misinformation about who should be getting aid. “No program is immune to error,” Cappellini said, but Hsu, the advocacy worker, worries that aid organizations keep facing the same pitfalls. “One of the big issues in Haiti is that for the last 50 years, [NGOs] have been trained to work with the state,” Hsu said. “But what happens when the state doesn’t work? They are never taught about the local realities.”
65% The percentage of Haiti’s population with a mobile device.DataReportal
Issues with payment distribution make it difficult to confirm allegations that aid has gone missing due to corruption, though they are widely reported across Haiti. Sadrack Baptiste, a civil protection officer stationed in Beaumont in southern Haiti’s Grand’Anse department, told Rest of World that many in the community he serves have never received the cash transfers promised by aid organizations. He said he’s heard of this happening all over the country, with fellow civil protection agents often talking about local mayors who hand out hundreds of SIM cards — loaded with monthly aid deposits — as gifts for friends and political supporters. Rest of World spoke to three other civil protection agents who recounted hearing or witnessing similar accounts of corruption.
Representatives from CARE, AVSI Haiti, and WFP said they trace the delivery of SIM cards closely until the moment they are handed over to local stakeholders, like mayors or MonCash representatives.
Job Joseph, director of mobilization at the Haiti Response Coalition (HRC), a cross-sector platform uniting organizations to coordinate relief efforts and crisis response, told Rest of World that in June 2022, HRC held a conference where representatives of organizations, community leaders, and local authorities shared instances of corruption. Many complained about missing SIM cards or beneficiaries being charged extortionate fees by MonCash representatives, Joseph said.
Baptiste and Marc Daniel, a local journalist in Beaumont, told Rest of World these acts of corruption often go unreported because of the distance that separates would-be beneficiaries and the organizations handing out the aid. “This happens mostly in areas where there isn’t a lot of infrastructure,” Joseph said. Whistleblowers also have a lot more to lose from accusing corrupt local powerbrokers. “No one ends up filing a complaint,” Jean Raymond, another civil protection officer from Beaumont, told Rest of World.
Since 2018, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and WFP have been trying to take measures to address corruption and misinformation. Maarten Boute, the CEO of Digicel Haiti, MonCash’s parent company, told Rest of World it was on the aid organizations and the government to properly manage the delivery of funds through fintech services like digital wallets. “We just want to help with the paradigm shift [towards mobile payments],” he said.
Hsu agrees that by relying so heavily on technological solutions, aid organizations are shirking their responsibilities. “Many communities actually ask you to put your boots on and walk,” Hsu said. “There isn’t that monitoring. So it just creates a context of impunity.”