DENIS O’BRIEN: Getting Haiti back on its feet Philanthropy leads rehabilitation efforts

Former United States President Bill Clinton (centre), is presented with the inauguration plaque signifying the reopening of Haiti’s Iron Market on Tuesday, January 11, 2011 from Mayor of Port-au-Prince Muscadin Jean-Yves Jason (right) as Digicel Chairman Denis O’Brien looks on.


Friday, January 14, 2011:

In 2010 Denis O’Brien, chairman of the Caribbean’s leading mobile telephone service provider Digicel promised to restore the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince within a year after its destruction in the massive earthquake that shook Haiti in January of last year. True to his word,he met the deadline, signing off on one of the greatest feats of philanthropy seen in the Caribbean.

The Mellons, the Carnegies and the Rockefellers all left indelible marks on the United States with philanthropic enterprises that had a transformative impact on the country. O’Brien has done the same in Haiti.

Keeping his word

O’Brien’s accomplishment is all the more remarkable given the fact that very little progress has been made in restoring Haiti’s infrastructure. Many of the donors who promised so much a year ago have to date not honoured those pledges. With over 300,000 people reported dead and over a million people living in camps, help is desperately needed. Initially US$6 billion was promised to assist in the rehabilitation of Haiti. A year on, less than a quarter of that sum has reached the country with less than 5 per cent of the 20 million cubic metres of rubble cleared. NGOs and other relief agencies are still scratching their heads as to where to begin, or how to begin for that matter.

Looking at the wonderfully restored edifice that is now the Iron Market, one is reminded of that line by Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do….”

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton who is the United Nations’ Special Envoy to Haiti prophetically declared to the crowd at the ceremonial ribbon-cutting event: “When you look at what you have achieved here, this should be a sign to you that you can have success in the reconstruction in education, in healthcare.”

The Iron Market

Le Marche Hyppolite de Port-au-Prince, otherwise known as the Iron Marke,t is the first public building to be have been completely restored since the devastating 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti on January 12th, 2010. The entire reconstruction of the Iron Market was completed in just eleven months.

Decimated by a 2008 fire and the earthquake last year, the Iron Market was built in 1891 in Paris. It was originally intended for a station in Cairo but was brought by Haitian President Florvil Hyppolite when the Egyptian deal fell through.

The rebuilding project was funded and spearheaded by Denis O’Brien and his wife Catherine in a personal capacity and is valued at US$12 million. It is estimated that over 900 vendors will operate from the new Iron Market building selling arts and crafts, fruit and vegetables, dry produce- many of these had stands in the Iron Market for years prior to the horrendous devastaion of last year. There are plans to extend the market to accommodate meat selling.

“The Iron Market in Port-au-Prince is a cultural, historic and architectural landmark in Haiti. A hive of economic activity; a place where hard-working men and women earn a living buying and selling goods; the economic engine for so many families – the Iron Market is as important as a social and community entity as it is as a place of trade.

“The project to rebuild the Iron Market back to its former glory is more far-reaching than an architectural achievement. It is an important symbol of the start of the country’s recovery from the devastation and a window to a brighter future for the Haitian people. I would like to thank the many wonderful people who helped to bring the Iron Market back to its former glory: the Mayor of Port-au-Prince Muscadin Jean Yves Jason and Daniel Elie, Director of ISPAN, John McAslan and Partners (architects on the project),Phillippe Dodard and the Croix-des-Bouquets iron workers,John Milton, George Howard and Fiona McGloin and the site workers, and of course the vendors who have supported us throughout. Your collective positivity and tenacity has made our dreams and visions a reality .

“What you have achieved in less than a year is awe-inspiring and stands as a symbol of hope for the future – and as an example of what can be achieved in Haiti with the right focus, drive and determination. Even in the midst of all the hardship that the Haitian people face day in, day out, I firmly believe that if we pull together today, there is a better tomorrow for Haiti,” said O’Brien.

As far as the rehabilitation of Haiti is concerned, O’Brien has exhibited the same tireless energy and indomitable will that saw him create the fastest- growing mobile telephone service in existence around today. Digicel was founded in 2001 when the company launched a GSM cellular phone service in Jamaica. Digicel has now extended its operations to 32 markets with over 11 million subscribers in the Caribbean, Central America and Pacific regions.

In 2010, he was named Goodwill Ambassador for the city of Port-au-Prince in Haiti by the Mayor of Port-au-Prince in recognition of his efforts to rebuild Haiti and attract foreign direct investment in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake on January 12th, 2010. Digicel is the single largest private investor in Haiti.

At the inauguration functon on Tuesday, Clinton said that O’Brien had kept his word to the Haitian people and that the Irish businessman made it clear that he could better persuade other people to honour their pledges if he firstly honoured his. The former President of the United States

said that he had relied on Digicel’s chairman to help him collect on US$224 million he had received in pledges to help Haiti through the Clinton Global Initiative.

Getting Haiti back on its feet

So one year on, how does Denis O’Brien view the progress being made in Haiti? Speaking exclusively with Caribbean Business Report from Digicel’s corporate offices in Port-au-Prince, he said: ” A lot of work has been done but there is still more to do. There is a lot of good grass roots work that has taken place, but at the same time very little reconstruction work has begun. It is obvious that the city needs to be rebuilt and that a great degree of reconstruction is needed.”

As you walk around the city, the devastation is still very apparent. The Presidential Palace is in ruins – a broken and defeated landmark symbolising the country’s present predicament. It’s hard to imagine that if London were to be devastated both Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminister would be allowed to remain on public display for a year as testaments to the abject lack of national resolve and fortitude. The cathedral situated just around the corner from the Presidential Palace, looks like it has had an encounter with God’s wrath and conjures up images of biblical Armageddon. Perhaps efforts should be made to get these national monuments back on their feet, standing proud as edifices that define Haiti’s national character.

“As far as the Presidential Palace goes, I disagree it should be the last building to be rebuilt. Right now there are about 1.2 million people living in tents that need to be rehoused.The Presidential Palace is a symbol of the old Haiti and everything that was wrong with it. Poor governance, presidents living well beyond their means and an awful lot of corruption. Duvalier,Aristide and people like that should not be celebrated for the monument they left behind.

“I would like to see the cathedral rebuilt quickly and it was a toss-up between it and the Iron Market for our immediate attention. We felt that given the Iron Market’s commercial significance, it would be the project to do. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in Port-au-Prince and dates back to 1891. The objective was to get the vendors back in there making a good livelihood,”explained O’Brien.

Phase two of the project will see an expansion of the market toward the sea in keeping with the same architectual design.

Mobile banking

Earlier this week, Digicel won a grant from the Gates Foundation that will help with its funding of mobile banking in Haiti. With two-thirds of the population remaining unbanked, this latest move will go some way to spur commercial activity and make financing transactions easier. O’Brien is a big advocate of mobile banking in the Caribbean and can see it having a beneficial impact in Haiti, given the trying circumstances the country finds itself in.

Commenting on the introduction of mobile banking in Haiti, O’Brien said: ” The credit goes to our management team in Haiti and everybody who worked on that project. We won a grant for US$2.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s not so much about the money but the fact it is coming from the Gates Foundation which is pushing and driving mobile banking across the developing world.

“Many operators are talking about mobile banking but not walking it. We see a lot of opportunities for it in our markets. Mobile financial services will be a significant revenue stream for us over the next five years.”

Many banking houses in the Caribbean are viewing the prospect of mobile banking with trepidation and see the mobile operators as taking away market share from what has proven to be a lucrative business. Where high interest rates and excessive fees and charges prevail, mobile banking will be a game changer, the next step in the evolution of financial services. Is the Digicel boss aware of the banks’ fears?

“I think we can work well together but the truth is yes, we are now competition. The days of people queuing up for half-an-hour in the sunshine to get to a window are over in Haiti and it should be over in Jamaica as well. It is the old way of doing things. Today you can use your personal mobile phone as a wallet to send money across the country inexpensively and this is the way of the future.

“The government of Jamaica has been progessive in a number of areas and we hope they will be again as far as mobile banking is concerned. We hope they will see that this is the right way to go because it brings the cost of living down and people are not being overcharged for banking services. This is a more efficient way of transferring money and making small payments.”

In Jamaica, banking fees and charges have risen astronomically, with the Minister of Trade , Commerce and Industry Karl Samuda taking issue with it. This together with having to contend with interest rates as high as 17 per cent makes banking an expensive proposition, with Jamaicans having to pay through the nose for the most basic of services. It is hoped that the Bank of Jamaica and the other regulatory bodies allow mobile banking to take hold in Jamaica.

“Haiti is the most advanced country in the Caribbean for mobile banking and I would think that Jamaica would want to go that route. Ten years ago Jamaica was the first to deregulate the telecoms sector and it has another opportunity to better people’s lives through the use of modern technology,” said Digicel’s chairman.

Taking on the competition

The Digicel model has proven successful and the company has been embraced wherever it has gone. CCan it be replicated in more advanced economies and can Digicel give the big boys such as Vodafone and AT&T a run for their money?

” We can take on the competition anywhere in the world. We compete with Telefonica, one of the biggest operators in the world. We also compete with Vodafone and America Movil. In fact we have overtaken America Movil in all three of our markets in Central America. It’s not as if we have shied away from competition wherever we have set up operations,” said O’ Brien.

So does he see opportunities in North America? He does, but says the company has yet to form a coherent strategy for the world’s largest economy. However, he cautions that Digicel would have to be careful in that market.

How about Europe? ” No! It’s done and dusted,” he says most affirmatively.

Africa? “Not really, except for Ethiopia.”

Surely the emergence of India holds the promise of riches to be gained?” It’s a blood bath there. They have eight operators and Bharti is by far the market leader and are a real trendsetter as a telecoms company. They are terrific.”

O’ Brien sees lots of room for organic growth in Digicel’s existing markets. ” The penetration in Papua New Guinea is only 25 per cent and we can continue to grow our market share in Haiti where we have over 2 million subscribers. We would love to see Digicel in Cuba but I don’t think it is going to happen in the short term.”

Haiti a year from now

Here we are in Haiti one year after the 7.0 earthquake mauled and considerably weakened the country. What would Digicel’s chairman like to see in Haiti a year hence from now?

” I would certainly like to see the 1.2 million people well on their way to being properly housed. They may well have to settle for transitional housing before getting long-term accommodation. I’d like to see more capability within Government and also the demonstration of strong leadership. I suppose the NGO community could be a little more co-ordinated but I have to add that they continue to do outstanding work. I also hope the European Union (EU) will bring Haiti closer to its bosom and provide much more funding than they have.”


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