From disaster, a new digital economy for Haiti
In the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, online opportunities are arising that could help resurrect the Caribbean nation
Posted by Alanna Mitchell on February 22, 2018
Haitians were already the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere when a massive earthquake struck just southwest of the capital Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010.
It was devastating. As many as 300,000 died and more than a million were left homeless. Infrastructure was shattered. Many survivors fled the country to find work elsewhere, especially if they were highly trained. The workforce was torn apart.
Today, nearly three in five of Haiti’s 10 million citizens live below the poverty line and nearly a quarter live in abject poverty. Unemployment is a fact of life for many. How do the poorest in the country find jobs when local opportunities are so scarce?
In another era, a country such as Haiti might have sought international loans to build physical structures: an industrial plant, some boats and a wharf. But today, as giant businesses such as Amazon, Netflix and Facebook drive a new digital industrial revolution, possibilities are emerging in Haiti that could never have existed before.
One idea gaining traction is to train women under the age of 30 to provide computer services such as data processing and web tagging to international companies, which normally contract out those types of jobs to web-based consultants. Why not do the same for Haitian women, who could work flexible hours from their homes or from an employment centre? “There are interesting opportunities to be explored,” says Ben Petrazzini, a senior program specialist at the International Development Research Centre in Uruguay. “Things are very different from the past.”
The IDRC is providing US$800,000 over three years to prompt research on exactly what types of jobs could exist for young Haitian women in this new digital economy, what demand there is for them and whether they will last rather than being replaced by artificial intelligence over time. The program is known as AYITIC, a combination of Ayiti, which is the Haitian Creole name for the country, and TIC, which is French for ICT, or information and communications technology.
Course designers from the Caribbean Open Institute in Jamaica are specially tailoring classes to train Haitian women to work in the digital economy. The first 50 students are expected to be in class by May 2018, graduating three months later. The project’s initial phase will see about 300 Haitian women receive training by July 2019. Project leaders are already exploring whether companies owned by the Haitian diaspora in Canada and the United States would be willing to consider hiring these new trainees.
After that, the task will be to evaluate the program and see how it can be replicated in other Latin American countries, Petrazzini says, adding that IDRC is working with partners, including Ecole Superieure d'Infotronique d'Haiti and the Internet Addresses Registry for Latin America and Caribbean.
Over time, one of the project’s aims is to attract investment to build up Haiti’s Internet infrastructure and create an ICT cluster in the country, says Max Larson Henry, who coordinates AYITIC in Port-au-Prince and is president of L’Association Haï tienne pour le développement des Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication.
Currently, about 13 to 15 per cent of Haitians have access to the Internet, he says. Despite that, about 55 per cent of Haitians have smartphones, but many aren’t continuously connected to the Internet because it’s too expensive or not available. Nevertheless, young Haitians are adept at using the phones and the Internet when they can, and have developed digital skills on them.
The long-term goal is to convince young women that, like men, they can be part of the digital revolution. The stakes are huge. One person’s employment can help support a family of four or five with food and school fees, Henry says. That’s good for young women, good for their families and good for the economy as a whole.
But there’s another motivation, too. If Haiti doesn’t start creating opportunities for young workers, they could move away, which could further weaken the country’s prospects for building its economy.
“This,” says Henry, “is the right thing to do.”
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
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