On Monday I arrived in Port-au-Prince to conduct the next phase of my project with Dr. Heather Horst and Dr. Espelencia Baptiste on mobile phones, money, and movement of people in Haiti. Last year we were researching the flow remittances around the country. Since we left, Digicel and Voilá have both launched mobile money services (TchoTcho Mobile and T-Cash respectively). We're back to witness the rollout and see how people are using it.
In Haiti, however, research isn't always so easy. Upon landing in the capital, I learned that Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier had returned the day before me, and that Aristide was also threatening to return. Everyone was talking about it, but no-one was sure what it meant. Would the Haitian government arrest Baby Doc? After all, he is travelling on an expired French diplomatic passport. Would there be riots? He doesn't have many supporters left but there are plenty of young men on the streets with little to do who might feel the urge to create trouble.
On Tuesday I headed out with Espy to begin research. We didn't get far: we had just interviewed a Digicel employee and were getting our mobiles setup when Espy got a call from a friend telling her that Duvalier had been arrested, and that wherever we were, we should get out now. So we tied up what we were doing and headed back to the car.
Espy says Haiti is like this: it's normally calm and friendly, but the city's mood can change within the space of fifteen minutes. You have to be alert for those moments and ready to act. Keep your ear to the ground, maintain your car so that it doesn't break down at the wrong moment, keep it full of fuel, and stockpile food. In the end, nothing happened, but you never know. Duvalier was returned to his hotel and kept under watch.
The next day we resumed research. Espy arrived a month before me and has done some fantastic ground work so I spent the next few days quizzing her and accompanying her on visits to various TchoTcho Mobile agents. So far people seem pretty happy with the service: it's well priced, easy to use (so long as the infrastructure is working), and saves a whole lot of time and money compared to other transfer services. Espy's using hers primarily to top up her phone credit. This way she saves on paying the 10% tax you have to hand over when you buy a phone card, and she can top up when the shops are shut.
Over the next couple of months we're going to work with customers and agents to get a sense of how mobile money rolls out across the country, how people are using mobile money creatively, whether it resolves old problems involved in transferring money, what problems exist, and how it affects social relations.
We'll be working primarily in Port-au-Prince, where services are mainly located, with a couple of trips to the provinces. W are also be publishing a more formal blog on the IMTFI website. This blog is more for my general observations on life and events here.
Welcome to Haiti!