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Micro-lender Fonkoze to the Rescue in Haiti

| December 17, 2010

A micro-credit program and banking system for more than 200,000 women in Haiti has come to the rescue of the overall economy in the wake of the devastating earthquake. At a time when Haitian commercial banks remain closed, Fonkoze, the Haitian branch of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, mobilized over the weekend to get funds to its members in rural towns as well as Port-au-Prince.

Between 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. last Saturday, Fonkoze brought in $2 million in cash from their U.S. bank and distributed it by helicopters to regional offices in the most remote parts of the country. That got money flowing again. The cash came from Haitians working abroad who had sent funds—remittances—to their relatives.

Also known as Haiti’s Alternative Bank for the Organized Poor, Fonkoze found a way to get money to its members through the 34 of its 41 branch offices still open after the earthquake. It had a lot of help in high places: the U.S. secretary of state, top Treasury and Defense Department officials, the Federal Reserve, the Agency for International Development, the United Nations, the Inter-American Development Bank and more.

The actual operation read like a cloak-and-dagger saga.

Anne Hastings, the CEO of Fonkoze Financial Services, was point person on shaping the unorthodox solution. It involved many conference calls to Washington, New York and Miami, as well as intricate strategies with managers on the ground in Haiti who would get the money to the women.

By last Friday, the plan was ready. Remittances from U.S.-based Haitians deposited in Fonkoze’s accounts at City National Bank of New Jersey were sent to JP Morgan Chase in Miami, converted into cash—and packed in office supply boxes. An armored vehicle transferred the boxes to Homestead Air Force Base.

A C-17 plane, diverted from Langley Air Force Base, landed at Homestead at 3 a.m. Saturday, took on the camouflaged cargo of cash, and flew to Haiti, where the major airport at Port-au-Prince has been under U.S. military control since the earthquake.

There, Hastings and two other Fonkoze executives inspected the cash cargo—and called the Pentagon to say so far, so good. Under a military escort, the Fonkoze vehicle loaded with the boxes of cash awaited the two helicopters that could fly the money to 10 designated drop-off locations.

Fonkoze’s Jean-Guy Noel rode with the helicopters as they began deliveries before dawn. Seven hours later, all the cash had been delivered and the helicopters were back in Port-au-Prince. By early afternoon, the cash had been distributed to the 34 Fonkoze branches. Almost immediately, the Fonkoze managers began giving Fonkoze members cash from their relatives, a financial lifeline at a time when the formal banking system is in shambles and remittances sent through it from overseas Haitians remain locked up.

Jennifer Harris, a member of the policy staff of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a memo to Pentagon officials released by Fonkoze, spelled out the implications of the combined State-Defense operation.

“Fonkoze has by far the deepest reach into the country’s rural poor, a remittance network that would take years to recreate from scratch. As people continue to migrate from Port-au-Prince, Fonkoze’s branch network will become even more essential,” she said.

“Perhaps most important, unlike the commercial banks, Fonkoze has re-opened many of its branches and has continued to pay out remittances using its cash on hand.” In essence, she said, the unconventional operation “may well have stabilized the banking system for the country’s most vulnerable population.” 

Fonkoze has been operating in Haiti for 15 years. Ninety-nine percent of its members are women. By midweek, it expects all but three of its branches to be open. In the heavily damaged capital city, Fonkoze managers set up shop at a makeshift office in the courtyard next to its damaged headquarters—and hundreds of Haitians lined up to get the money due them.

In addition to micro-lending programs, Fonkoze sponsors major literacy, health care and micro-insurance programs. Its remittances and savings accounts serve more than 200,000 people, making it a significant part of the country’s financial system. Relatives of Fonkoze members working abroad use its conduits to send back money—“that taxi driver in New York City who wants to send fifty dollars to his mother,” says Leigh Carter, Fonkoze USA fundraiser—amounting to $57.7 million last year.

It also serves as a vendor for three other remittance services that still operate after the earthquake: MoneyGram, CAM and Unitransfer. The process is a lifeline for a country where, in 2007, 79 percent of Haitians lived on less than $2 a day and 55 percent lived on half that.

Fonkoze’s micro-lending program has four different levels. The first step is for the poorest of the poor and may involve home repairs and health care, as well as building the confidence of the women as they plan to start a micro-enterprise. Next the women may qualify for small loans—perhaps only $25—with a short repayment period, while they enroll in literacy classes. In Haiti, more than 50 percent of people are illiterate.

The third level is the core: a “solidarity” group in which friends take out loans together, then morph into credit centers of 30 to 40 women. These women can start out borrowing $75 but if they prosper, they can borrow up to $1,300 for six months.

The fourth level focuses on business development. Some women in this group borrow up to $25,000 and are being nurtured to become part of the formal economy, creating jobs in rural areas where there are few employment opportunities.

It isn’t the first time that a micro-lending network of mostly women has taken a lead role in helping rebuild a country’s economy after a natural disaster. In Poland, after a devastating flood in the mid-1990s, the U.S.-backed Fundusz Mikro became the conduit for credit to small businesses, ultimately funneling more than $10 million to rebuild when the central government proved inept and also tone-deaf to the challenge.

Leigh Carter, who broke several vertebrae in her back getting out of the Fonkoze headquarters building during the earthquake and was airlifted out days later, is back at work in Washington. She says multinational economic and financial leaders already are talking to Fonkoze about ways to use their extensive network of micro-lending programs for programs to rebuild the Haitian economic base. “People are coming to us saying ‘you need to expand your capacity,’” she said. 

But first things first: the immediate priority had to be getting cash to its members throughout Haiti, from their friends and relatives abroad, which in itself expands their ability to survive and rebuild.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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