Improving Village Savings and Loan Associations

When Fonkoze first established the CLM program, it expected it to be just the first of the series of services the institution would provide as it accompanied families living in ultra-poverty on their way forward. CLM families would graduate from the program into Fonkoze’s credit programs, starting small and then moving on to higher levels. Fonkoze sometimes referred to the progression as the “Staircase out of Poverty.”

The problem was that it didn’t always happen that way. Many CLM graduates either could not or did not choose to go on to credit programs. Among other things, the CLM team’s commitment to going into the farthest reaches of each region to find the poorest families wherever they live meant that it would work in places that its sister organization’s credit teams could not serve. CLM members were spending 18 months in the program, building up initial livelihoods, and then losing access to accompaniment. The CLM team felt strongly that members needed to be graduating from CLM into some structure, but it didn’t at first know what kind of structure might be useful.

In 2015 and 2016, the program started experimenting with Village Savings and Loan Associations. (See: www.vsla.net.) It was felt that by grouping members into associations that push them to save while providing access to small loans, the program could help them support themselves and one another for the long term. The CLM team now organizes VSLAs in all the neighborhoods it works in. The associations have proven extremely popular among CLM members, and the CLM field staff has found them to be a useful teaching tool.

But they are not without challenges. Even though they are designed to require only minimal skills of their members, they depend on having a small leadership group that has skills beyond what almost any CLM members possesses. In order to establish them in all neighborhoods, the team was forced to integrate a few community leaders into each. But this can have the effect of reinforcing the community’s traditional power relationships.

And this is no mere theoretical problem. Since the good functioning of the associations depends on members’ oversight over a transparent process, reinforcing traditional power relationships can leave members lacking the confidence that they would need to feel entitled to criticize their leaders, and so the leaders can feel enabled to act without constraint. Some leaders end up taking advantage of their position to turn the VSLA’s resources to their own benefit, preventing CLM members from benefiting as much as they should.

And the associations are victims of their own popularity, too. They are designed to function for a year, and at the end of the year all members receive their savings and their share of any interest the association earns. Then a new cycle starts. But community members who are not part of the program like what they see, and they decide to join. Since details of each association’s rules are determined by vote, CLM members can be priced out. VSLAs can survive for several year-long cycles, but CLM-member participation can tend to decrease. Some existing associations no longer serve the population they were implemented to serve.

And the turnover brings another problem as well. The changes in membership that go with each cycle means a shared understanding of the process continually decreases. And as participants understand less about their associations, the associations function less well.

Martinière Jasmin

In the fall, the CLM team appointed a full-time VSLA specialist with a dual mission: 1. to assess individual VSLAs and help them resolve any problems and 2. to lead the CLM team’s development of a strategy to provide VSLAs with sustainable, long-term support. His name is Martinière Jasmin, and he brings nine years of experience as a CLM case manager and a track record of success at helping the members he has served make good use of their VSLAs.

He and I went together to a VSLA meeting in Pak Kabrit, near downtown Laskawobas. The association there is, in a sense, a well-established VSLA. The day we attended they were closing their third cycle, so they’ve been at for three years. The day’s work was to calculate and make the appropriate pay-out to each member.

But there were problems. Of 68 members, 44 owed the association money. They had loans they hadn’t finished repaying. Calculating pay-outs involved subtracting each person’s balance from their savings. That was difficult work, but it was, in a way, straightforward. The association’s records, however, showed that not all members had paid interest on their loans, and almost none had been charged penalties for late payments. All this is central to how the associations are supposed to earn money that can be paid out as profit to members.

And it was hard to be sure since the VSLA’s secretary had changed since the association was established, and the current one had received no training at all. The leader who had maintained continuity was the president, and he was part of the problem. He owed a lot of money, and didn’t even attend the pay-out meeting. Worse than that, he had been using his prestige to convince other VSLA members to borrow money for him on their accounts, and several of the members who had debt reported that, in fact, the money was in his hands.

Martinière worked patiently and forcefully for over six hours as the he, the secretary, and the other members went through mixed-up, incomplete bookkeeping to audit each person’s account, eliminating as much as their debt as possible and figuring out what pay-out they were entitled to. They studied written records, but also depended on participants’ memories about transactions, both their own transactions and those of their fellow members. Since all transactions are made publicly, someone would usually remember. As members realized that Martinière was in no hurry, that he’d take all the time they needed to get things right, they joined a spirited collaboration. They started well before noon and finished early in the evening, by the light of a couple of cell-phones.

Remarkably, most of the group wants to participate in the next cycle. The chance to feel pressured to save continually and the opportunity to take out small loans now and again make it worth it to them, even if they are finding themselves defrauded out of some or all of the profit they should make. They are especially excited about the new training that Martinière will provide, ensuring that the upcoming cycle gets off to a good start. He wants them to understand how critical some of the VSLAs basic principles are: regular, attentive attendance; careful adherence to the basic recording keeping practices; and the willingness to pay all the charges the group’s own rules call for.

Martinière is determined to succeed. “VSLAs are just too useful to our members for us to give them up. And the members see that, too. When I think about what they put up with without losing their desire to continue, that motivates me to help them clear things up.”

Byeneme: Eight Years After Graduation

Byeneme is a small community in Sodo, one of the communes along the southern border of Haiti’s Central Plateau. It sits near the ridge that divides the commune from the plain that encompasses Pòtoprens, and offers a panoramic view of the valley to the north, which includes downtown Sodo and downtown Mibalè, too. The road into Byeneme does not pass through Sodo. The only direct route to the downtown area is a footpath straight down the hill. The road in runs, instead, along the ridge from National Route 3, in Fon Cheval.

The CLM program launched in Byenmeme in 2011, as part of its initial scale-up. The single case manager assigned to the area worked there one day a week with about a dozen families. It was a separate little population of members, disconnected geographically from the rest of their cohort. They graduated as part of a group of 300 families in downtown Sodo in March 2012.

Joisimène and one of her daughters.

Joisimène Bernard was a member of the cohort. At the time, she, her husband, and their children were really struggling. She wasn’t able to send the kids to school consistently, and the family lived in a shack covered only with a tarp.

The couple was excited to be able to build a new house. They received roofing tin, cement, and money to hire a builder from Fonkoze, but they wanted a larger house, so her husband went off to Delma, the populous residential suburb just north of Pòtoprens, and found whatever odd jobs he could so that they could double the amount of roofing tin they had to work with and, so, build an additional room.

Joisimène received goats and small commerce from the program. The goats never really prospered, but her commerce took off. She would buy produce — anything in season — at three different local markets: Dalon, Ti Sekèy, and Labasti. She kept 2000 gourds or so in the business. Then she’d haul her merchandise for sale in the large, residential areas near the capital. It was a reliable business, and it allowed her to grow. She saved some of her profit in her Fonkoze savings account until she had enough to buy a small cow. The cow grew and eventually had a calf. Then it got sick and died, leaving her with a healthy heifer. She’s hoping that, with patient care, it will eventually take its mother’s place and provide her calves.

The commerce was working well until the political troubles that developed in Haiti over the past year made it difficult. Prices for the kind of merchandise she would buy increased more quickly than her capital did, and at the same time transportation strikes and blockages increased the cost and the difficulty of getting merchandise to Pòtoprens.

So she gave it up. She saw that she needed to keep working, however, so she came up with another plan. With as little as 500 gourds — less than $5 — she can go down to Mibalè and buy bread, which sells well in her community. She can sell it for 1200 to 1300 gourds. So it’s profitable, even when she pays 250 for transportation. She doesn’t make a lot of money, but it’s enough to send her kids to school and keep them fed. “Children are different from adults. If they get nothing to eat, they complain.”

Louinèl and his older girls.

Wideline Pierre and her husband, Louinèl Maxi, were part of the cohort as well. They, too, chose goats and small commerce, but Wideline’s business was less successful than Joisimène’s. She sold basic groceries in Byeneme. Things like rice, oil, seasoning, etc. But such businesses are extremely hard to sustain. Neighbors buy on credit, and they don’t always pay. Eventually Wideline gave up. The capital she had left wasn’t enough to continue.

But in a sense, it wasn’t important to the couple. They have a strong partnership, and were used to depending more on what Louinèl could bring in. He would travel from Byeneme to Delma every Sunday afternoon and work there until Saturday, when he’d return home with his earnings. He would do construction jobs when he could find them, but he was never very particular. When he couldn’t find a job, he would hang out at the stations where riders get on and off the pick-up trucks that provide most of Pòtoprens’s public transportation, and hire himself out as a porter.

But in the last couple of years, things have gotten harder. Louinèl hasn’t been well. He’s had stomach problems that he hasn’t been able to shake. He can’t eat much of anything. His family makes him a watery soup out of stale bread and greens. For someone in his line of work, nothing is more important than physical strength, and he hasn’t been able to keep his strength up.

So Louinèl and Wideline had to change the way they do things. Wideline and the youngest of their six children moved to Pòtoprens to live principally with the child’s godmother. Wideline found work as a maid. She gets paid at the end of every month, and come up to Byeneme for a couple of days at home.

The new way of life works for the couple in a sense. Their children are healthy and well-fed, and they attend school, things the were a struggle before Wideline joined CLM. But their life isn’t what they’d like it to be. Louinèl explains, “You’re never really doing well when you’re working for someone else.”

Beauvilus and one of his girls.

Like Wideline, Marie Lourde Ciléus is hard to find in Byeneme. Her husband, Beauvilus, is more stable there. But her story is quite different from Wideline’s. Marie Lourde is a merchant.

Every Monday, she travels north from Byeneme to a large rural market in Difayi. Farmers come to Difayi from all across the mountains of northern Boukankare, and Marie Lourde buys their produce. Then she hauls whatever she’s purchased south for sale in the large produce market at Kwabosal, below Pòtoprens. She spends a night at home on the way.

It’s a hard life, but life was harder before she joined the program. Beauvilus reports that their children would get sent home from school because the couple couldn’t pay school fees. They had a hard time even feeding them, and the children sometimes missed school because there was nothing to eat at home. “We wouldn’t even bother to light the fire,” he explains.

Even now, life has its ups and down. Their sixth child had to be delivered by Caesarean section, and the expense ate up all the money Marie Lourde had in her business.

Beauvilus himself had always been a farmer. “When I was young, my parents didn’t think it was important for me to learn a trade.” But farming in Byeneme has been increasingly difficult. Water is scarce in the area, and millet, which had long been the most important staple in the region, was eliminated by the same disease that eliminated it throughout Haiti. Beauvilus now plants a little corn, and a few pigeon peas, but it’s not a living.

Marie Lourdes success as a business women, however, comes with advantages. When she was ready to go back to work after having their child, she talked to a merchant she travels with. The women who run such businesses in Haiti are called “Madan Sara.” It’s a name they share with a highly social species of bird known especially for making a lot of noise as they chatter with one another.

Marie Lourdes and the other Madan Sara talked, and the woman agreed to lend her the money she would need to return to business. Some weeks it’s 5000 gourds, sometimes it’s 10,000. It depends on what the other woman has available. But for the other woman, it’s worth it to be traveling in business with a trusted friend. It has meant that Marie Lourdes, Beauvilus, and their kids can get by as Marie Lourdes rebuilds her own capital.

Marijo Louis — One Year into the CLM Program

Marijo lives with her three children in Ranp Solda, near the main highway that cuts north-south through Central Haiti, just north of Kanj. She’s been a widow for several years, though her partner had stopped helping her support their children even before he passed away. “I’ve been both their mother and their father for a long time.”

She and her sister had both been mentioned among the community’s poorer residents at the public meeting that launches the CLM selection process, but when the team set out to interview potential members, they couldn’t find them. They living in Pòtoprens. She had left her two younger children in the care of her oldest child, a teenage boy, to work as a maid. It was the only way she could figure out to pay their rent, keep the kids fed, and send them to school. Her sister was working as a maid as well.

A CLM case managers talked to the kids about their lives and about their mothers, and he thought both women might qualify for the program. He got the kids to give him their phone numbers, and called them. Once he had convinced himself that they would qualify, he encouraged them to come home to Tomond to attend a meeting. “He asked me whether I’d rather live at home or in Pòtoprens, where I was working, and I said I wished I could see how my children sleep every night and how they wake up every morning.”

Marijo’s sister decided to stay in Pòtoprens. Marijo explains that the sister had a boyfriend at the time and wanted to stay near him. The man has, however, left her, so Marijo’s sister now has neither him nor the CLM program.

After attending the initial six-day training, Marijo chose goats and small trading as her two enterprises. And her goats have done well. “They gave me three, but they’ve had kids. I would have seven, but one of the kids died. So there are six. Most of them are still small, but I count them anyway.” Her kids help her take care of them. “They move them around a couple of times a day to make sure they are near food and out of the sun.”

Her real success has come through her commerce, though. The CLM team gave her 2000 gourds — about $21.50 — which she used to buy four sacks of charcoal from various local farmers. Charcoal trucks drive by Ranp Solda every day on their way to Pòtoprens, and Marijo sold all four for 2400 gourds to a wholesaler on a passing truck. She could earn higher profit by selling the sack individually, to consumers, but she likes being able to get rid of them quickly. She’s been rolling over her investment ever since. She now buys 15 sacks, and has establish a relationship with a particular wholesaler who buys everything she has every two weeks. “I keep almost all the money in the business, except what I take out to pay into my savings group every week.”

She’s not planning to grow her charcoal business much larger than it is right now, though. She’d rather use additional profit to establish a second business. Her plan is to sell basic groceries out of her home. “That way, my kids won’t have to go to other people to buy what we need. I’ll just keep track of what we take out of the business and replace it.”

When I tell her that I can see she has a head for business, she smiles. She never thought of herself as someone who could go into business. “When they do trainings, they talk with you. Even if you never had thoughts about business, business thoughts come to you.”

She still doesn’t depend on business to feed her children, however. Instead, she found a job doing laundry for a family in Kanj. She washes once day a week and then irons the clothes on a separate day. The family pays her 1500 gourds per month, or about $16.25.

Her real focus now is on completing her new home. Paying her 4000-gourd rent every year has been one of her biggest challenges up to now. But she found a neighbor willing to rent her a small plot of land sou pri dacha. That means that the rent she’ll pay will work as installments towards eventual purchase, so she and her kids will have her own home. She doesn’t yet know how much the purchase will cost. The land’s owner said that she should just build her house and that they’d talk about the purchase price in the future. She hopes to be able to use her livestock to complete the purchase.

She decided to build very small house, just one room, because she wants to be sure she’ll be able to finish the job. The CLM teams provides some building materials, and stipends for the builders, but members have to acquire a lot of the stuff they need themselves. Marijo is almost finished. She just needs to have the front door made.

The Women of Lawa: Seven Months In

Like all the CLM members who live in Lawa, Jeanna has now been a part of the program for seven months. She feels as though she has already made a lot of progress, but when she speaks about what she has accomplished so far, she focuses on her new home. 

“Our latrine is finished. We walled it in and installed a door. We’re gathering the wooden support posts we’ll need for the house. We’ll find them, alright. The planks to make a door will be harder.”

That’s because the door will be made of hardwood. Even if she and her partner, Nelso, have a tree they can cut down, they’ll need to pay a pair of workers to cut it into planks. If they don’t have an appropriate tree, they’ll have to find planks the can buy at a price they can afford.

She received two goats from the program, and one is pregnant. She also received a sheep, and though it appeared to be pregnant too, it turned out not to be. She’ll have to wait until it’s in heat again, then cross it with a local ram. She’s happy with the animals, though. “They’re all healthy.”

She tried to start a small business selling rice. “I bought a sack of rice, but some of it ended up feeding my children and some went to customers who bought on credit and never paid.”

She wants to start over again when she has enough money. She is waiting to harvest her pigeon peas. She expects to bring in 2500 to 3000 gourds of peas. That’s about $33, and she would like to use the money to start a new business. This time she has a different plan. She wants to buy a few sacks of something from local farmers. Charcoal, maybe. She’ll sell it retail, in small piles, in the market in Gwomòn.

She sounds as though she knows what she wants to do with money, but it isn’t quite true. She wears a cheap, metallic ring, with a large, fake diamond.  The ring comes up when she tells me that she owes someone 3500 gourds, and I ask her to explain. Apparently, she recently bought the ring for 7500 gourds, but was only able to pay 4000. The person who sold it to her let her owe the rest. In a way, she knows very well that she shouldn’t have spent that money, but she doesn’t think she had a choice. “I was sick over it. Bondye te kenbe m pou li.” 

This is a little hard to translate. It means that God held her for the ring, something like that God intended it for her but more. Almost as though God made it impossible for her to get away from the ring.

In the meantime, she and Nelso are keeping their family fed with whatever they can find in their own gardens. Nelso tries to contribute in other ways, too. Jeanna says that he makes potions, magical remedies based mainly on rum and herbs. “But it’s been a long time since anyone bought anything from him,” she adds.

They are also trying to figure how to send the children to school this year. Six of Jeanna’s seven children could go this year, at least in principle. The baby is still nursing. The three-year-old is probably too young to walk all the way from Lawa to the nearest school, but the other five should go. Jeanna, however, doesn’t think she’ll be able to send more than four. The five-year-old will have to wait.

All this leads to a serious question. Jeanna is only 28. Nelso is a little older, but he’s still young as well. And the couple already has seven children. They’d have eight, but they lost one. As young as she is, it is easy to imagine Jeanna having a bunch more.

She would like to use family planning, and Nelso agrees that they shouldn’t have more kids, but she’s tried the two options she knows how to access, and neither works for her. Both the pill and shots that last three months make her sick. The Partners in Health hospital we work with in Mibalè distributes ten-year IUDs as well, and with a little coordination between our nurse in Gwomòn and our nurse in Mibalè, we should be able to help Jeanna get an IUD if she decides she wants to try one. But the first step is education, so the nurse intends to see Jeanna to explain the option. 

Clotude feels lucky. The cactus sap that had gotten into her eye last time I went to see her could have done lasting damage, but thanks to advice from our nurse, she was able to rinse it out thoroughly before any harm was done.

Like Jeanna, she’s focused right now on improving her home. She finished her latrine, and has begun collecting the rocks and the clay she’ll need when they are ready to build the walls of her new house. Her children have been a big help, but she’s also been grateful to other neighbors who’ve shown that they are willing to give her a hand. Cutting out a flat spot in her hillside plot of land to build the house is heavy work. It would have been very difficult for her and her girls. She doesn’t know what she would have done without neighbors, but so far they’ve come through when she needed them. It’s keeping her busy, but she doesn’t mind. “[CLM] didn’t give me building materials so that I could store them at home. I need to do my part, too.”

She thinks her two goats are pregnant. But her sheep has her a little confused. “It’s the first time I’ve had a sheep.” She explained that the sheep started breaking its cord and wandering off whenever it could. It was a neighbor who told her that that was a sign that the ewe was in heat. So, she rushed to take it to a ram, and she’s been watching it ever since. “Its udder has started to drop,” she says, so she thinks it’s pregnant.

She had planned to start a small business as well, but she decided to use the money to buy some of the lumber she needs to build her new house. She now plans to get her business started after she’s finished with her home. She’s not yet sure, however, where she’ll get the start-up capital.

Holding off on starting her business means that, since her weekly stipend ended after 24 weeks, she’s short on cash these days. But she points out that this is a good time of year to be income-free. She has stuff in her garden that she can feed her girls. “We might not have a lot, but I can make sure they get something to eat every day.”

Itana just had to take her little boy to the doctor. He had a bad fever, but he’s feeling much better.

Like the other two women, she’s excited to have a new latrine, even though she has work to do to finish walling off the last side of it. She’s also trying, like Clotude, to have a spot in her yard cut flat so her house can be built, but it’s slow going. She seems to be getting less help than Clotude is.

And one would think she’d get more. Clotude has been a widow for a long time, whereas the father of Itana’s children is still around. He could be helping her. But not only is he unwell, he isn’t around very much. He has two partners, not just Itana. He has four children with a woman who lives in another part of Moulen. According to Itana, he spends most of his time with others, rather than helping her.

Even so, she’s pushing forward. She arranged with a neighbor to buy 5000 gourds’ worth of the lumber she’d need, and the neighbor agreed to take a 2500-gourd deposit. Itana could owe the rest. But when her boy got sick, neighbors advised her to take him to a local healer first, and she spent most of the money buying the home remedies that the healer offered her. She’s hoping that her partner will be able to replace the money so she can buy the lumber. He sometimes gets work in one of the local sugarcane mills. But Itana knows she’ll need to be patient. She says the work at the mills pays very little. 

She’s excited that her goats are pregnant, but like both other women, she’s a little unsure about her ewe. She’s never raised sheep, and so she isn’t familiar with the key signs.

Evna Alma — One Year into the CLM Program

Evna lives in Sèka, a small community within Tomond, just northeast of the intersection on the national road that leads to Kas. She and her partner struggle to support their two children. He takes jobs as a day-laborer in other people’s gardens and works a field for the family as a sharecropper, paying half of his harvest to the land’s owner. Evna herself does laundry for a family that pays her 750 gourds per months. That’s less than $10. “When you have nothing, you have to do what they offer you,” she explains.

When she joined the program, she chose two goats and a pig as her two enterprises, but when she realized how expensive it would be to raise the pig, she asked her case manager Josiane to buy her a third goat instead.

In the program’s earlier years, Josiane would not have had the flexibility to make that change. Its rules used to require that members take two different types of assets. It seemed like a good way to protect them against total loss. If one of their economic activities failed, they would still have another. But though successful management of multiple types of assets remains one of the criteria for graduating from the program, members no longer have to take more than one type of asset at the start.

In fact, Evna hasn’t been able to make much out of her three goats so far. One was pregnant when she first received it, but miscarried. This is not unusual because transporting goats from the markets where we buy them to our members’ homes can be a rough experience for them. Two of them are now pregnant, but Evna plans to sell the other. At her CLM training, she learned that there is no point in raising a nanny-goat that doesn’t produce young. So her three goats are still just three goats.

But she has been making progress in another way. During her first months in the program, she was part of a sòl, a form of savings club common in Haiti, with some of her fellow CLM members. Each week, they would contribute a portion of the stipend they received for the program’s first 24 weeks, and one of them would take the whole pot. Josiane managed the process, and used it to work with the members on the habit of planning. Each time a member’s turn was approaching, she and Josiane would discuss how she would use the money. When Evna’s turn came, she took the 1250 gourds — about $13.50 — and used 1050 gourds to buy a female turkey. She now has six turkeys, worth more than 6000 gourds in all.

She still does laundry. She says the extra cash helps her keep her children fed. And it also helps her buy shares at the weekly meeting of her savings and loan association. Each week, she contributes 100 – 250 gourds. She can ask the association for a loan if she needs one, but she’s not planning to right now.

She wants to wait until the year-long cycle ends. At that time, she’ll receive her year’s worth of deposits along with whatever interest the group earns on the loans they make. She’s hoping that she’ll have enough to buy a cow, even if she has to buy one nan vant, or unborn. She’ll sell some of her livestock to add to the money she gets from the association if she needs to. Like many CLM members, her interest in a cow is straightforward. “A cow can have a calf or two and eventually you can sell them to buy land.”

New Program Members in Gwomòn

Loralda Vil lives near Route 5, the road that leads north out of Gwomòn towards Pòdpe. She, her partner, and her three children share a small, deteriorating house that is owned by someone who moved to Pòtoprens. “They’ve been letting us sleep here, but now I hear they’re trying to sell the house, and I don’t know what we’ll do. We don’t have the money to buy it.”

She’s also raising a younger sister. The girl left their mother’s home because the mother is a heavy drinker and couldn’t take care of her. She moved in with a stranger, becoming one of many Haitian children who live as domestic servants, but the woman eventually kicked her out because she made a costly error making change for someone while trying to help in the woman’s business. Loralda likes having her sister around. “She’s helpful, but I don’t like it when she does stuff I tell her not to do.”

Loralda and her partner struggle to send the girl to school, though Loralda’s older brother helps some. Their two older children are five and three, and should be in school, too, but Haiti’s political conflict has prevented the school Loralda registered them for from opening this year. Once school starts — probably in January — Loralda will need to figure out how to pay the fees. She doesn’t see where the money’s to come from yet.

With her third child an infant still nursing, Loralda isn’t earning any income herself, and the couple has no land to farm. The depend completely on whatever small jobs her partner can find. He doesn’t have a trade, but people sometimes hire him to move a pile of sand or some cement at a construction site. It’s hard work that’s poorly paid, and it’s hard to come by, but it is all the couple has.

She has simple goals for herself as a CLM member. “I want the program to help me send my kids to school, to buy them a pair of sandals if they need one. I want it to help me get them to the doctor’s if they’re sick.” She chose goats as her first enterprise. She wants eventually to become a trader, but she thinks that, as things stand for her right now, her children would eat up any little business she started. “When the goats start to have kids, I’ll call my case manager and plan to sell one so I ca start a business with the money.”

Meloya with her youngest stepchild.

Meloya Paul lives south of Loralda’s neighborhood, off the same road. She and her partner live in a house that belongs to him. It’s a short hike east of the main road. The house looks as though it was once solid enough, but the earthquake of 2018 brought down sections of its walls. The roof above it held, but much of it is now open to the elements. They haven’t had the money to make repairs.

She and her partner first moved in together in 1990. At the time, she already had two children, and together they had two more. But all four children died. When the last one passed away, Meloya left the home. “The shock of it made me what I am. If I had children, I wouldn’t look like this.” She spent 25 years wandering around the streets of Gwomòn as a beggar. “It’s better to beg than to steal. Stealing leaves a stain on your whole family.”

After she left him, her partner had four children with another woman, but when that woman grew ill, he was at a loss. He asked Meloya to move back in to help him take care of his children’s mother, and she agreed. When the woman died, she decided to stay to take care of the four kids. “They’re my children now.”

The couple struggles to feed themselves and the kids. They depend on such unreliable, poorly-paid day labor as her partner can find. She asked the program to give her goats and a sheep, and she explained by talking accurately and in some detail of the cost of raising a pig. “You can’t raise a pig without means.”

When I told her that I could see she has a head for figures, that she “knows money” well, she smiled, but she denied it. “I don’t know money. I’m egare.”

Egare” means dumb. And when her case manager, Pétion, heard her say it, he jumped in.

“Have you told Steven what you did with the water?”

Meloya smiled.

After the launch ceremony for the group CLM members Meloya is part of, there was an extra sack of bags of water. The sacks go for 75 gourds, or about 80 cents, and hold 50 little bags. Pétion explained that he wanted to see what Meloya was capable of, and he was pleased with the results. In less than a month, she turned that 75-gourd gift into a 300-gourd business. She no longer sells water, but buys small amounts of hot peppers and limes, and sells them in even smaller amounts. She has been making 60% profits every time she turns the capital around.

The Casino in Wòch a Pyè

Faustin Antoine lives just south of the main road that leads from downtown Tomond to the market in Kas, in a neighborhood of farmland called Wòch a Pyè. He joined the CLM program early in 2018 as a single father with a young son, Néhémie.

He had been living with his partner and their four children in the Dominican Republic, working mainly as a porter. A sudden illness robbed him of the use of his legs. He’s not paralyzed, but the effort to move either leg leaves it shaking uncontrollably, so he has great difficulty standing, much less walking. He returned to his parents’ home in Tomond with two of the children, but the daughter eventually went back to her mother.

When he first joined the CLM program, he was getting around as best as he could by leaning on one broken crutch and a walking stick. One of the program’s first efforts was to help him get to the office of Haiti’s Secretary of State for the Integration of Person’s with Disabilities. There he received a free wheelchair, a model designed for rough usage. He still doesn’t get around much because the yard he lives in is well off anything like a road, but at least he can move around the yard itself, which is made of hard, packed dirt.

As a CLM member, he chose goats and a pig as his enterprises, and he managed both successfully. He is not able to tend to them himself, but he has Néhémie, his parents, his siblings, and others to help him out. He just has to make sure he’s giving them the direction they need to stay on task. Like most members who only choose livestock, however, he was initially left without a way to earn steady income, even little bits of it. So he began selling cellphone minutes. His brother would make his wholesale purchases for him in downtown Tomond, and Faustin could sell to neighbors willing to come to him.

But selling cellphone minutes is not very profitable. The margin is small, and in a place like Wòch a Pyè the volume is small, too. Faustin planned to add a second business, selling cold drinks out of large cooler, but he would have to depend entirely on others to buy the drinks and the ice he would need. So he let a friend start the business instead. He lends the friend his cooler and the capital to buy merchandise, but the friend does the work and gives Faustin some of his profit.

Then during the fall, a couple of months after his graduation, Faustin had an idea. He would start selling rice. His brother buys two small sacks for him each week, and Faustin sells it by the cupful. A sack costs 1,875 gourds, which is a little over $20 right now. The sacks contain about 50 cups of rice, which go for 50 gourds each, so he should make 675 gourds on every sack.

But he actually makes much more than that because of the way he sells it. Some of his customers simply come to him and buy a cup of rice, but that’s not what most do. He has cut a piece of foam rubber into small cubes that he sells for five gourds. He also bought a deck of cards. His customers gamble for the little foam cubes. When they win ten of them, they can turn them in for a cup of rice. Or, if they want cash, they can sell the cup of rice back to him for 45 gourds. His strategy takes advantage of how much people like to gamble and it allows him, in a sense, to sell the same rice multiple times.

Faustin’s little cubes.

It’s been enormously successful. He started out with about 2750 gourds in the business, money he earned by selling one of his goats. After just about a month he has more than 20,000 gourds.

And he has plans to increase his income. He’s getting ready to move out of his mother’s house and into the one he built while he was in CLM. He already runs his card game/rice business there. But once he lives there, he’ll start selling rum, cigarettes, and snacks to the players. He can’t sell such things, especially rum, while living with his parents. “They’re church people. They don’t approve of that stuff.”

Selection Challenges

Sometimes, deciding whether someone qualifies for the CLM program is easy. You come across someone who has little or no assets they can rely on, they have almost no income, and they have no direction. When long-time members of the CLM team meet such folks, we call them “originals.” I think it’s because they resemble the cases that the program’s founders had in mind when they established it.

Yesterday I met Nana, a single mother of a three-month-old girl. She lives in a room in a shack in her cousin’s yard because her late mother’s house, where she lived alone for most of her pregnancy, was deteriorating so badly that her cousin feared it would collapse around her.

She earns whatever she earns by helping out neighbors during harvest or when they are doing laundry, but she can’t do much right now with an infant on her hands. Talking with her leaves you wondering whether she has developmental issues as well.

An “original,” as CLM staff members tend to call such obvious cases of ultra-poverty. Nana clearly belongs in the program. But many cases are less clear.

Roseline and her partner live in a house they built in a yard that belongs to a cousin who moved to Pòtoprens. The cousin gave them permission to use the land.The couple has a single child. Roseline’s first child lives with her mother.

Their income depends entirely on the man. He works as a day laborer in their neighbors’ fields, making 100 gourds on a day when work is available. That’s a little more than they need for a minimally-decent meal. Right now there are just over 90 gourds to the dollar. Occasionally he finds work chopping up a tree for a neighbor making charcoal. That work pays a lot more money — many times the hundred gourds — but he can’t find it very often.

Their little boy has an asset: his uncle gave him a very small pig. As expensive as livestock has gotten over the pat couple of years, it may be worth 1500 gourds or more.

Despite her husband’s earnings, and despite the pig, I qualify them for the program. Their housing situation is unreliable. People change their minds about such arrangements all the time. Though they have a pig, since it was a gift, it doesn’t represent their own capacity to build an asset, and the mortality rate for such piglets, especially unvaccinated as it is, is high. Finally, Roseline’s complete dependence on her partner leaves her vulnerable. She’s already had one man leave her with child. So, I approved the family.

Margueline lives with her husband and their three children. Two of the three are school-age, and the couple sends them to school by selling plantain out of their garden. They are, however, behind in their payments.

The family keeps a couple of chickens in their yard. They also take care of a very small goat that belongs to Margueline’s aunt. She will be paid in kids if the goat has young while under her care.

Margueline generally makes coffee for the family in the morning. She’ll make a large meal later in the day. She was preparing cornmeal porridge the afternoon I passed by. The family had eaten cornmeal the previous day as well.

Since I knew that for two consecutive days they had eaten a good meal, I was inclined to disqualify the family. She also told me that they find much of what they eat in their own garden. So apparently hunger wasn’t really an issue for them.

But when I disagree with an experienced case manager’s opinion, I usually try to talk. I questioned the case manager who initially selected the family for the program, and he told me that things were quite different the day he met them. He saw clear evidence of their hunger. When he went by, they were trying to stifle their hunger by chewing on gleanings from a neighbor’s peanut harvest. The whole family — adults and children — were sitting in a circle, making the best of a couple of handfuls’ worth. So I approved the family on the case manager’s appeal.

Venicia lives in her house with three children. She has two other children who live with other family members who send them to school in larger towns. Venicia stays in touch with them, and they sometimes visit. But when she asks them if they’d like to return home, they say they are happy where they are. That’s how she knows they are treated well. The two school-age children who live with her are in school, but she owes the school money.

Her husband crossed the nearby border into the Dominican Republic about a year ago because the couple saw no opportunities for him near their own home. He hasn’t been back since, but they are in touch and she says that he plans to visit in April. He occasionally sends her money, but not often and not much. He is struggling in the DR without any legal papers, and even when he has some extra money, he must wait until a friend will be visiting Haiti in order to send it to Venicia. Without papers, he can’t use money transfer services.

Venicia gets by on those transfers from her husband and on the couple of hundred gourds she makes now and then by sorting and bagging charcoal for producers. They pay her 25 gourds per sack, and she can bag as many as six in a day when there’s enough charcoal.

But Venicia manages the little bit of money that she has well. The couple put up the frame for a new two-room house two years ago, and when her husband left the house was still just a frame. Over the past year, however, Venicia has purchased the necessary palm-wood planks to enclose one of the two rooms, and she paid the builder to enclose it. She covered the house with the palm seed pods that families who can’t afford tin use as roofing material in the Central Plateau. The one enclosed room now stores almost enough palm wood to enclose the other room and five hardwood planks that she will give a carpenter who’ll make her front door.

So, though I don’t doubt that Venicia has very little, I could not approve her for the program. Her life is very, very difficult, but she has the smarts and the discipline to make it — very slowly — without us.

The Women of Lawa: Five Months In

Clotude, Jeanna, Itana, and their neighbors have been part of the CLM program for about five months. A lot has happened since they joined, for them and for Haiti. But the situation in Haiti has meant that some of the things that would normally happen in CLM members’ first months in the program have been delayed.

Two difficulties have combined to make provision of some of the supports that CLM offers families difficult. On one hand, gas has been hard to come by. In Gwomòn, it’s been expensive when available at all. As the Haitian government’s debt to international fuel suppliers has increased, the suppliers have cut deliveries to Haiti. And even after fuel arrives in Haiti, distribution is complicated. Some retailers have discovered that they can make more money by selling from gas pumps to street venders, who then sell gallons – often diluted – at inflated prices. Fuel that sells at 224 gourds per gallon – currently about $2.43 – has been selling for 700-750 gourds in Gwomòn, with occasional spikes both there and elsewhere that reach yet higher.

On the other, demonstrations and other manifestations of the political conflict have been more frequent, more sustained, and more intense in the last months. Protesters block roads, sometimes violently. Small groups of frustrated Haitians will also sometimes block the road to collect a toll before allowing travelers to pass. You don’t really know, from day to day, whether one will be able to get where one plans to go.

But after arriving in Gwomòn from Mibalè on Sunday, I went to Lawa with the CLM team there on Tuesday. They went as a group because they had scheduled a meeting with CLM members and the community leaders whom the members had selected to join the Village Assistance Committee. They would establish the committee, explaining its role in detail, and then have members vote in its leadership and set the date of its first meeting.

Though we arrived an hour before the scheduled meeting time, some of the CLM members were already there. Among them was Clotude’s oldest daughter. When we asked why she was there, she told us that Clotude wouldn’t be coming. She had had an accident that very morning, so she sent her teenage daughter in her place. Clotude had been working on the fence around her small piece of land, and something got into her eye. The team wanted to make sure she was alright, and I needed to speak with her, so we left the cockfighting ring, where the meeting would be held, and hiked the additional 20 minutes to find Clotude.

Clotude’s fencing, like much of the fencing in rural Haiti, consists of candelabra cacti. These succulents are easy to grow and easy to propagate from cuttings. In relatively short order, a family can establish a barrier that is hard to penetrate, even for wayward goats.

But the plant contains a sticky, milky liquid, which is mildly toxic and slightly corrosive. In handling her fencing, Clotude got some into her eye. It’s a dangerous situation if she doesn’t rinse it quickly and thoroughly. The liquid can form a film that could interfere with her vision permanently. Her case manager called the staff nurse, Lavila, and we gave her, on Lavila’s advice, a plastic water bottle that we had with us. We showed her and a neighbor we found with her how to pierce its cap and then squeeze the bottle to produce a forceful stream of water to rinse out her eye. We will know when the case manager, Enold, returns next week whether it worked.

She and I also had some time to chat, though she didn’t want me to take a picture. (The photo above is from an earlier visit.) We spoke first about the economic activities that she has asked Fonkoze to transfer to her. She said she chose goats, sheep, and small commerce. 

We generally transfer only two different activities, and Clotude had initially requested goats and a pig. But then she had second thoughts about the pig. “If you have a pig, you have to buy feed. You have to have resources. Pig feed has gotten expensive.” 

So, she asked Fonkoze to buy her a sheep instead of the pig. They run about the same price. Sheep are more like goats. Both require only minimal care. “If you struggle with them,” Clotude explained, “they’ll provide offspring quickly. You just make sure each one can find something to eat, you make sure it has water, and you keep it out of the rain.” Clotude has received one of the two goats we will be providing and the sheep, and both her animals seem to be flourishing.

Clotude’s plan for small commerce depends on the savings club that her case manager set up for her and several women who live relatively close. Each week, all the women contribute, and one of them gets the whole pot. The arrangement is called a sòl, and it is extremely popular in Haiti. Each of the members of Clotude’s sòl gets 2000 gourds, which is now a little less than $23, and Clotude’s plan is to invest her payout in groceries that she can sell out of her home.

She knows that it will be a tough business. When you sell food staples from a home in the countryside, neighbors will ask to buy on credit. “Credit means I can sell more quickly, but neighbors might not pay for a week, two weeks, even three. But you think about how you used to buy with credit to save your own kids, and it’s not as though customers don’t want to pay you.”

She hasn’t been able to start her business yet, however, and the problem is that she hasn’t yet received her sòl money. The CLM team has fallen behind with its weekly stipend payments to some of the members in Gwomòn. The problem is that there were two quick changes in case manager. The original case manager resigned. It took some time to replace her, but the team did so. The second case manager was then surprised with a job offer close to her home less than a month after she started working for CLM, so she resigned, too. She’s been replaced by an experienced case manager, but it’s taking some time to catch up with all the bookkeeping. The supervisor responsible for Gwomòn expects to work things out next week.

Jeanna

Jeanna also asked the program for two goats and a pig, and she too decided to take a sheep instead of the pig. She’s happy with the decision, though a little bit nervous. Neither she nor anyone in her family has ever raised sheep, so she feels as though there’s stuff she doesn’t know. She thinks that her sheep might be pregnant. She’s had neighbors tell her that it is. But she isn’t sure.

She knows her goat is pregnant. It was pregnant when she received it. But she’s almost six months into the program, and she’s only received one. She knows she is supposed to get two, and she doesn’t know when she’ll get the other one.

Distribution of assets is running behind. Protests and gas shortages have made getting transportation to make large livestock purchases difficult in the last months. In addition, protests in Pòtoprens, almost halfway across the country from Gwomòn, interfere with any of the activities in Gwomòn that depend on cash. Fonkoze’s accountants are in Pòtoprens, and if they cannot get to the office, they can’t transfer cash into the accounts that field staff can access. But the needed transfers have now been made, and the team expects to finish purchasing and distributing livestock and other assets soon.

Jeanna is excited about installing a latrine in her yard and repairing the home she shares with her husband, Nelso, and their kids. She and Nelso have been working hard to assemble the lumber they’ll need early, so the house can go up quickly. Like Clotude, she wonders when she’ll finally receive the sòl payment that she is due, though she isn’t entirely sure how she will spend it.

Itana hasn’t been feeling well. She’s been sore, she hasn’t slept well, and she’s had little appetite. Nurse Lavila, the CLM nurse in Gwomòn saw her recently and gave her some pills, which helped. But she isn’t sure what they are. Itana did said that Lavila had been coming to see her every month, and Lavila explained that Itana is on her list of members with high blood pressure. She went by to check Itana’s pressure and to give Itana her medication. She also gave her some ibuprofen. She doesn’t think Itana’s issues require anything more serious, but she’ll keep an eye on her.

Like Clotude and Jeanna, Itana asked for two goats and a sheep after initially requesting a pig. “A pig is like a child. You can’t wake up in the morning without giving it something. I don’t want a pig I’m responsible for to go hungry.” Unlike the other women, she has received all her livestock. 

But she’s finding the sheep puzzling. She hasn’t raised them before, and she’s trying to make sure she mates hers if it’s in heat. “I’ve taken it to the ram two or three times already, but I’m trying to figure out whether it needs to go again. I’ll probably just go again this afternoon.”

She also is waiting to receive her sòl payment. She had planned to invest it in small commerce, but she changed her mind. “People just won’t pay you.” She’s decided instead to use the money to help buy the lumber she’ll need to build a new house. She adds that the other women have wood that they can use, but that she will have to buy all that she needs. 

She wants to build one as big as she can with the 22 sheets of roofing that the CLM program will provide. When I explain that she could make things easier on herself by building a smaller house, she explains her reasoning. “If people come to see me, I want to have a place to put them.” With so many of her children living away from home, her hope as she says this is clear. She adds that once she has finished her house, she’ll look to establish a small commerce.

Itana

Ti Manman – Four Years After Graduation

Until recently, the CLM team had a straightforward way of offering new members their choice of enterprises. We had a menu of two-item choices. A member could pick from among goats, pigs, poultry, small commerce, and agriculture, and each would pick two. We are much more flexible now, but in our early years, we were quite rigid. It made a complex part of our work manageable.

But there were occasional exceptions. Ti Manman was one. 

Ti manman” means “Little Mama,” and it is what most people call Simélia Duvelsaint. 

When she started the program, she had nothing. “A neighbor was letting me raise his sow, and he would have had to give me a piglet, but he took it back before it gave birth, so I got nothing.” 

She and her daughters were living in a straw shack. She supported them partly through small commerce. A neighbor would lend her money now and again, and she’d use it to buy used clothing, which she’d then sell at the Mache Kana market nearby. She had learned to sew as a young girl, so when she found a tailor who would sometimes let her use her sewing machine, she became capable of altering the clothes for her clients, too. Occasionally, she’d even get the chance to make a uniform or two for schoolchildren. 

It was, however, unreliable work because anytime the tailor went anywhere, Simélia would find the door locked, and she’d just have to go back home. “I couldn’t say anything. The woman wasn’t charging me. She was just letting me use her machine to be nice. She saw how difficult things were for me.”

Simélia had learned to sew by investing in her own education, something she started to do as a young girl. When she saw that her parents wouldn’t send her to school, she started earning money herself, grating manioc for neighbors who were making kasav, a Haitian flat bread. She used her earning to pay someone to teach her to read and write. “I never went to school, but I got up to the fourth-grade level. Now I’m one of the readers in my church, and I’m the one who works with my granddaughter.” She then found a tailor, and paid her to teach her the trade. “It didn’t cost much back then.”

She never had her own sewing machine, but she started to succeed. She saved enough to buy a cow, which she eventually sold to buy a small piece of land from a neighbor. But she never got to use the land, because one of the seller’s siblings took it away from her. “I had no one to help me,” she explains. She was left with the cow’s calf, but someone in the neighborhood broke its leg with a rock, and it eventually died.

When she joined CLM, she chose goats and small commerce, but at one of the first days of training, the staff asked whether there was anyone who knew how to sew, “and I raised my hand.” Her case manager, Martinière, used the money he would have used to buy her goats and small commerce towards buying a sewing machine, instead. “It wasn’t quite enough,” he explained. “We had to use money she had saved from her weekly stipend, too.”

But she got the machine, and started to work. “I saved as much as I could after paying for the girls’ school, and I started to buy goats. I eventually had seven, but they got sick and died.” She’s had more success with pigs. She now has two: a full-grown sow and a younger one. She also gave her younger daughter one of the sow’s daughters to raise, and her daughter’s sow is now pregnant, almost ready to give birth.

Though her older daughter moved out in July, Simélia still has two children with her: her younger daughter and that daughter’s little girl. And until this year, the sewing machine was the key to their income. But it’s been broken for about six months. The only repairman she could find tried replacing some parts, but it didn’t do the trick. She’s waiting for him to come try something else.

In the meantime, she’s selling used clothing again. She also sells laye, a platter woven of straw used in various ways in the countryside. Finally, she sells bowls made of gourds, which are used in Vodoun ceremonies. She goes to four different markets every week. Her income varies, but she uses a sòlto steady herself. She and about ten other women contribute 500 gourds, or about $5.50, a week, and each week one woman takes the whole pot. “When it is my turn, I can use the money to buy poultry, to invest in my businesses, and to pay back any debts I have.”

Simélia continues to work hard. She invests a lot in her children’s education. But she also has a dream. She would like, once more, to buy a cow. “It’s just something I’ve always wanted.”

A photo of a photo from 2015, sitting behind her sewing machine.