Haiti’s fight against corruption starts with Sean Penn and an iPad

A tablet computer could free Haiti from the shackles of corruption that has dogged its history and contributed to it being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The iPad in question belongs to Haiti prime minister Laurent Lamothe, a former entrepreneur who can name Sean Penn as a friend and is in a relationship with supermodel and philanthropist Petra Němcová.

Lamothe’s vision of a corruption-free Haiti was outlined in San Francisco, where he was joined by Penn and Němcová on a tour of the city and its Silicon Valley environs.

Penn claims he has seen a “miracle” in Haiti since he threw himself into the relief effort immediately after the 2010 earthquake that killed up to 300,000 Haitians.

“Haiti has had such a troubled past and we hear ‘corruption, corruption’,” says Penn. “I can tell you as a first hand witness that in the media on the left or on the right they have been the most damaging influence on the lives of children and others in Haiti.

“There is a miracle unreported in Haiti and I encourage you to come and see it,” urges Penn.

Penn’s involvement with Haiti began with him securing 350,000 vials of morphine and ketamine from Venezuela president Hugo Chavez to administer to the injured immediately after the devastating earthquake in 2010.

The four year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake was on Sunday (12 November) and now the emergency response to the natural disaster is over the Haitian government is putting technology at the centre of its long term recovery effort.

Němcová believes Haiti is the most “innovative” of all the seven disaster-struck countries her Happy Hearts Fund charity is active in.

“Haiti is the most open to collaboration and also has the most innovative approach,” says Němcová, who set up her charity after surviving the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. “It is using technology to provide a brighter future and the government is 44% women.”

“There is a miracle unreported in Haiti and I encourage you to come and see it”

Technology has helped to improve the Ti Manman Cheri scheme – a scheme which means “my dear mother” in French Creole. It provides mothers with school-aged children financial support as long as the children have a perfect attendance record.

Due to records of the tens of thousands of people involved in the programme being previously held in excel spreadsheets the system had become open to corruption.

Data from Ti Manman Cheri now sits alongside details of a solar-powered lighting installation roll out and both programmes run off software from cloud computing firm Salesforce.

The next step is to create a crowd sourcing app that will help co-ordinate over 500 NGOs (non-government organisations) in Haiti.

“Technology was put into Ti Manman Cheri in order to increase transparency,” says Lamothe. “Software allows perfect control of transparency and determines how the monthly payments are being made, who receives them, who has errors on their files and makes sure money goes where it is supposed to go.”

The unlikely trio of Lamothe, Nemcova and Penn were discussing the Haitian relief effort at Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference, which is a three-day love letter to capitalism fronted by Louboutin-wearing Salesforce chief executive Mark Benioff.

Salesforce’s software can track cash transfers made to the mobile phones of mothers participating in Ti Manman Cheri and requires the registration of citizen identification numbers to the database to ensure money goes to the “right people”.

All this information can be accessed by the prime minister via a single dashboard on his iPad and from within the dashboard he can direct his staff with an instant messaging function.

In order to develop its increasingly technologically reliant government, Haiti is tapping into the expertise of Salesforce exec and Barack Obama’s former chief information officer Vivek Kundra.

Obama tasked Kundra with making sure the US government ran in the “most secure, open, and efficient way possible”.

“Prime minister Lamothe is driving amazing reforms around creating a more open, transparent and participatory democracy,” says Kundra. “Around the world corrupt governments and leaders are taking [social aid] money, which then never has an impact on children.”

An unintended consequence of Ti Manman Cheri is the collection of census-style data including the gender split of pupils, their age and school grade, in a country that does not have an official census.

This year many are predicting big things for the “Internet of Things” (giving physical objects the ability to communicate by connecting them to the internet) and Kundra argues what is going on in Haiti can be described as the “internet of citizens”.

“The prime minister has an internet of citizens and he is actually putting the citizen at the heart of his government operations,” says Kundra. “In a country where you have about 65% of people with mobile devices that is pretty powerful.”

The belief technology can cut corruption is gaining credence with the giants of Silicon Valley and other big business.

Lamothe and Nemcova toured Silicon Valley after their Salesforce appearance to seek support from Google, Apple and Facebook, who have all pledged to help the recovery effort.

Apple has agreed to provide Haitian students with iPads, Facebook will help deliver internet access under the banner of Mark Zuckerberg’s internet.org initiative and Google is providing free apps for three years.

Penn believes technology will be a “giant part of Haiti’s success story” and claims the government’s strategy is paying off already after Heineken increased its investment in the country from $40m to $100m.

“No government or NGO can do this together or individually without additional private sector investment,” says Penn. “And that is really going to be the turning point and we find it so exciting because we see maverick businesses come in and work very well.”

(The aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Source: RIBI Image Library)

(The aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Source: RIBI Image Library)

However, just days before Lamothe toured San Francisco touting for business protests erupted in Haiti over the increasing cost of living and accusations the incumbent government led by president Michel Martelly and Lamothe is wasting public money on vehicles and international trips.

Corruption claims are not helped by the sudden death of judge Jean Serge Joseph as he was working on a case that implicated President Martelly’s wife and son, Sophia and Olivier Martelly.

They were accused of siphoning off hundreds of thousands of dollars from social and sports programmes by lawyers André Michel and Newton Saint-Juste.

“The media  have been the most damaging influence on the lives of children and others in Haiti”

However, evidence suggests Ti Manman Cheri and the solar-powered lights roll out that both use a Salesforce iPad application ensures money is now going to the right places.

Official figures claim the proportion of primary school aged children that can attend school has risen from 55% to 88% in the two and a half years after Ti Manman Cheri was migrated from Excel to the Salesforce software.

These figures could be on the cusp of increasing again after president Martelly pledged yesterday (13 December) that education would be his government’s top priority for 2014.


Meanwhile, Penn adds that “a city I didn’t see an electric light in for two months has now got solar lights up and down the boulevards.”

If Haiti does succeed in cutting out corruption through something as simple as an iPad application, other developing countries are sure to sit up and take notice.

“This can be a model for the rest of the world,” concludes Lamothe. “Let’s work on a platform that will be a model for every country benefiting from international assistance.”

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