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Muhammad Yunus Visits Haiti and Fonkoze

I am just wrapping up a four-day, whirlwind tour of Haiti.  The main impetus was Professor Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank and 2006 Nobel Laureate, making his first visit to Haiti.  His trip included:

  • a session with President Martelly (just before he introduced his cabinet to the nation!),
  • giving two keynote addresses (mostly relating to his idea of “social business” and the work of Grameen Creative Lab to advance it in Haiti),
  • taking part in a panel discussion that included Anne Hastings and me, and
  • visiting a Fonkoze Ti Kredi center (he charmed them and vice versa!) as well as Partners in Health.

There is so much that I am processing about this visit, so many memories and ideas and scenes and people!  I think the simplest way to blog about it is to follow a simple timeline of the major events (Wednesday and Thursday first, then Friday and Saturday in another blog) and finally, in a third installment, a list my main take-aways.

Wednesday, October 12: I landed in Port au Prince and enjoyed the smoothest arrival in the airport (immigration/luggage retrieval/customs/finding my driver) ever, by far.  I arrived in the office for an interview with Carine Roenen, the director of Fonkoze.  She is a smart, dogged, truth-telling lieutenant to Anne and respected outside and inside the organization.  I asked her about Anne and her leadership of the family of organizations.  (Anne recruited Carine from Concern International and turned over Fonkoze to her while assuming the role of CEO of SFF, Fonkoze’s for-profit arm – an arrangement Anne has told me was hard but necessary.) 

Carine talked about Anne’s many strengths and then paused and we explored how hard-driving Anne is to get her priorities done – yesterday.  Sometimes this can have a negative impact on the organization by creating frenzied and not always productive activity, but she cited two examples of where it led to enormously positive outcomes:

  1. Right after the earthquake, everyone was understandably shell-shocked and Carine thinks that left to their own devices, the senior staff would have hunkered down and waited for some sense of normalcy to return to the country before restarting operations.  Marching to the beat of a different drummer, Anne drove them to start serving their clients immediately and got anyone physically able to work to get into the courtyard of the badly damaged Port au Prince branch to set up shop so people could access their savings and transfers from relatives abroad before the rest of the banking system opened.  (She also mentioned that no one but Anne and her indomitable will could have cajoled the banks, UN and US government to airlift the $2 million from Miami needed to continue making these payments after the first few days.)
  2. Earlier this year, Anne drove people very hard to get clients signed up for the catastrophic insurance program – too hard, in the eyes of many.  The grumbling was real.  And yet … due to rolling the coverage out quickly, nearly 5,000 Fonkoze families that were severely impacted by flooding in May got a combined $1 million in loan forgiveness and cash payments from Fonkoze’s insurance partner, funds that enabled them – and Fonkoze – to recover quickly.  If not for that, 10% of Fonkoze’s clients – and perhaps 10% of its loan portfolio – would be in severe distress now.

I always enjoy my time with Carine – I wish it could have gone on longer.  Later that day I had a good meeting with Linda Boucard, who re-interviewed the Marigot borrower Iliamene for me and gave me her written summary.  I had dinner with Jean-Guy Noel, a savvy Haitian businessman who is a key friend and business partner of Fonkoze’s and who serves on the board of Fonkoze USA with me.  His insights about Haitian politics and the local economy – and how the two influence each other – will doubtless inform my book.   

Thursday, October 13: I spent the morning re-interviewing Natacha Blanc, whose post-earthquake journey and volunteer work with local at-risk youth, together with her work in Fonkoze – which is interesting in its own right – make her someone who will likely be featured in my book.  Then I spent about three hours interviewing Anne. 

I could write a very long blog about that chat but one thing stands out.  We talked about the fact that her COO Georgette Jean Louis had been nominated by President Martelly to serve on the board of the Central Bank — which would mean she would have to leave Fonkoze (at least for a while).  It was a great honor for her to be named, and something that might help Fonkoze, but it was also a blow to Anne’s succession plan and her desire to better balance her international representation of Fonkoze with management of the institution – much easier to do with someone of Georgette’s caliber around! 

A little while after we had moved on to other subjects, Georgette walked into Anne’s office and greeted both of us.  They discussed Georgette’s nomination (it was due to be voted on by the Senate that day) and a few other topics.  After a few minutes, Georgette moved towards the doorway and Anne asked, “Is this your last day in the office?” 

After a short pause Georgette simply said, “Yes.”  The two exchanged glances.  It was a poignant moment.  Then the elegant woman in a red dress disappeared. Anne and I resumed our conversation, at one point exploring the issues facing microfinance globally including difficulties with succession planning amongst some of the most well-known microfinance institutions in the world. 

For now, Anne and Carine will divide up Georgette’s responsibilities and Anne will try to be more selective in her work as the main international spokesperson for Fonkoze.  I took pages and pages of notes in what was my first lengthy interview with Anne since June. 

As it happened, while Anne and I were talking, Professor Yunus was meeting with President Martelly.  They seemed to form a warm bond and there may be some positive outcomes long-term for Fonkoze and social business in Haiti.

I followed Anne to a presentation she gave to a group of philanthropist/investors who were beginning a four-day tour of Haiti.  She was jet-lagged and a little off her game during the first part of her talk, but when she began talking about the origins of Fonkoze she relaxed and wowed the group with her accomplishments, openness about her failures, humility and graciousness (complimenting other speakers and even her tag-along author), and her overall positive energy and eagerness to find new partners. 

From there we went to the Karibe Hotel for an opening of a two-day conference arranged around Professor Yunus’ visit.  During his Dr. Yunus’ keynote, which was focused on the theory and practice of social business, he graciously praised Fonkoze and my employer, Grameen Foundation.

In the three and a half-minute video included in this blog, Professor Yunus talks about how he worried the post-earthquake aid money would be wasted and increase dependence, and how he was at the World Economic Forum in Davos and got the support of the German company SAP to start a “social business fund” for Haiti.  After telling that short story he came back to Grameen Bank’s work in microfinance and how it led to a worldwide movement exemplified in Haiti by Fonkoze.  Please excuse the grainy footage and wobbly camera – still working out the kinks as a videographer!

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