Yesterday I spent my day with some of the people who keep Fonkoze executing on its plans, day-in and day-out, often far behind the scenes. In the Port-au-Prince branch office, which has limited lending activities (only two credit agents) but extensive remittance transfer/payment and savings programs (and as a result the highest number of tellers of any Fonkoze branch), I met with the two zonal managers who together oversee all 45 branches nationwide. One of the two, Myriam Narcisse, is an impressive woman by any standard. She previously ran Fonkoze’s adult education program nationally, speaks English fluently despite never studying abroad (she credits her high school teachers for this skill), and has a soft-spoken directness about her that makes conversation a pleasure. The other zonal manager, Marlise Voltaire, is much less comfortable in English so Myriam translated for her.
Here is a photo of the two zonal managers and my wife Emily who was with me here in Haiti through yesterday afternoon:
The two women share a small office that belies their influence over the organization’s ability to execute. We explored many topics, including Myriam’s true love – the adult education or “literacy” program. She described how better educated center members are given a five-day intensive course that prepares them to deliver four month modules on basic literacy, intermediate literacy, business development, sexual and reproductive health and other topics (there are six and soon to be seven modules in all). She sees the benefits of this program, which costs $25 per client per module to deliver, as a mixture of skills development, empowerment and facilitated knowledge sharing amongst the clients themselves. Like most Fonkoze staff, she deflects credit and attention to others – in the case of the adult ed program, mainly to Steve Werlin.
Here she talks for 65 seconds about Fonkoze’s literacy program.
Later in the day I met with Jean Alexandre Hector. One of the first ten employees of Fonkoze, today he is the problem-solver/negotiator in chief (his official title is “Charge de Mission”). He is the person the organization calls on to sort out the stickiest issues with vendors, street gangs, competitors, you name it! Everything about him screams, “Execution!” As in, getting things done. With the help of a translator who helped Alexandre overcome his modesty, he explained how Fonkoze was able to successfully implement a contract to deliver “cash for work” payments to laborers inside the notorious and (particularly at the time) lawless slum Cite Soleil in 2006.
How did he do it? He didn’t adopt the strategy of the UN or large aid donors (i.e., going in with a show of force to intimidate the gangs). Rather, he spoke to them, one by one, explaining why they were going to do this and how it would help the people to deliver their money to their doorsteps, without fraud or corruption that reduced their payments (and purchasing power). Within a few weeks, Fonkoze’s staff was entering Cite Soleil with bags of money (usually thousands of dollars in all), distributing them to people who had earned them doing public works, and leaving without a hitch.
I am not sure where Myriam, Marlise and Alexandre will fit in to my book, but they are clearly essential to the forward movement of Fonkoze, especially in this era of rapid growth and diversification. The organization’s ability to deliver on its promises to clients and external stakeholders rests in large measure on the shoulders of a handful of people, including these three. It is more clear than ever that this is not a “one man” or “one woman” show! Which makes telling its story more complex, interesting and challenging…
Morgan Nelson, a 17-year-old “rising senior” at Key West (FL) High School who is the daughter of dear (and, by the way, quite entrepreneurial!) friends of ours, joined Emily and me on the first week of our trip to Haiti. She more than “earned” this trip by starting a club at her high school – “Microfinance Matters” – that raised money for and awareness about this exciting and evolving poverty reduction strategy. (I was thrilled that Grameen Foundation, which has given me the sabbatical to work on this book, was the beneficiary of the grant from the club.) She also earned the money for her airfare to come here through baby-sitting and waiting tables throughout the year.
It certainly weighed on me that she is just a few years younger than I was when, in 1987, I wrote a letter to Professor Muhammad Yunus, asking him to take me under his wing to learn about how to be a force for helping to create a poverty-free world. And if SAT scores are any indication, Morgan has more raw talent than I did at that age. How could I refuse?
Morgan had quite a learning experience during the last week. Physical discomfort and sadness mixed with exhilaration, deep insight and, naturally, confusion. She was a trooper throughout, trying to wring every bit of learning possible from her time here. She was courageous enough to confront her own strong emotions when she came face to face with poverty that was not going to be erased quickly, if ever. She was honest and candid enough to occasionally be critical of Fonkoze – an organization she clearly admires – and then open enough to hear others’ views. On several occasions she asked questions of Fonkoze staff or clients that elicited much more interesting answers than my own questions — and her photos were a real gift to this project also!
On this mostly overcast Sunday in Port au Prince, as I look over my notes from a long brunch with Anne Hastings where she told us the story of Fonkoze’s frantic efforts during the ten days after the 2010 earthquake (more on that in a day or two), I want to let Morgan speak for herself in three videos that are each less than 90 seconds long.
In the first, below, she talks about what was most memorable about the week. Not surprisingly, she focuses on two borrowers – one an old hand at being a Fonkoze member, one about to begin – and then on Father Joseph Philippe, the founder.
In the second, she responds to a question probing something she wrote on facebook, about seeing some “hard things” here. You can see her struggling to articulate the reality of entrenched poverty.
In this third segment, she shares a message to other students around the country and around the world, who might not have had the chance to visit Haiti or any developing country and see microfinance in action, but who have an impulse to help.
There is clearly a new generation of talented, idealistic young people who want to do their part to confine poverty to history books and museums. Morgan Nelson is one of that generation’s leading lights. I was pleased to play a small role in her learning process this past week.
And she is coming back here in July to do a service project with some fellow high school students. When Anne Hastings heard that, she gave Morgan her business card and said she’d be willing to do anything to be helpful to facilitate the learning of Morgan and her friends. Clearly, I am not the only person working to support the next generation of anti-poverty activists.