Innovation and Haiti

Posted on March 31, 2010 by Comments Off

I can’t get Haiti out of my mind, and, you know, I shouldn’t. At our recent Mercy Corps board meetings in Washington D.C.; we had the opportunity to hear from a number of people who have been working to help Haiti, both those who work for MC, as well as those who work for some of our active partners. At the opening dinner, I sat with Ysbrant Marcelis, senior director of OpenRevolution, and Brad Horowitz, President and CEO of Trilogy International Partners. Since the earthquake, both Ysbrant and Brad have spent most of the last months on the ground in Haiti. Another one of our client partners, NetHope, also is working with its partners to help fix Haiti’s broken IT and telecommunications infrastructures.

Technology Plays the Lead Role in Reconstruction

It is my great hope, and also a current fact, that technology innovation will play a huge role in reconstructing Haiti in the coming years. Ysbrant spoke of OpenRevolution’s mobile money software which enables Haitians to use mobile devices to purchase goods and services. Brad, whose company invests in wireless telecommunication operations in international markets, noted that the reconstruction is an opportunity to bypass copper wire altogether; a leapfrog in mobile technology is a real possibility for Haiti reconstruction.

That is a big and optimistic statement, but it is one that I believe in. Certainly, Haiti was an impoverished country before the earthquake, but you can read Paul Collier’s report to the secretary general of the United Nations (Haiti: From Natural Catastrophe to Economic Security) to learn more about what gives Haiti its potential for pulling out of poverty.

When Grassroots Went High Tech

Immediately following the earthquake, major wireless carriers utilized text messages to speed up and simplify donation processes, and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter enabled relief agencies like MercyCorps CARE, the American Red Cross and Oxfam to raise millions of dollars and recruit volunteers. Hearing the board report on how effective these tools were was not only heartening, but it clearly signaled how disaster relief will work in the future.

In addition to the volunteer work being done by thousands in Haiti, others around the world participated in so-called Crisis Camps on the weekends. Technology professionals came together to create or enhance tools that would be helpful to the volunteers in Haiti, and also support the relief organizations’ efforts. These camps were held in Washington D.C., Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Denver, Brooklyn and London.

The Spirit Is Willing — and Tenacious

My fellow Mercy Corps board member, Linda Mason, wrote an encouraging article for The Huffington Post, citing the innovative spirit and resilience she witnessed among the Haitian people while volunteering there. It’s a touching and insightful account of her on-the-ground experience in Haiti.

Much still remains to be accomplished. As The New York Times pointed out in its Sunday editorial, the enormity of the task ahead to truly rebuild Haiti cannot be underestimated or dismissed as short-term. And while there are no quick fixes, it is encouraging to realize that without the role of innovation and collaboration between the private sector, NGO’s, government and most importantly the Haitian people themselves — the road would be even steeper.

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