Every morning, three Haitian women greet me in my office. Depicted in a painting above my desk, the market ladies serve as a daily reminder of the entrepreneurial spirit, strength, and resilience of the Haitian people.
Following the devastating earthquake in January 2010, Haiti's already weak financial systems were grounded along with the rest of the nation. The earthquake destroyed one-third of Haiti's bank branches, once again testing the spirit and resilience of the Haitian populace.
But even before the earthquake, the vast majority of Haitians lacked an account at a bank, essentially handicapping their future economic growth. Before joining the State Department I worked with microfinance organizations like Sogesol and Fonkoze that have made strides in bringing financial services to the Haitian people. However, the country's fragile and limited infrastructure makes it difficult to achieve this on a large scale. Many Haitians, like the women in my painting, face great uncertainty when it comes to storing, transferring, or saving their hard-earned money. Absent secure options, they often pay someone to protect them and their cash on hand. Which is why we are now turning to innovation. Technology combined with financial access holds the potential to bridge the gap between vulnerability and stability. Using the mobile phone, we can fundamentally transform the way people manage their money and their lives.
Given this potential, the Haiti Mobile Money Initiative (HMMI), a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID, was established after the earthquake to bring Haiti to the new frontier of banking. The program's goal is to jumpstart and scale mobile money services, allowing Haitians to send, receive and store money using their mobile phones. In June, HMMI issued a its "First to Market" Award Challenge -- offering a prize of $2.5 million to whichever service provider could be the first to launch a mobile money service in Haiti within six months.
Today's winner, Digicel, responded to the challenge, launching Tcho Tcho Mobile in November and reaching 10,000 customer transactions in less than a month. Just by using their digital phones, Haitians can now make cash deposits, withdrawals and transfers at retail locations around the country. This initiative shows Haiti's true capacity to mobilize, innovate and achieve. HMMI is offering further awards to spur rapid scaling of these mobile money services.
This is not the first place where mobile money has made a difference. Around the world, we are witnessing a paradigm shift, in which efficient, secure, and remote banking goes beyond the walls of traditional brick and mortar branches. Instead of clients coming to banks, banks now go to clients. From Kenya to Mexico, and now Haiti, innovators are creating tools that allow people to start saving money safely even in very small amounts. And when disaster strikes, mobile banking can help populations get back on their feet more quickly.
As the State Department and USAID pursue priorities of economic growth and empowerment, we know that national security and global prosperity will only be achieved when those with the fewest economic opportunities are given the chance to invest in their families and their futures. I congratulate Digicel and the government of Haiti for helping to make this vision a reality with the support of USAID and the Gates Foundation. We look forward to many more achievements in the months ahead.
As Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, María Otero oversees U.S. foreign policy on democracy, human rights, population, refugees, health, environment, trafficking in persons, and Tibetan issues She is the former CEO of ACCION International, a microfinance organization, and has worked in Haiti for 20 years. At the request of Secretary Clinton, she is elevating financial inclusion as a key component of the U.S. government's priority of economic growth.Related Content:Embracing Innovation in Haiti -- USAID's Haiti Mobile Money Initiative