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“Our” Earthquake & Eleven Surprises

August 26, 2011 Leave a comment

It has been an interesting week working on this book.  I spent Monday at home, reviewing hundreds of pages of my notes and miscellaneous documents about Fonkoze and marking them up with a highlighter, in order to help steep myself in all that I have learned prior to starting to do some serious writing.  On Tuesday, I was giving a talk to my Washington, DC-based staff about my sabbatical working on this book, and near the end someone said something about an earthquake.  I thought it was a question about Fonkoze but a few seconds later I realized she had said, “I think we are having an earthquake” and the rest is history.  I was one of the few people who have lived their entire lives on the east coast of the U.S. (except when overseas) and had been through a serious earthquake (Seattle 2001), so I was not particularly frightened of this one once I was confident that it actually was an earthquake (I feared it was an explosion in our building and/or a terrorist attack).  

On Wednesday, I interviewed Greg Watson at the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), a part of the Inter-American Bank Group, about the adventure of getting $2 million in cash delivered to Fonkoze ten days after the earthquake.  It’s a great story and one I expect to linger on in the early chapters of the book.  (My latest plan is for the book to basically follow a rough timeline of January 2010 to December 2011, with many longish flashbacks to fill in other parts of Fonkoze’s journey.)  After the interview, Greg got approvals to release some documents to me that will prove invaluable — showing how government, multilateral, humanitarian and private sector organizations can come together and pull off something important quickly when they put their minds to it. 

Today, I sat down and wrote up something that my “writing coach/advisor” Mark Levy had asked me to do in advance of a two-day, one on one “boot camp” he is organizing next week.  He said that one place to look for the best material about a subject like Fonkoze is to ask myself, “What surprised me most?”  It is a deceptively difficult question but I finally sat down and made a list.  Here is what I just sent Mark:

Most Surprising Things About Fonkoze

  1. Anne Hastings’ fearlessness.
  2. How happenings that would otherwise not be noteworthy can be catalysts in a crisis that jolt people to action.
  3. The very distinct karma in an organization where most of the senior staff are women.
  4. The new relevance of some so-called “old ideas” (about fighting global poverty) in the context of Fonkoze.
  5. Lots of people talk about being risk takers, but Fonkoze really does take them (and often pulls them off but sometimes falls flat on its face — but that is beside the point, which is that they “play ball” rather than “play it safe”).
  6. The high degree respect people have for Anne across many Fonkoze stakeholders who do not always agree with each other or her (respect is actually too weak of a word)
  7. The lack of progress in rebuilding Port-au-Prince 18 months after the earthquake.
  8. The strong desire of Haitians (at least those who work for Fonkoze) to develop themselves as professionals through any means possible..
  9. The willingness of a handful of staff at the top of Fonkoze/SFF, whose skills are such that they could work anywhere in the world for fairly high salaries, to settle in with Fonkoze and work very hard in trying conditions.
  10. Father Joseph’s anticipation of what would evolve as “best practices” in microfinance — 15 years before the rest of us smart-asses caught up with him! — and basing Fonkoze on them from day one.
  11. The energy, courageousness, idealism and resourcefulness of a Fonkoze staff member I had not met before this summer (despite my decade-long association with Fonkoze): Natacha Blanc.

Yesterday I had a good meeting at the literary agency that represents me and was glad to hear that they are getting more and more excited about working with me on this book.

Onward!

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Update … and the Gender Issue (Part One)

August 16, 2011 9 comments

Researching and writing a book on anything (much less on something as unique as Fonkoze)  is a complex, intellectually stimulating and (at times) exhausting project – and one that I am finding difficult to move forward quickly now that I have resumed my day job as CEO of Grameen Foundation.  (Last week was especially busy as Nobel Laureate and Grameen Bank founder Dr. Muhammad Yunus was in town.  He mentioned to me, of all things, that he is planning his first-ever trip to Haiti in October!) 

However, I do continue to make progress.  Since returning to work I have conducted several more interviews, including one with an official at the Inter-American Development Bank who, together with several colleagues, was instrumental in arranging to have $2 million in small bills airlifted to Haiti ten days after the earthquake – ensuring liquidity (i.e., sufficient cash) for Fonkoze and its clients at a critical time.  It was funny to see the map – one designed for tourists (!) with various cheesy ads circling Haiti – that had been marked up late one night to identify the drop sites for the bundles of cash ($200,000 each). 

I have been working with some advisors who have the expertise and passion needed to give this book the best chance to be a best-seller.  My book proposal – basically a 10-15 page case for why the books is needed and why it will sell – is coming along and the all-important sample chapter (most likely the one on the immediate aftermath of the earthquake) will be drafted next Monday (hopefully!).  I’ll be spending two intensive days with one of those advisors in late August.  One of my assignments in advance of that workshop is to think (if not write) about what I found most surprising about Fonkoze and the key people involved with it.  Perhaps I’ll post what I come up with on the blog late next week.

My Reading List

In addition, I am reading everything I can related to Fonkoze and Haiti, including Paul Farmer’s new book Haiti: After the Earthquake and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (which was, and is, very influential on Fonkoze’s adult education programs aimed at clients).  I just read a memo about the impact of the return of cholera has had on Fonkoze branches this summer; it’s very sad how some victims are ostracized in their communities even after they recover.   I have a (yet unread) stack of archives related to the kidnapping and murder of beloved Fonkoze employee Amos Jeannot in 2000.  Also, I am looking to reinvigorate my “digital street team” and expand its ranks beyond the 30 who have signed up, and build on the positive relationship established between this project/blog and the social media teams at Fonkoze, Grameen Foundation and the Center for Financial Inclusion.  (Thanks to everyone at those three organizations — all of which I am proudly affiliated with — who have taken such a strong interest, and also to the street team!). 

I have been posing some new questions by email to Anne Hastings, the central character of the book (about whom I have written little in this blog so far, but with a lot in the pipleline), while at the same time planning with her my return to Haiti in October.  That trip is meant to coincide with Dr. Yunus’ visit (which will be organized by Claudine Francois who works for GF’s sister organization Grameen Creative Lab) while also giving me an opportunity to do another in-depth interview with Anne in between the events with Prof. Yunus. 
 

Finally, I have been talking to anyone who will listen about my impressions of Fonkoze/Haiti.  One of the recurrent themes has been my fascination with the dynamic that I believe gets created with the vast majority of the top 10-15 leaders in a large organization are women — as is the case with Fonkoze.  Let me offer some tentative reflections.  My sense is that even when the CEO of an organization is female, if the top 10-20 jobs are largely held by men, the institutional norms remain shaped by how men interact with each other – which most of us just think of “normal” organizational culture.  In fact, I presume that many high-achieving women in countries rich and poor, whether in the corporate or non-profit sector or academia, adopt – perhaps subconsciously – ways of operating that are masculine in order to fit in with others on the fast track.  Fonkoze feels to me like an alternate universe – one where feminine values dominate and the men need to adapt.  I am not in a position to say whether those values are better – though I find them both disorienting and refreshing – but I am coming to see them as essential to understanding Fonkoze and its track record in the context of Haitian microfinance and poverty reduction efforts. 

Women Clients of Fonkoze Signing and Dancing in Between Sessions at a Workshop -- Would this Interlude Likely Happen in a Male-Dominated Organization? (Photo Credit: Alex Counts)

This exploration has raised a question in my mind – how many organizations in the world today have (a) more than 800 employees and/or (b) are the leading organization in their field in their country (Fonkoze/SFF combined is both) and have the following two characteristics: a female CEO and more than three-quarters of the top 10-15 positions filled by women?  The number is probably very small.  In a world where unnecessary war and political/economic/social conflict seem to be exacerbated if not caused by the male ego run amuck, Fonkoze may have much to teach us about an alternative to “normal” organization culture that is at least as interesting as its pioneering work in microfinance.

While I probably lack training in fields like organizational development, anthropology and gender studies needed to offer truly profound reflections on this issue, I will nonetheless be returning to it in a blog that I hope to post in the next few days.   Stay tuned! 

And please continue sending your comments, ideas and critiques — they are helping me to improve my thinking and writing.

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Guest Blog: Morgan Nelson Reflects on Haiti and Fonkoze

August 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Those of you following this blog know that Morgan Nelson, a high school student who founded “Microfinance Matters” (a club at Key West High School), joined me for the first of my four weeks in Haiti this summer and helped the book project in a number of ways and continues to.  I wrote about her participation in an earlier blog.  At my request she wrote this impressive guest blog — enjoy!

Although I recently passed my Advanced Placement Economics exam, I am certainly no expert in the subject. However, I am learning quite a bit about Microfinance. I have been very interested in the Grameen Foundation and on my trip to Haiti with Alex and Emily Counts in June, I discovered the fascinating world of Fonkoze. Much of my time was spent learning about the way the organization works and how microfinance positively affects the lives of Haitian women. In contrast to my lack of expertise in the technicalities of finance, there is one subject on which I could be considered quite the luminary: emotion. Being a high school girl, I spend quite a bit of time with superfluous amounts of feelings.. Whether they are my own, my friends, or troubled teens who feel the need to share their woes via Facebook.  I have become quite adept to recognizing different emotions, and during my stay in Haiti, I got to experience the many amazing feelings associated with Fonkoze.

Morgan taking notes and making friends at a solidarity group meeting.

Fonkoze’s four tiers of programs deal with four different social standings: the extreme poor, the very poor, the slightly less poor, and regular working citizens who run small but mature businesses. I didn’t get a chance to meet with any members of the lowest group, CLM, so I cannot say first-hand what they experience. (CLM is an acronym for a Haitian phrase that means “Pathway to a Better Life.”)  However, on my first day in Haiti, I got to meet with Carine Roenen, the director of the non-profit part of Fonkoze. She explained that the lowest members of the four tiers do not have a twinkle in their eye that says, “I am ready to build a better future for myself and my family.” This is why CLM focuses on getting these clients their basic needs. This theory parallels Abraham Maslow’s self actualization pyramid in showing that there is no way to be truly happy and hopeful without having shelter, food, clean water, and other living necessities first. CLM helps with the transition out of poverty by providing ways to acquire these basic things. Once they have obtained that twinkle in their eye, they can choose to move on to the second tier of Fonkoze.              

Ti Kredi clients receive very small loans (starting as small as $25) and some guidance for starting small businesses. This phase of Fonkoze forms trust and fosters inspiration in clients. They begin to see what Fonkoze can do for them.  When I met my first future Ti Kredi member, she was shy. She stood cautiously in front of her mud and stick house and answered our questions with slight trepidation. She had not yet received any loans, and only had a plan to buy and sell clothes donated from the United States. I could tell she did not have the confidence that she could accomplish what she dreamed about just yet. Even without knowing that she had not entered Fonkoze at the time, I could easily tell her apart from the veterans. Members who had been through Ti Kredi – it is last six months, after which clients are eligible for the next tier  – had many more plans and much more to talk about. They told us about their houses being built, their next business moves, and the numerous amounts of loans they have received and paid back. They already feel inspired. I know the reserved woman, who has not entered Ti Kredi yet, will feel the same way soon.

The women in the solidarity groups are strong and boisterous. They are proud. They love each other, and above all, they love Fonkoze. The first group meeting I attended, I was greeted with wonderful singing and huge smiles. And as I got further in depth with the women of the groups, I saw an element of sisterhood unlike anything I’ve seen before. In general, women in Haiti have really strong relationships. You will see friends walking hand in hand down the street out of love and protection, but the bonds are even stronger when the women are business partners. Women in solidarity groups depend on each other and most of the time, do everything together. They take business classes together, cook together, and hang out together. One group of women we met with loved each other so much that they didn’t even want to move on to the independent business stage, where they could receive bigger loans. I believe out of this sisterhood, comes strength and confidence. That is why the Fonkoze veterans were the most garrulous and happy.

One day, I walked down a mountain road behind Madame Jean Marc, who is a wholesaler of salt and cement, stopping every couple houses to yell out to a friend or visit a fellow group member. When we interviewed her on her property, she sat confidently in front of her sturdy, current house, and her beautiful, new home in the making. Her family watched with pride, and her Fonkoze friends gathered, treating us to freshly cut coconuts. I could feel that she was one of the many influential women in Fonkoze, and I sat entranced and graced by her presence throughout her entire interview. In my opinion, it is in the solidarity groups where you can truly see the amazing success Fonkoze brings and the confidence that Fonkoze cultivates in the rural women of Haiti.

I did not get a chance to meet with a business development client either, but my impression is that the  women’s’ confidence and happiness increases as they advance their sizes of loans and statuses in society. As fully functioning members of society, not only do they have the wonderful people at Fonkoze to thank, they are proud of themselves and their family too.

Speaking of those wonderful people at Fonkoze…  About half of my time in Haiti was spent interviewing the staff of Fonkoze. I got to meet with the founders and directors, along with the branch managers and the clients who took on jobs as group leaders. They all have one thing in common: they love Fonkoze. It isn’t just a job for them. They invest everything they have in it, and they are proud of it. It is this dedication and courage from the staff that allowed Fonkoze branches to open and start helping their clients as little two days after the earthquake of 2010 and be fully functional about one week later. A truly amazing feat while other banks in Haiti floundered for weeks. When we asked regional directors and branch managers why Fonkoze works so well, they all had  about the same answer: everyone at Fonkoze is on the same page. Everyone from a group fearless, brilliant directors to a group of women clients, knows that the organization is a place of finance for the poor, by the poor. Everyone sticks to the meaning of Fonkoze’s name, Fondasyon Kole Zepol, or The Shoulder to Shoulder Foundation. Father Joseph, the founder of Fonkoze and a man who truly makes helping others look easy, tells us and his staff that Fonkoze means that people must depend on each other. He preaches whole heartedly, “There is no way to solve my problem if yours is not solved.” And as Fonkoze’s success has proven, this motto is working out.

To go on a whirlwind tour of my emotion associated with Haiti and Fonkoze, I will start with fear. As soon as I touched down in Haiti and I couldn’t find my bag in the concrete terminal, my media-skewed mind was terrified. But as I experienced Haiti and the people of Fonkoze, my fear faded and dulled. It was replaced with a shiny new hope. When I was with Fonkoze, it was all around me. Hope sounded from the interviews with directors, it echoed from the branch in Okay to the branch in Jacmel, and it sang from the mouths of successful clients at group meetings. And somehow the heart that raced with fear at the sight of the Port-au-Prince airport terminal was transformed by the people of Haiti and Fonkoze into a heart that throbbed for a beautiful country and a truly miraculous organization. My fear turned to hope as quickly as a CLM member’s does with Fonkoze. And even though I can’t tell you what the difference between a credit union and a microfinance institution is, there is no need, because emotion says it all.

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