I will do everything possible to ensure that my book does not fall into the traps of simplifying Fonkoze‘s story into some kind of fairy tale where it can do no wrong,or “hero worship” regarding its leaders. (This week my wife has been reading “Mountains beyond Mountains”, which I originally thought would be a model for my book. She and I agree that it has many strengths, but disappoints both of us because its remarkable author lost any real sense of objectivity about Paul Farmer.)
I think a book reflecting complexities, tensions, setbacks and human frailty/clay feet will be much more interesting. Most of the time, Fonkoze staff are remarkably candid about where they fall short, individually and collectively. Hubris has not really set in here, at least not yet! Last night over dinner with three of the organization’s leaders, I heard many of the things typical of entrepreneurial non-profits — systems not keeping up with programs (some launched on the fly when an opportunity arose), staff voicing dissatisfaction with this policy or that, outsiders whose influence on the organization was a matter of some dispute and/or controversy, and so on. I am glad that the people of Fonkoze are so open with me, and I will do my best to put all of this in the proper context.
As I have probed into the history of Fonkoze and how it became the organization it is today, I have found a number of turning points (and hope to find more). One was the kidnapping, torture and tragic killing of beloved employee Amos Jeannot in 2000, and its aftermath. Another was the assembling of an top notch management team during the second half of 2009. A third, not surprisingly, was the 2010 earthquake and what followed. Just yesterday I heard several dramatic stories about the days immediately after the earthquake:
- Two days after the earthquake, a senior Fonkoze staff member who was in a state of shock/depression gets a call from a branch in a far-flung province, saying they are open for business to customers and awaiting further instructions — and it jolts her back into action!
- During an prayer/memorial service outside the damaged Fonkoze building four days after the earthquake, there is a strong aftershock and one employee starts running away from the group in a panic. Anne Hastings yells out at him, saying — with a mixture of anger, compassion and urgency — that he and the organization were not going to be afraid and needed to be courageous and move Fonkoze forward. And it somehow, Anne’s spontaneous and impassioned plea seems to have worked!
- Natacha Blanc, the Haitian-American director of Transfer Services, defied her family’s pleas to come to Miami with her three-year-old son and instead stayed in order to steady what remained of her team (three of he four employees were killed) and also found a school bus to go to Leogane (about an hour away), navigating dead bodies all over the road, in order to pick up 80 children in a youth group/orphanage she volunteered for and bring them back to Port au Prince since they were injured, hungry, etc., and then set them up in tents (received a few weeks earlier for a planned camping trip!). In her “spare time” she provided translation services for a health clinic staffed with foreign doctors who had arrived in the days after the disaster.
As I piece together the post-earthquake journey of Fonkoze, I get the sense of many people finding stores of energy and courage that they may not have known they had. In some ways this must be typical of what happens after a disaster of this scale. But Fonkoze is far from typical! Anyway, it’s going to be a challenging story to tell. I think it will be the basis of the “sample chapter” I write as part of my book proposal.
By the way, with the support of Grameen Foundation‘s top notch fund-raising department, I just got a grant yesterday that pays for a big part of the costs of hiring an advisor who specializes in coaching authors to make their books into best-sellers (he is a best-selling author himself). Progress!
And my team of volunteer advisors who are helping to create buzz about the book through social media has nearly 30 members and we have set up a listserv to make it easy for them to communicate. What fun!
The process of getting to know an organization and its people deeply, after years of off and on contact, inevitably includes revising prior opinions and judgments. This has been the case for me with regard to Fonkoze’s founder, Father Joseph Philippe. Previously, my contact with him had mostly at been at Fonkoze USA Board meetings, where he would lead the group in prayer, offer opinions that sometimes had a bit of a random quality (particularly in terms of relevance to the topic being discussed), and attempt to drum up support for his latest initiative involving the University of Fondwa, Fonkoze or the Association of Peasants of Fondwa (APF). He always spoke in what I assume is his third language, English. Anne Hastings, the director of Fonkoze and now SFF (Fonkoze’s commercial arm), generally communicated more effectively in these settings to American audiences. On a few occasions I called Anne the “co-founder” of Fonkoze, once even after she had corrected me by saying that Father Joseph started it before she ever got involved. I will not make that mistake again, especially after what I have learned this week.
Father Joseph’s passions and accomplishments extend far beyond Fonkoze. APF has been involved in upliftment of the poor of his native region of Fondwa since 1988; in recent years, for example, its members have been planting 50,000 trees per year — meeting a big need in a country with massive deforestation. After observing that many children in the area got no schooling whatsoever, and that the few who did needed to leave the community to pursue higher education, he created a primary school, a high school and his crowning achievement, a university. Today he is in the process of energetically rebuilding those institutions since they were leveled by the earthquake. All the while, he hosts hundreds of foreign visitors each year who are interested in working in solidarity with Haiti. Several dozen international guests were intermingling happily with the 60 orphans who live in Father Joseph’s compound on the day we visited and interviewed him.
One of the things that came through loud and clear in our interview is that Father Joseph founded Fonkoze using the oldest strategies in the book – painstaking research and hard work. His early efforts with APF led him to believe that economics was critical, and through his study and thinking of that subject, concluded that the poor, once organized, needed a bank to call their own. So he travelled to France, Israel and beyond in 1991-2 to explore different models for creating such a bank. Early on, a credit union seemed like the logical institutional form. He had dialogues with Haitian activists and economists, and people from abroad. After a time, he saw problems with the idea of forming a credit union and discarded it.
In this video, he describes an international conference in Miami held in 1996, about two years after Fonkoze’s establishment in April 1994. He had just recruited Anne to get involved and the lending operation was quite small. Anne contacted a bunch of people Father Joseph had suggested. You can see how he was trying to distill lessons from many countries (as diverse as the U.S., Mexico and Nicaragua) to find out what was right for Haiti, and also to identify potential pools of resources – such as the investment funds of Catholic Women’s Religious Orders – that could inject the capital needed. (All videos are two minutes or less.)
Another aspect of Father Joseph is his boldness and the joy he takes in making seemingly outrageous requests of people to do their personal best for the rural poor of Haiti. Here he tells the story of recruiting Anne Hastings in two parts. First, how he got her resume and left her a message saying she was hired!
Next, he talks about how he articulated to her the framework of Fonkoze, which in many ways anticipated what became “best practice” in the microfinance field 15 years later (!), about her working conditions (he could not give her any money or a place to stay), and about a specific challenge – to work with him to write some letters to raise the money needed for her to move to Haiti and get started. Note the joy he takes in later involving Anne’s son in his work!
Dave Ellis, a great thinker, writer and friend, has developed a kind of spiritual discipline that I admire. One of its principles is, “Figure out what you want, get proud of it, and then ask for it.” I find much wisdom in its simplicity and integrity. In the social change arena, people often ask for what they want with apology or with anger. Dave invites us to do it with pride and clarity. Some of us working for social change have difficulty figuring out what we really want – despite endless “strategic planning sessions” (!) – and our message is muddled as a result.
I have been trying to integrate Dave’s principle into my life and work for years. Among his many other attributes, I think Father Joseph has internalized this principle more than anyone else I have ever met. What he “wants” does not relate to himself or his comforts – seeing his tiny home/office (pictured below) attests to that! What he wants is always related to meeting the needs of the rural poor of Haiti and its grassroots organizations.
While he rarely if ever emphasizes this point, especially in a way that diminishes anyone else’s accomplishments or potential, it is clear that everyone involved in Fonkoze is playing on Father Joseph’s team, and fulfilling his vision – a team cobbled together, and a vision clarified, through a formidable mixture of diligence, optimism and faith.
Trying to make this unique individual come alive for readers in the U.S. and Europe is one of the many exciting challenges I’ll have to confront as I begin to work on the manuscript. Ideas welcome!
As we drove around Haiti last Tuesday (our first full day in the country), I was impressed by a few things. One was that a lot of the rubble (and other evidence of the earthquake) has been cleared since I was last here in March 2010. Reports that the capital in particular had been impervious to positive changes proved inaccurate. Another was the proliferation of microfinance organizations here – in even mid-tiered cities we drove through, and in Okay where we stopped, there were quite a number of microfinance institutions with signboards and offices. Still, Fonkoze is the leader in terms of number of loan and savings clients.
But it is a leader in other ways as well. It is launching a micro-insurance program that is being watched by the microfinance industry globally due to its scale and its innovative approach (more on that in future posts — including the fact that the first payouts to clients affected by recent flooding in this part of the country are being made this month). Another way that Fonkoze leads is with its human development programs that are fully integrated with its microfinance offerings. One of those, arguably the most important, is an adult education program that is based on the ideas of Brazilian educator and author Paulo Freire – where the poor are trained to educate their peers.
Fonkoze clients in the solidarity program – the largest of the organization’s four borrowing levels in terms of number of clients – meet twice each month. Once to conduct their financial transactions, and once to learn. In the center meeting we went to yesterday, there were three groups. Two were focused on the more advanced four-month module focused on business management best practices (led by specially trained clients), while one was the most basic module that is about learning to write your name – which for the women who never attended school (or only went for a year or two decades ago) is quite a challenge, and accomplishment once they master it. The entire approach to literacy was, in the words of Steve Werlin, who has worked on it intensively from 2005 to 2009, “invented by [Fonkoze founder] Father Joseph, whole cloth.” (Father Joseph is a Haitian Catholic Priest who spent several years studying how to bring economic empowerment to the rural areas, then conceptualized what was needed — a “bank for the organized poor” — and starting in 1995 began recruiting the team from Haiti and abroad to make it happen. We visited him Saturday — more on that in future postings.)
Here is a very short video (under one minute, like all of those in this post) of one of the business development training sessions (an advanced module) in action. The woman in the purple hat doing most the talking is a peer trainer — she is a market vendor with a little more education than the others, who received training from Fonkoze to give instruction her fellow borrowers.
Here you’ll see one woman going up to the chalkboard to write her name, and her peer educator standing beside her with encouragement and correction. (You’ll hear the voices of others not in the picture.) She is part of the group doing the basic literacy module (which like all the rest is four months in duration).
Finally, here is a video of Linda Boucard, our host who describes the power of simply learning to write ones name for the first time.
Clearly, Fonkoze is about more than just handing out loans – it is about using microfinance as a platform to catalyze self-discovery, self-empowerment and transformation. It does not always work, as it like all human organizations is far from perfect, but its aspirations as well as its ability to execute its plans are quite impressive. Telling its story seems, more than ever, to be a worthwhile challenge for me.
Yesterday was quite a day. We began with an interview with one of the heroic tellers at the Marigot branch, Beatrice Fleurant-Fils (see photo below). She and two colleagues worked day and night for a month to process remittance payments and savings withdrawals for four branches, since they were the only local branch with consistent electricity and internet access. They did all their work outdoors, exposed to the elements, since they were afraid of going inside the badly damaged building (which is across the street from their current office). Steve Werlin did all the data entry on the computer; in Beatrice’s recounting, Steve claimed that as a “dumb foreigner” he didn’t know any better than to feel safe enough in the building to go inside for 8-10 hours per day!
After that, we had a long interview with the regional manager, Beauliere Francois, and the Jacmel branch manager (or director in Fonkoze parlance), Pierre David Dorval. It was very dramatic to hear them talk about their life journeys and how they came to work in Fonkoze. We talked a lot about the earthquake and its aftermath, and after the interview we went to see what remains of the building they used to work out off – one that I remember changing money in during a visit in March 2006. They recall their first instinct was to send the credit agents to the field to let Fonkoze clients know that Fonkoze was OK and committed to providing service to all of its clients within a short time (even though they were not exactly sure how they would do that!).
Lastly, we travelled to a slum area of Jacmel to interview Marilyn Bayonet. Her story is quite dramatic – I’ll try to resist telling all of it here. She had taken and repaid loans of US$90 and $120, and was paying off a loan for $200, when the earthquake hit. Her businesses included selling fried food and soft drinks on the beach, and also selling suitcases, used clothes, and tennis shoes. She is quite entrepreneurial, shifting her product mix based on the seasons and fluctuating demand. In the earthquake she lost her home and most of her business assets – and what was not lost was stolen in the immediate aftermath as lawlessness reigned. With her five children, she first sought out shelter in a local park, and then on a soccer field that became a tent city – where she remained for five months in horrifying conditions. She would get food from the group that set up the tent city on occasion, but she sensed there was a lot of corruption.
She re-established contact with Fonkoze after a month, when a credit agent located her in the tent city and, seeing her condition, immediately gave her $1.50 from his own pocket. (Somewhat later, Linda Boucard from the head office – who has been wonderful in arranging my trip here! – gave her and the other members of her center $13 each, from her own pocket also.) In May 2010, her situation reached a turning point of sorts. She moved into a tent that was constructed by the international charity Med Air on the site of her original home (where she still lives now), and receive the $125 payment from Fonkoze that was part of the insurance they all received retroactively (and also the balance of her $200 loan was repaid for her). This enabled her to buy clothing and other essential for her children and travel to Cap Haitian to see her sister, since she had lost contact with her.
Then she borrowed $200 from Fonkoze to restart her business. Her various ventures have generally gone well, except that she still experiences occasional theft from her tent. All her children except the oldest, her 14-year old son, are back in school (her son helps her with the business). She has one chicken; she bought six with her profits and five died unfortunately. She just paid off her loan and is gearing up to take one for $400 to expand her business further. Clearly, not having a stable home (i.e., living in a tent) is hard for her — particularly as she had previously worked hard to set aside the money to build a modest house on this land that was owned by the grandmother who raised her. Now that house is but a memory.
On the drive back to our hotel, we were all reflecting on Marilyn’s situation. One person on our group said she felt that she clearly lacked the charisma and optimism of the women we met the previous day on the mountain, and said that it was unfortunate that Fonkoze could not help finance a new house for her. Another characterized her mental state not so much as pessimism as “grim determination.” I am thinking of making Marilyn a major character in my book, along with Iliamene whom we met the day before – together they represent two different ends of the spectrum of Fonkoze’s clientele. I’d need to return here in July to re-interview them to get their complete stories. Figuring out how to spend my time here in July is one of the many challenges I have before me. I welcome reactions and advice from any and all reading this blog!
Emily, Morgan and I had an incredible (and tiring) day yesterday. We hiked nearly two hours uphill after crossing a river by foot (my shoes were soaked until the tropical sun dried them), and then something like 90 minutes back (downhill). We were accompanied by an incredible American, Steve Werlin, who has been associated with Fonkoze since at least 2005 (when he started living in Haiti full-time after off and on living/working here since 1996). Also in our group was Wilfix Derameau, the manager of Marigot branch who succeeded Steve in that role more than one year ago. (Steve, who utterly lacks any trace of the infamous male ego, has been doing all sorts of different things from Fonkoze these past six years — his basic working principle seems to be, “put me where you need me”. He speaks Creole fluently and his academic training is in textual interpretation, especially ancient texts!)
When Steve took over this branch in 2008, it had 1600 clients — many who were defaulting on their loans. He cleaned up the portfolio by re-motivating the team, enforcing policies, bestowing kindness and leniency on those who wanted to turn things around, and working his ass off. At one point the number of active clients dropped to 600. Now, under Wilfix (who was a credit agent working under Steve who was identified as a high performer and sent for special manager training at the end of Steve’s tenure), it has 1680 clients and is still growing.
For Steve, who deflects almost all credit to the turnaround of Marigot branch to his former branch colleagues, this was a trip down memory lane, receiving hugs from clients such as the indomitable, force-of-nature woman named Iliamene Joseph Madam Jean Marc (pictured here) who leads her local solidarity center and seems to coordinate the activities of nearby centers (including those where the entry point was the Ti Kredi product mix designed for poorer clients). Iliamene is one of four women from this branch who will be attending the annual assembly of selected center chiefs in Port au Prince in early July. The assembly is a key part of the Governance structure of Fonkoze.
We met a wide variety of clients — very poor ones just entering a Ti Kredi center, and ones who seemed much more prosperous (who usually had been in the solidarity loan program for a number of years — Iliamene since 1996!). On our way back down the mountain we met two women who were cleaning vegetables they had bought earlier that day in a farming region much farther up the mountain. They got up at 2am that day, went to the market town, bought produce, and were to spend the afternoon cleaning them before going to Jacmel by public transport the following day (today) to sell (we might see them since we are going there today).
We learned a ton of things from Steve about the current state of Fonkoze. He writes a great blog about his work here and I read all his posts as preparation for this book. But the best thing about yesterday was, for a few hours, walking in the shoes of credit agent through the dusty mountain roads of Haiti, and talking to women who had experienced the benefits and limitations of microfinance provided in the unique way that Fonkoze delivers it in this most challenging of environments.
I am still trying to upload videos taken Tuesday (and my attempts to crop the photo here proved frutless) — thanks for your patience!
Emily, Morgan and I are having a great learning experience in Haiti. We are about to go on a long hike to visit some remote borrowers near the Marigot branch on the south coast. I nearly complete with a blog post written yesterday that includes three very short videos (under one minute each).
Photo below is the Okay Branch signboard and behind it you can see the signboard of another microfinance institution branch right next door. Fonkoze is the market leader but it is a competitive market, which should benefit the poor. But as you will see, and as we saw yesterday, Fonkoze is unique in its commitment to providing many human development services along with microfinance. For Fonkoze, microfinance is about transformations, not just transactions.
It’s great to see the “digital street team” for my book project growing — now up to 23 people, including a few complete strangers!
The traffic on this blog is growing fast. The number of views the last four days has gone from 4 to 46 to 63 to 97. Let’s break 100 today!
I am not new to Fonkoze, but even so, during my first 26 hours in the country I learned a lot. Part of this is because it is impossible to understand everything about a complex institution, and also because things are always in flux at this most entrepreneurial of organizations.
Emily, Morgan and I began with an hour-long interview with Carine Roenen, a Belgian physician and former country director of the Irish NGO Concern (an important partner and funder of Fonkoze), who became the head of Fonkoze (the Haitian foundation whose name is a shortened form of the Creole for “Shoulder to Shoulder Foundation”) in 2009. We learned about her life journey and how it led her to Fonkoze, which included a six year stint running a health clinic in Rwanda, and later marrying a Haitian doctor. From her we learned the difference between a CLM (also known as the “ultra poor program”) and Ti Kredi client (the latter has a bit of a “light in her eyes” that the former lacks), the effort to revamp the solidarity lending program through incorporating more of the Grameen II methodology (the big barrier is the loan tracking software), and the initiatives by senior Haitian staff to finalize various manuals (especially related to financial management) and “clean up” dormant savings accounts (mostly from people who left the program and even left the country with small balances).
We then had dinner with James Kurz, the 25 year old “wunderkind” (my term) of the Fonkoze network. He has been playing various roles related to financial analysis and modeling, project management and writing for all members of the “Fonkoze family” (Fonkoze, Fonkoze Financial Services, and Fonkoze USA) since he started as an intern about two years ago. From him, the most interesting thing we learned was that 2009 was something of a positive turning point for Fonkoze (and in some ways for Haiti as a nation also). While the earthquake was devastating, the huge amounts of aid money that came and were well used (almost all of it in the case of Fonkoze) helped build on some of the positive trends in 2009 in addition to providing immediate relief from the disaster. This is a theme – how 2009 helped lay the groundwork for 2010/2011 good years for the organization and country despite the horrors of the earthquake – that I think I’ll return to in the blog and the book itself. But I need to learn much more in order to say something truly useful about this. I’ll invite blog readers to comment on this as a way to help improve my thinking.
Tuesday morning we headed southwest to the Fonkoze branch of Okay. We learned from the very earnest manager, Robens Fleazinor, that during his nearly ten years with the organization his greatest accomplishment was reducing overdue loans at this branch from 68% to 4% in less than two years. The son of a farmer whose side businesses helped him put Robens through 14 years of schooling, the rest of his family which includes four siblings depend on him for financial support, since he is the only one with a stable job. Among his accomplishments in the aftermath of the earthquake was re-opening his branch within 72 hours of the disaster, and sending his staff to the various villages they serve to squelch the rumor that Fonkoze as an organization had collapsed entirely. Far from it – in Okay like in the rest of the country, Fonkoze was open for business sooner than most if not all of the banks!
As I search for a few over-arching themes for my book, one is certainly the response to the earthquake. Another is the reality that Fonkoze is one of those rare organizations workign in international development where the expatriates (foreigners) like James and Carine operate as peers (rather than as bosses/superiors or as mere “technical advisors” to experienced local staff such as Robens and the Haitian women who make up the majority of the senior management team here). More about those two concepts, and other emerging themes, in future posts. My next post will include one or more short videos and focus on the educational programs of Fonkoze, which we visited on Tuesday.
Tonight my wife Emily and I are packing up for a big adventure — nearly two weeks in Haiti to learn more about how Fonkoze is successfully providing microfinance there, in the most difficult conditions imaginable.
For me, this is about preparing to write a book about Fonkoze’s journey, people, setbacks, and impact. For Emily, a public health professional, it is about learning about how microfinance and health interface in the field, and perhaps also understanding at a deeper level what I have been doing since I landed in Bangladesh in 1988 as an idealistic Fulbright Scholar hosted by the Grameen Bank.
Joining us will be Morgan Nelson, a high school senior whose parents are great friends of ours. She started a microfinance club at Key West High School last year and raised nearly $2,000 for Grameen Foundation, mostly doing car washes with fellow club members (in between setting school records for 5k runs on the cross country team, getting advanced placement credits, and much more!).
Our trip has been organized with great care by the team in Haiti, including Linda Boucard first and foremost. We are humbled by the accomplishments of Fonkoze and the people of Haiti since the earthquake. We are intending to see, and tell, the unvarnished and not always uplifting stories of the people in and around this incredible institution. We will be posting blogs, videos, photos — technology and connectivity permitting. Follow our journey this summer (as I will be back during the second half of July also).