God loves Digicel for the same reasons that He loves America: its prosperity, optimism and the belief that there’s always more to be gotten. God must love Digicel because despite wickedness in high and low places it always continues to prosper. Digicel always manages to stay connected especially with those in power. Take for example the chairman and CEO of Digicel, Denis O’Brien, a robust Irishman who claims close friendship both with God and Bill Clinton. Both of these associations proved useful when Digicel decided to move into Haiti.
Now Digicel already had a presence in Haiti, since 2008, but it was nothing compared to the turn of events in 2010 when a devastating 7.0 earthquake took place, killing over 200,000 and leaving over a million and a half homeless. A crisis which provided a mega opportunity for some and total misery and despair for others.
How exactly does relief aid happen, does it just fall from the sky like manna? No, first the disaster must be big enough, be of sufficient magnitude to be heard worldwide. Haiti certainly qualified for that. Next there is a process. Someone must take charge and be assigned the role of facilitator. The U.S. has long had a unique relationship with its neighbour Haiti. Both have experienced revolutions in the same hemisphere and as such are unique in that both were successful in defeating their enemy. This being said, here the resemblance ends. The U.S. has in fact occupied Haiti (1915-34). Haiti, on the other hand, has never occupied the U.S. (unless you call sending asylum seekers to its shores begging for work to be occupation). Haiti has never been forgiven its revolution. Haiti is still being punished for the arrogance of seeking freedom.
Once the earthquake happened in 2010, over $10.5 billion was raised worldwide to help the victims. The U.S. itself was responsible for raising $3.9 billion. Where did all that money go? Firstly 1/3 went to the U.S. military (to reimburse itself); $220 million to the Department Of Health; $150 million to the Department of Agriculture; then there is the ever present Red Cross which collected 486 million for the Haiti Relief Fund. Remember that the policy of this agency is never to use directly the funds collected. (They managed to build just 6 houses.) Gail Mac Govern, who is the CEO of the Red Cross, herself draws a salary of $1,000,000 a year. Apparently, there is a belief that the best way to do good for others is by doing well for yourself first. As a result, it’s estimated that the Haitians themselves share a mere one cent of every dollar collected in their name. This is common practice when giving humanitarian aid. It is understood that the gift must firstly in some way benefit the donor nation.
Development by way of defence and diplomacy is always part of government policy. In other words, you rebuild a country but you charge them for that privilege and thus provide employment for yourself. You need not consult them as to how that process takes place.
Bill Clinton became the designated U.N. representative for Aid to Haiti. Given his long association with Haiti during his time as president, he was a natural shoo-in for that position. It made sense that he should spearhead the effort given the fact that he knew everyone of any importance. It seemed only logical that he make use of his many contacts. This then was when things began to get interesting. All the bread and circus theatrics started happening and the cameras came out. People may feel genuine sympathy for disaster victims, but the truth is, what makes people contribute large amounts to causes is the possibility of being photographed alongside celebrities. Movie stars and models are therefore always a must for any successful fund raiser. Celebrities, however, usually end up costing millions in transport and organization, even if you somehow manage to get free catering for the event. A lot of money disappeared in this way.
Still, with that said, there are certainly benefits to having a wife who happens to be U.S. Secretary of State. What better way to get things fast-tracked? Take for example you want to get the attention of the U.N., what do you do, given the ever constant struggle for attention, in the midst of donor fatigue? You invoke the name of Clinton, that’s what. Then suddenly the busy Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, for example, miraculously finds time to attend a benefit with you. Then when there’s a need to provide a company to assist in the rebuilding efforts of Haiti’s shattered economy, Mister Moon might perhaps have just that right name and number of a certain South Korean trading company in his rolodex (since he was after all a former trade minister in South Korea once–upon–a-time). As a result, the global giant Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd., secures a partnership and Haitian workers make the clothing that ends up in Gap and Old Navy and Wal-Mart for $5 dollars a day pay for many years to come. “Let’s make Haiti the Taiwan of the Caribbean.” That’s how God works, mysteriously.
That’s how things happen in this best of possible worlds. Sean Penn and Dona Karan and others turn up, say moving things at charity galas, are photographed and then everyone goes away very happy. But few were able to foresee what was to come next.
Because Haiti was in crisis mode with much of its infrastructure in rubble, communications was, of course, a priority. Enter Digicel, which was already there, yes, but was a mere presence until it developed a special feature: A service which allowed for money transfer so that clients could function without cash. Bill Clinton and Denis O’ Brien shared a similar vision: “What if Haiti rose from the ashes like the Phoenix to become the world’s first wireless nation?” Armed with this beautiful vision, they were able to convince USAID to sign on board as part of its Food for Peace Program, a plan to finance free cell phone distribution throughout Haiti which would allow people to wire funds to desperate family members. This very utilitarian idea spread like wild fire and in six months, Digicel had secured a $50 million profit. Thanks in part to the U.S. tax payers (Haiti Mobile Money Initiative) and the fact that the users of the cell phones were charged for every transaction as well as phone cost. This more than made up for the cost of the free telephones. A much more complicated and unforeseen result is that loan sharking is now an epidemic in Haiti as victims find themselves so ensnared in debt that they often end up having to sell internal organs in order to escape the interest rate which can be as much as 200%. Organ harvesting is now the order of the day in Haiti. The question is who should be held accountable?
Digicel is simply a very savvy cell network company that fulfils a need. They merely took advantage of an opportunity. The question is though, was everything done above board and with absolute and total transparency? Denis O Brien (the chairman and CEO) who owns and runs 94% of Digicel stock would certainly answer yes. He would dismiss the fact that prior to the awarding of the contract in Haiti, he just happened to secure several speaking engagements for Bill Clinton at $225,000 a pop, a mere coincidental gesture of friendship, long established, as was, of course, the offer of free use of his jet for travel to these engagements. Transparency is never a problem for him, it’s just taken for granted and stepped over. Plus everything is sanitized through the Clinton Foundation.
Digicel is an Irish company. I mention this simply because we Montserratians love and revere all things Irish, and being delusional as we are, we still believe ourselves to be part of that diaspora. As such, we could never conceive of the words, greed and Irish existing in the same sentence. In any case, Denis O’Brien resides not in Ireland but in Malta (close to the Vatican) in order to avoid taxes. See why God continues to love him?
Take for example the five-star, 175-room Marriott Hotel which Digicel owns in Haiti. This supposed gift to the people of Haiti which, of course, no ordinary Haitian could possibly afford. You would have to be a government minister to even see the inside. $45 million for its construction came from the U.S. and it is located right next door to Digicel’s headquarters in Port Au Prince. It was supposed to provide steady employment for Haitians but most of its rooms remain empty with only a minimal staff to do stoop labour. You can’t help but wonder how involved this grand hotel is as a trafficking destination and whether this is what’s meant by service to Haiti?
Greed is global. It has no country, it has only interest. Treachery happens one cell at a time. Digicel may be an Irish company based in the Caribbean but it has only one loyalty really and that is to profit. So don’t be fooled by friendly faces of children beneath palm trees in adverts. My only prayer is that Montserrat, for example, never experiences another volcanic crisis and find itself prey to Digicel’s beneficence or the kindness of strangers.
In the end, little has changed, really. The Caribbean is still the same: Divided as it is between those rich enough to buy life and those poor enough to have to sell it.