The movement of migrants, merchandise, money – and mobile phones

by Erin B Taylor on 11/06/2012

in Anthropology

Delivering Goods to Market on a Motorbike, Pedernales. Photo by Gawain Lynch

Victor takes his Digicel phone out of his Voilá backpack and places it on the table, along with a fake Dominican identity card, an out-of-circulation Haitian banknote and the keys to his one-room house that he shares with his wife and their two children. We’re interviewing him about his material possessions as a way of better understanding the life of Haitians who live and work on the Dominican-Haitian border. Lacking immigration papers and therefore unable to find fixed employment, Victor depends upon his self-employment as a ‘motorconchista’, ferrying passengers and running errands on his 100cc motorbike. He makes around 3000 pesos ($75 USD) per month, less than half the minimum Dominican wage. Although he lives and works in Pedernales on the Dominican side of the border, Victor’s customers are mainly Haitians from Anse-à-Pitres or farther afield who either cross the border regularly to buy and sell goods and services, or who send him on their behalf.

Victor’s mobile phone is key to his ability to earn, and is slowly taking on a new role with the introduction of mobile money to Anse-à-Pitres. Digicel’s mobile money service, TchoTcho Mobile, opened for business in February 2012 in the local branch of Fonkoze, a Haitian micro-credit institution. Introduced with no attempt to market it locally and without any TchoTcho Mobile signage at all in the branch, residents of Anse-à-Pitres are slow on the uptake. Not surprisingly, Victor had little idea what mobile money was or how it operated until he was compelled to learn more by one of his own clients. For about a year, his cousin Laura, who lives ninety kilometres away in Jacmel, has been sending him money each month to pay her Sky satellite television bill on the Dominican side of the border. Before mobile money, the only way that Laura could send cash to Victor was to entrust it with a captain of one of the fishing-cum-cargo boat that travels twice-weekly along the south coast. Rather than continue to send the money via this reliable yet slow method, she asked Victor to sign up to TchoTcho Mobile. However, as Victor wasn’t confident about signing up to mobile money, a friend of Laura’s bought a new SIM card and registered for TchoTcho mobile in his own name. He gave the card to Victor and explained to him how to use the service. Now, Victor cashes out Laura’s money in Fonkoze before he heads back across the border to pay her bill in BanReservas.

This brief story highlights two important factors that my co-researchers and I have learned about mobile money in Haiti since we began researching domestic remittance routes and border crossings in Phase I of our research in June 2010. First, despite the poverty of the border region, there is a vast array of traffic of people, goods, and cash. Second, because they can benefit from mobile money, people will discover it and find ways to use it despite obstacles limiting its consumption. While it would be far better if Victor had signed up in his own name (after all, he owns a Digicel phone), he is doing what Haitians are accustomed to do in the absence of information and resources: they teach each other tricks and tools to improve their collective working and social lives, inventing applications that go far beyond the intentions of technology designers.

This is a point that has been constantly reinforced in all three phases of our ‘Mobiles, Migrants and Money‘ project, funded by the IMTFI. In Phase I, we identified the importance of social intermediaries to the movement of money around Haiti, and Dr. Heather Horst correctly predicted that these figures would retain a key role in the adoption of mobile money. During Phase II, Dr. Espelencia Baptiste and I watched and learned as residents of Port-au-Prince adapted mobile money – which was expected to be mainly used for money transfers or cash payments – as a savings tool, making ‘Me2Me’ payments in which they would deposit money at one agent and withdraw it at a later time, thus providing themselves with greater security than if they were to cart cash around town or store it in their home.

In Phase III, Dr. Heather Horst, Gawain Lynch and I tried to understand some of the networks in which mobile phones travel. Yes, you read that correctly: it’s not just migrants, merchandise and money that travel around trade routes; rather, mobile phones appear to also have a high degree of mobility as people loan or gift them to each other, or send them with a friend to be repaired. In the three months that we were on the border, there was a steady stream of mobile phones and SIM cards passing through Victor’s home, with or without their purported owners.

To understand the logic behind this movement of mobiles, it is necessary to have a picture of how Haitians utilise the communications ecology of the border to their own advantage. Constantly having to move across national borders could be a distinct inconvenience for those of us who are used to owning one, ego-centred phone. For Haitians, however, owning multiple phones increases their ability to communicate with vast social networks located on both sides of the island. Dominicans, conversely, generally own just one phone, as they have little social or economic involvement with Haiti.

It is also necessary to understand the materiality of the phone itself and the environment in which it is used. Maintaining a phone – its address book, battery, or credit – requires thought and planning. Some interviewees had notebooks or pieces of paper where they would note down phone numbers in order to have a record, should their mobile be lost or stolen. Other interviewees who lived in houses without electricity would plan their day and their movements around the need to charge their phone, either in their workplace (especially in the case of domestic servants working in Pedernales), a friend’s house, or even in Fonkoze itself. There, people pay a small fee to plug their mobile into the wall, leaving it unattended for a couple of hours while it charged. For owners of multiple phones with both Dominican and Haitian companies, there are ways of avoiding crossing the border to top up phone credit. Why bother making the trek when you can give Victor your number and pay him a few pesos to do it for you?

What we discovered in Haiti was not at all the universal state of misery and woe that development agencies so often represent. Nor did we necessarily find the classic ‘success’ stories that are meant to show that life is improving. Rather, we found Haitians doing what they have quite likely always done, at least since the anthropologist Sidney Mintz wrote about produce markets in the 1950s. Haiti is a creative, connected market society, a constant flurry of buying, selling, and inventing ways to fill market niches that operates entirely independently of any government, development agency, or corporation. Despite a severe lack of information and infrastructure, Haitians make things work for them in circumstances that could often work against them. Mobile phones and mobile money may well speed up the circulation of migrants, money, and merchandise in Haiti, but they do so within a socioeconomic system that has been set up for hundreds of years to be adaptive to changes and new opportunities.

Erin B. Taylor

Erin B. Taylor

Post Doctoral Research Fellow, Instituto de Ciências Sociais, University of Lisbon at Research Fellow, Digital Ethnography Research Centre

Erin originally studied fine art, but she defected to anthropology when she realised that she was far better at deploying a pen for writing than for drawing. She is a cultural anthropologist who is currently living in Lisbon, Portugal, where she has a full-time research position at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais (ICS).

Erin B. Taylor
Erin B. Taylor

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