While both public and private sectors may have taken advantage of technology to automate, reduce and otherwise optimise back-office operations, neither governments nor Caribbean financiers have spent as much time addressing changes in consumer needs and desires. There are still long lines in licensing authorities, tax departments, banks, utility companies and billing outlets as people are forced to reduce productivity to meet financial obligations. People must still use cash and cheques to engage in minor transactions such as public parking, garage sales, estate auctions and public transportation. Charges on card transactions are still high enough to deter use by small businesses, either for sums under USD$10 or entirely, thereby increasing the risk of theft and fraud both by and against business owners and customers alike. Even credit and debit cards are dubious spending tools, as significant sums have been lost to credit card and automatic bank teller fraud in Barbados, Trinidad, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, and St. Lucia, among other Caribbean countries. Lastly, Internet commerce, both locally and internationally, has been stymied at inception by a seeming lack of interest and/or significant setup charges from finance providers.
Digital finance solutions in the Caribbean are nascent, fragile concepts, not comparable to the robust response that many international finance and technology firms have taken to introduce solutions. Compared to the Caribbean, institutions in many countries now offer digital alternatives to physical tasks such as cheque deposit, bill payment, account transfers, tax payments, license renewal. As it stands, many banks and credit unions can attest to the Caribbean consumers’ mistrust of technology. Automated bank tellers (ABT) have long faced scepticism, which has been echoed with online banking and online tax submission. Institutions, unwittingly or otherwise, have also fostered this mistrust by the often-perceived prioritisation of processing for in-situ transactions over ABT and online transactions.
Yet the slow roll-out of digital solutions has led technological ingenuity to the forefront, further increasing trust in local and foreign ICT companies over traditional financial avenues. This phenomenon has been observed in this region, as well in the African continent and South America, where undocumented, unofficial economies revolve around barter based on mobile top-ups and prepaid cards of all types in lieu of cash. Extra-regional Internet merchants who can ship worldwide and accept Visa and MasterCard credit and prepaid cards issued by Caribbean banks (e.g. Amazon) have long held a distinct advantage over local merchants such as Cave Shepherd and our customs agencies; personal imports allow local customers to avoid local retailers’ overheads and mark-ups. Already, PayPal, Apple Pay, Google Wallet and Samsung Pay – all sophisticated payment solutions - come pre-installed on mobile devices and, with the use of prepaid cards, may cause the informal economy to strengthen dramatically if a critical mass of vendors and other business choose to please customers.
This dichotomy in trust between technology developers versus governments and financial institutions may seem bizarre, but examination of recent news shows the truth to be very simplistic. When it comes to the successful implementation of complex technology that is reliable and still easy to use, people are willing to trust the same entity that provides those qualities in tangible goods such as smartphones.
Outside of severe user error, which typically occurs through misplacement or theft of the device, as well as dropping the device into water or onto a hard surface, mobile devices and mobile networks keep going, reliant only on a good power source. Even these ‘user errors’ are fast becoming unacceptable as the tech manufacturers race to make devices more secure with biometric security and remote device locking/tracking; more durable against shock, water and dust, as well as longer lasting, with improved batteries that can be charged with renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic or kinetic energy.
Furthermore, it is far easier for people to gain a cell phone plan than it is to open a bank account, simply through the one-time purchase of a mobile device and a pay-as-you-go SIM card. Thus, such an avenue may be preferred by those persons throughout the Caribbean that may lack official documentation for myriad reasons, including devastation due to personal or even national disasters. Cell phones and non-institutional solutions may also be attractive to people who are moving out of family homes; those who have recently entered the workforce for the first time and those who work in informal sectors would lack the necessary residential and work history for a bank or credit union account in some jurisdictions.