Guest Blog: Morgan Nelson Reflects on Haiti and Fonkoze
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.
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.