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Currency of Relief

With the Help of Fonkoze Micro-Banks, Life in Haiti Slowly Starts to Return to Normal


Friday, March 19, 2010

Fonkoze USA board members and Santa Barbara residents Mary Becker and her husband Gary recently returned from Port-au-Prince, two months after the January 12 earthquake rocked Haiti’s largest city. There, they witnessed not only the remaining widespread damage, but also the hopeful and ongoing efforts to rebuild the area’s infrastructure. Read Mary’s account below, which highlights the extraordinary steps taken by micro-finance institution Fonkoze to provide aid and economic support to the hundreds of thousands that still need it.

The first day back from Haiti, I looked at my kitchen counter, a four-by-six-foot island design. If I were a Haitian living in the earthquake area, my family would eat, sleep, and live in a tent within that same small space. My next-door neighbors’ tents would, on all sides, be barely one foot away. If the entire population of Montecito was forced to live in such a tent city, it would fit within a Von’s parking lot.

Mary and Gary Becker, residents of Santa Barbara and Board members of Fonkoze USA, in front of the destroyed catholic cathedral.
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Mary and Gary Becker, residents of Santa Barbara and Board members of Fonkoze USA, in front of the destroyed catholic cathedral.

In Port-au-Prince and the towns surrounding it, tent cities have sprung up everywhere. They’re next to the airport, in parks, on the side of boulevards, and even on divider strips between roadways. The sad sight of people crammed together in the tropical heat, with the dust from hundreds of crushed buildings clinging to every surface, nearly overwhelmed us.

Staff members of Fonkoze, a micro-finance institution that offers services to Haiti’s rural poor, took us on a tour of Port-au-Prince. They told us how, in the weeks following the earthquake, there were bodies lying in the streets. They said that more than 250,000 people were killed, and there is not a single Haitian who has not lost a family member or friend in the disaster. Even so, as we gasped at the damage and destruction in every part of the city, our guides remarked on how much better things look.

We looked again and saw that Ti Machaan, women who sell food and other wares, have returned with their baskets of goods to impromptu markets on the streets. Men with pickaxes and wheelbarrows are steadily taking down the damaged buildings while teams of teenagers in blue t-shirts pick up the rubble. Businesses that are still standing have opened again. Children jump rope and fly kites on sidewalks next to the tents. The bustle of Haitians on the move, looking for food and work, is happening.

Sign on the newly dedicated Port au Prince branch bank of Fonkoze.  The former bank building was destroyed in the earthquake.
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Sign on the newly dedicated Port au Prince branch bank of Fonkoze. The former bank building was destroyed in the earthquake.

The tour took us to the opening of Fonkoze’s Port-au-Prince branch office. It has a fresh coat of paint, attentive employees, and lots of customers. The staff told us that the work of Fonkoze never stops because it is decentralized, with 42 branch banks located all around the country of Haiti. Even in the earthquake areas, the bank’s locations started up within a week, before the commercial banks were reopened. There was such a large demand for cash to pay for emergency needs that several locations nearly ran out of money. With help from U.S. partners, Fonkoze arranged for $2 million in cash to be brought in which was then distributed by helicopters to banks around the countryside.

Now Haitians face a number of daunting tasks. They need to recover from psychological trauma caused by the January 12 earthquake. They need to raze hundreds of damaged buildings, dispose of the waste, and provide housing for hundreds of thousands of people. They need to rebuild their governmental institutions, schools, a comprehensive education system, hospitals, and an adequate health care system. They need to build infrastructure to provide water and sanitation and transportation.

Haiti’s recovery and rebuilding can happen only if international aid organizations work hand-in-hand with Haitian institutions. Fonkoze was founded by Haitians 15 years ago and, over the years, its has accompanied its clients (who are primarily women) through personal crises, hurricanes and floods, and now through the earthquake. It has grown to be an institution that the poor of Haiti can depend on for access to loans, education, and support. (Full disclosure: My husband and I are board members of Fonkoze USA and belong to a local support group, Fonkoze Santa Barbara.)

Anne Hastings, CEO of Fonkoze, talks to displaced Haitians about how to access emergency funds through Fonkoze.
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Anne Hastings, CEO of Fonkoze, talks to displaced Haitians about how to access emergency funds through Fonkoze.

Immediately after the earthquake struck, staff members sprang into action, with CEO Anne Hastings setting up a “thinking team.” The team’s first objectives were to contact all staff members, find ways to safeguard the equipment in the Port-au-Prince headquarters, and determine the condition of all the branches. A search revealed that five staff members were killed in the quake and that 470 staff members suffered the total loss or significant damage of their homes. Of the 42 bank locations, 10 need to be replaced, including the headquarters, and six need to be repaired.

Within the first weeks following the quake, Fonkoze provided financial support and tents to the employees who needed housing. Ongoing psychological support was offered in the form of group therapy sessions. That support continues. Staff members who made extraordinary contributions in getting the operations running again were identified as “Fonkoze Heroes.”

Credit agents and bank directors canvassed their areas to determine how clients were doing. Two months after the earthquake, it appears that 112 clients died, and 6,300 lost either or both their homes and their businesses. In response, Fonkoze will provide catastrophic loss benefits that include a cash distribution, a new loan, and forgiveness of their old loan. Those clients will also participate in four sessions of education on Disaster Risk Reduction. Hundreds of clients are providing housing and food to family members who left earthquake zones for the rural areas, and clients who host family and friends will receive a one-time cash grant.

Once a substantial business - now a total loss.
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Courtesy Photo

Once a substantial business - now a total loss.

Throughout the crisis, Fonkoze has been actively coordinating with a number of agencies and NGOs, including participation in the Clinton Global Initiative group. Moving forward, Fonkoze is about to announce a new initiative designed to bring together donors and investors with Haitian business people. The aim of this initiative, Zafen, is to structure funding and mechanisms to encourage entrepreneurship that will create jobs and lead to sustainable economic development. It’s an ambitious plan, and I’m betting that Fonkoze will make it work.

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