Competitive Charity in Haiti

One of the few sectors of the Haitian economy that’s doing well is cell phones, where two growing firms (Digicel and Voila) are making profits, building out infrastructure, and getting involved in charitable relief efforts with more efficacy than the Haitian government or the NGO sector:

But of course, the cell-phone companies’ interests do not always align exactly with Haiti’s. One drawback of depending on their largesse is the potential for clientelism, or offering services only to customers. While Voila distributes water indiscriminately at camps, for example, it only offers other handouts such as tents to its clients, in organized contests. Digicel and Voila are also constantly seeking to take credit for their good deeds, something that Haitians here roll their eyes at and that blurs the line between advertising and social responsibility. For example, Digicel plans to illuminate dark streets with solar lamps — emblazoned with the Digicel logo.

Obviously there are limits to a customer-focused strategy that’s likely going to leave out the people most in need. But there’s an interesting lesson in there about the power of the profit motive and competitive spirit to inspire people to figure out how to get things done.