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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.

Choosing New Enterprises

Once new CLM members have been selected and have received their initial six days of training, their real work in the program begins. A lot has to happen, almost all at once. 

Families must prepare to install a pit latrine in their yard. Very few have previously had access to one. They need to get the correct measure for the pit that they will dig from the CLM team, dig the pit, and assemble the rocks, sand, and water that construction requires. Timing is important, because if you dig your pit before the CLM team is ready to deliver the cement and begin construction, its walls can deteriorate, especially during rainy season.

They also begin to receive their weekly stipend, and have to make quick decisions about how they will use it. Most will use the majority of the money to supplement their food budget, but most also want to start to save by joining a sòl, a form of do-it-yourself group saving common throughout Haiti. Members make a fixed contribution every week, and one of them receives the whole pot as a lump sum. Case managers help members use the sòlto learn planning, requiring them to detail what they will do with the money. They follow up to ensure they’ve done what they say they’ll do.

But the centerpiece of the CLM program continues to be helping each family establish a reliable livelihood, a way to earn a living on its own. At their six-day training, members learn about the various businesses that CLM can provide, but then they must choose the ones they want to try themselves. Case managers and CLM members go through a process called “enterprise selection,” each member deciding what sort of productive assets she would like the team to give her.

The process has changed in the past couple of years. Originally, members chose from a short menu of possible pairings: goats and commerce, goats and a pig, goats and poultry, a pig and commerce, or a pig and poultry. Occasionally options would be added, removed, or revised. We experimented with commerce and a horse. We added peanut and pepper farming. Members made their decision before the initial training, at the same moment they were offered the chance to join the program. Their decision determined what two three-day training modules they would receive.

But the CLM team eventually decided that too many members were inclined to make poor decisions. They just didn’t have enough information. And rather than let them make costly mistakes, their case managers were, too often, deciding for them, taking away members’ ability to set their course at the beginning of the program.

So, the training modules were streamlined to take just one day, and new members were offered a quick introduction to all the different assets that CLM can provide. With that information in hand, they are better positioned to decide for themselves what they would like to do. Case managers might ask pointed questions. In some cases, they might even ask a member to reconsider her initial choice. But they are trained to encourage the member to decide.

Tuesday was enterprise selection day in Lawa, in rural Gwomòn. The visits were led by the CLM team’s supervisor for Gwomòn, Gissaint César, a former case manager who was promoted to work as a supervisor in 2017. He went through the same process with each new member individually, at her home, starting by asking them to review the advantages of each of the various enterprises the challenges it presents. 

Jeanna spoke at length about both poultry and small commerce. The former gives you small assets that you can sell off quickly whenever you have a small, urgent expense to manage. If a child is sick, for example, you are sure to find a neighbor willing to buy a chicken, and that will generally give you the money you need initially to get the child to a doctor. Commerce, by ensuring a stream of cash, enables you to “pay a sòl or buy a little bit of food” when you need to.

But she chose goats and a pig, the goats because they are easy to care for and require no special food and the pig because they can accumulate value quickly. She specified that she’d rather raise a boar than a sow. “Piglets get into people’s gardens, so they throw rocks at them and kill them.”

Gissaint spoke to her at length about the choice, asking her to identify her goals. Jeanna explained that she wanted to be able to sell offspring from her goats to buy a larger animal. “I want a horse so I can get into commerce again.” 

She has been managing a business on and off for years, living in Senmak, where she sells drinking water and kerosene, any time she is not at home with a baby. Her husband would stay in Lawa with the kids. But when asked about her hoped-for horse, she makes it clear that she does not imagine returning to that life. “If I had a horse, I’d do my business from home. I wouldn’t have to leave my children anymore.”

Clotude sees her options as limited. Whereas Jeanna refers several times to the role that her husband, Nelso, will play with her in managing her new activities, Clotude comes back repeatedly to the fact that she is alone. Her husband is dead, and her older children live away from home. She’s alone in the house with three daughters, ages twelve, seven, and two. “I can’t leave.” At the same time, she feels a strong need to get something started. “I need to have something in my hands.” 

She’d like to raise a pig. If you take good care of one and get a little lucky, your wealth can increase fast. Boars gain value quickly as they grow, and sows produce saleable offspring more quickly than goats do. But pigs are also demanding. “To manage a pig, you have to have means in hand,” Clotude explains. They need to eat well. You have to take on the labor-intensive work of foraging for them, and even then you can have to buy pig feed regularly. 

So Clotude chooses goats instead. They don’t require much care beyond moving them around so that they are always tied up out of the sun and within reach of food. She says her twelve-year-old daughter Claudine can help her with that. 

She also chooses small commerce. She’ll sell groceries along the main path. It is her only option until she can find a way to leave her girls for longer periods. 

It is risky. Neighbors often want to buy on credit, and it can be hard to say “no.” If they don’t pay on time, you can run out of merchandise without a way to buy more. But Clotude is anxious to try. “Once it gets going, I can start buying a chicken or two now and then. Eventually, I’d like to buy farm land so I can plant sugarcane.”

Itana remembers much of what she learned at the six-day training. She has little trouble going through the advantages and disadvantages of each business with Gissaint. Goats are easy to take care of. Chickens are easy to sell quickly in a pinch. Small commerce is the one way to a steady cash income, and pig make money quickly.

Her initial reaction is to thank Gissaint for whatever he might decide to give her. “You have to take whatever falls your way.” But as Gissaint makes her understand that he is determined to leave the choice up to her, she relaxes enough to let him know what she thinks. She sees problems everywhere. Pig feed has been expensive lately. Small commerce can disappear if people buy on credit. And poultry is subject to disease and theft. So Itana asked Gissaint to give her goats, and nothing else.

At one time, this would have been a problem for the program. CLM used to insist that all members choose two different kinds of assets as a way to lessen their risk. But Itana knows what she wants, and Gissaint is willing to give it to her. Her plan is to use the first offspring from her goats to buy a pig. By then, with good management of her weekly stipend, she hopes to have the means to take good care of one.

Jeanna, Clothilde, and Itana – In the Beginning


Lawa is a hilly neighborhood of Moulen, Gwomòn’s seventh communal section. “Hilly” doesn’t really capture the feel of the place. The hills are not high, but they are steep and closely packed around rock-lined ravines. Small, mostly straw-roofed homes dot both the tops of the hills and any small, flat area that cuts into one of the slopes. The few dirt roads that cross the section keep their distance from Lawa. Motorcycles can get part way there by using the flat parts of one of the ravines, but the closest approach for a motorcycle still leaves a long hike.

Jeanna (featured in the photo above) lives in a small house in a cluster of homes on one of the small peaks. Her mother and sister, who are also new CLM members, live in two of the others. She is 29, and she and her husband Nelseau have six children. They would have seven, but they lost one of their twins.

She did not grow up in Lawa. The fourth of her parents’ twelve children, she was sent to Gonayiv to live with one of her father’s cousins. The family sent her to school for a couple of years, but when she turned 14, she asked to come home. She was unhappy in Gonayiv. “I didn’t feel at home. They hit me too much, and the boys were starting to bother me.” So, she returned to Lawa, and joined her parents’ already-crowded and struggling household. When Nelseau offered her a home of her own, it seemed like a good idea. She had known him since they were young children, before she moved away.

She describes Nelseau as a hard-working farmer on unproductive land. What’s worse: the land he farms does not belong to them. He’s a sharecropper, so he always owes the landowner half of his harvest.

Jeanna became the household’s main income-earner. She would go to Senmak, an important coastal city on the highway that leads towards Pòtoprens, sometimes for a month at a time, staying with a younger sister. With only 75 gourds of business capital, she could buy a small sack of bags of water, already iced. She’d carry the sack around the busy streets of Senmak on her head until she sold out, and then she would buy another sack. She might sell as many as four or five on a hot day, making 25 gourds on each sack. Late in the day, she’d take all the water money and buy kerosene, which would sell well in the early evening to people needing it for cooking fuel or lamps. That would earn her another 75-100 gourds. Once a week, she would send provisions home on a direct truck from Senmak to Moulen, and Nelseau would meet the truck and carry the provisions home.

But her frequent pregnancies mean that she often misses months at a time, staying at home for the end of the pregnancy and her babies’ first six months. During those periods, the family really struggles. If the period of her inactivity doesn’t happen to coincide with a harvest, the family is especially badly off.

She is nursing a baby now, and has been since shortly before she was selected for the program. She says it will be her last. She’s not sure yet what she wants to achieve as a CLM member, but she thinks she can use the livestock she receives to send her children to school. She has two who attend right now. They are only in the second grade, though, because they often lose time. Sometimes the school sends them home because Jeanna and Nelseau owe too much money. Sometimes Jeanna keeps them at home to take care of the younger kids. Her one hope for the program is for her children. “I want to be useful to them, to send them to school.”

Clothilde

Even a relatively small area like Lawa can have even smaller spaces, each with its own name. Clothilde Jean lives in Ravin Volò, or Thieves’ Ravine. “I’m not sure who the thieves were,” she explains with a laugh. She moved to the area about twenty years ago from another part of Moulen, just beyond the hills across the ravine, when she moved in with her husband. “I’m not from here, but I don’t think I’ll be leaving the area now.”

She’s 42, and she and her husband had ten children, though just six of them survive. He left her a widow in 2017. The oldest four of her remaining six children have moved out since their father died. Two moved out as soon as he died. “We had family members who asked me for two of them.” It’s common practice in Haiti for a family in Haiti that has some means to bring children into the household to help with chores. Sometimes they do so with a commitment to take care of the children, sometimes just to exploit them. Clothilde thinks that hers are being treated well. But the two other children simply left to try to make their own way. The youngest two children still live with her, but she cannot afford to send the older girl to school. The younger girl isn’t ready yet.

Clothilde does what she can for the kids by farming. She plants corn and pigeon peas on the land that slopes down from her home towards the bottom of the ravine. She even has a small plot of beans. But she is otherwise limited because she can’t leave her young children alone, and she doesn’t see what options are available in Lawa itself. “There’s no way to do commerce here.” There just isn’t enough money for people to buy anything.

Her upbringing was unusual. She lost her mother when she was just 15 months old, and she was raised by a single dad. He had no other children with him, so it was just the two of them in the house. “He had friends, but he never wanted to give me to a stepmother. He did everything for me. He even did my hair. When he went into the fields, he took me along.” He died just after her first children were born.

She has high hopes for her time in the program, though she hasn’t yet identified a clear goal. “Even if you just have a chicken, if the chicken hatches four eggs, you’ve made progress.” And she explains, “If you keep yourself under control and you know what you’re doing, you can make a profit.” But she knows that no one can work without tools. “You cannot farm without a machete. Schoolchildren can’t learn if they don’t have books.” She’s hoping that CLM will give her the tools she needs to move her life forward.

Serana Nicola isn’t really Serana Nicola. Her legal ID says “Serana,” but she explains that she had the ID made using her sister’s birth certificate. Her own certificate was lost. “They used to keep papers with elders. My parents gave my birth certificate to my grandfather for safe keeping. It was lost in a fire.” Serana’s real name is Itana. 

Itana has seven children, but only four live with her. She keeps up with the other three kids, always asking for news of them. They are in school. But she doesn’t support them. They depend on the families they live with. She doesn’t like the fact that they aren’t with her. “If I had the means to support them, I’d call them back. They are growing up, and there’s a lot I’d like to give them.” The children who live with her no longer go to school. “I can’t pay for school. I can’t buy shoes. I can’t buy books.”

Her husband used to contribute a lot to the household through his farming, but he’s been sick and unable to work for years. “Every morning, I have to figure out what I can feed him. Every afternoon, I have to figure it out again. If someone gives my 50 gourds, I can go out and look for medicine to buy for him.”

At least she can when she isn’t struggling just to buy food. She often buys on credit, and owes money to many of the merchants in the area. She waits for the occasional 50-gourd gift from a friend, and uses it to pay down what she owes. “Feeding my family is my biggest problem.”

Breaking the Bank

Fonkoze’s Chemen Lavi Miyò, or Pathway to a Better Life, program is more than ten years old. And it’s been almost eight years since three of my Haitian colleagues and I spent a month in Bangladesh, learning the program from its creators at BRAC. That BRAC team would still recognize its work in all that we do, but the program has changed over the years as we’ve tinkered with it whenever we come upon what looks to be a way to make it stronger.

Over the last couple of years, the most important change has been the introduction of Village Savings and Loan Associations. (See: www.vsla.net.) CLM members attend weekly meetings, where they can buy from one to five shares of the association. The money they buy their shares with becomes capital that members of the association can borrow. They repay the loans with interest, so the capital grows. At the end of a year-long cycle, the association breaks the bank, distributing the capital among members in accordance with the number of shares they have purchased.

This morning I attended the final meeting of the year of a VSLA in Fon Desanm, a mountain community that lies a short hike upward from the main road that leads to Savanèt. The meeting took place in a small church., really just rough timber support posts covered by a tin roof and enclosed by walls of straw. There were a handful of narrow, wooden benches fixed into the packed dirt floor along the walls of the church and a table in the front that held the various things the meeting required.

About 35 CLM members had been buying shares for 50 gourds – about 80 cents – and together had purchased 160,150 gourds, or almost $2,600, worth over the course of the year. They were very excited about the payout. The return on their investment came in several forms. Members paid 2% interest per month on their loans and penalties for late payments. An additional fund, comprised of small weekly donations to be used to help any member who confronts an emergency, like a death in the family, was folded into the total. Taking it all together, the members accumulated more than 200,000 gourds that they need to separate among them. That’s about 25% more than the value of the shares they purchased.

The pay-off meeting actually took place in two sessions on consecutive days. On the first day, the association’s leadership, along with Martinière, the CLM case manager responsible for working with the Fon Desanm VSLA, counted and recounted all the shares that had been purchased. Each member has a small booklet with a star for every share she bought, and the association’s secretary keeps a notebook that lists all the share purchases by week. The two records are compared in the presence of the entire membership so that each member know what she and her fellow members have accomplished. Members repaid outstanding debts. Those who had debts they could not repay with cash repaid them giving back shares. There were five such women, and four of the five were able to clear their debt with about half of their investment or less.

Many of the women came early to the second day’s meeting, excited to find out how much money they had made and to receive the payout. There were only a few stragglers. It was a social occasion. The room was noisy, as the women chatted with one another. Martinière and the association’s leaders first counted all the cash. The total was 203,132 gourds. They subtracted a small sum that the group will need to restart the association for another one-year cycle. They’ll purchase new savings booklets and notebooks for record-keeping. They then divided what was left by the number of shares – 3,203 – to calculate the final share price, just under 63 gourds. They then called the women up, one at a time, to receive their payout, counting the cash out carefully in front of her. VSLAs need trust to function, but that trust is built on transparency.

Marie Yolène had purchased 107 shares over the course of the year. She had also taken out two loans, each for 3,000 gourds. The first helped her pay her children’s school fees, and the second she invested in farming. Paying them back was difficult, but she managed. She plans to use her payout for farming. She has agreed with a neighbor to rent a plot of farmland, and most of her money will pay that rent. But she will have enough left over to buy the seeds – beans, pigeon peas, and corn – that she’ll plant.

She liked the VSLA, and her explanation is simple. “I like it because if you need to borrow a little money, you have a place to find it.”

Rosana was very happy about the VSLA, too. She has big plans for her money. She and her husband have a house full of children, and 2017 was difficult because when it came time to plant, they didn’t have the resources to put in any crops. They had to figure out how to feed the kids for the year with whatever cash they could earn. He did day-labor when he could find it in their neighbors’ fields, and she managed a small commerce. Part of the VSLA’s value for her was that it gave her access to credit to restart her business each time she ran through her capital.

She took out loans three times, and says she never had trouble repaying them because she always used them to invest in her business, which would earn the revenue she needed for repayments as long as she could keep it afloat. “I made the money work, and as soon as I sold my merchandise, I would a payment.”

Like Marie Yolène, she likes the VSLA because it gives her a way to borrow money. “I can get a loan without leaving my community. I would have nowhere else to go. Rich people won’t lend you money.”

Not all the members of the VSLA are CLM members, or even women. The associations would be hard to build with CLM members alone. Too few are literate enough to do the record-keeping that the associations depend upon. Our solution is to bring members of the community’s village assistance committee into its VSLA as well. We organize these committees everywhere we work. They bring community leaders into the program as volunteers. Committee members bring an additional level of personal support and supervision to program members. Adding them to our VSLAs achieves two goals. On the one hand, they can provide literate staffing of critical positions. On the other, they establish an activity that CLM members and community leaders can share that is beneficial to both.

Daniel was the president of the assistance committee, and when Martinière told him about the VSLA, he decided to join it as well. “The women chose us as their leaders. We owe it to them to help out.”

He thinks that the VSLA really helped the poorer members of his community. “It really protects them by giving them a way to save and to borrow.” He saw the way some of them struggled to repay their loans, but was pleased that they somehow managed.

He also discovered that the VSLA was as useful to him as to its other members. “If you have 50 gourds lying around, you have a place to save it. You have easy access to loans. And the payout at the end of the year gives you something to hope for.”

He and one of his sons were the group’s two leading savers. They each bought 257 shares, which was about three times the average for the 38 members. And he’s anxious to get the next cycle started. “We’d start again tomorrow if we could.” He says that a lot of his neighbors are waiting to join as soon as the group is ready.

He and the group’s leaders were not the only men present at the meeting. Wisnel came in place of his wife, who still spends most of her time at home with their infant. He took over attendance at the meetings from her as her pregnancy started to make it hard for her to get around, and continued after she gave birth.

The couple’s experience in the VSLA was mixed. They took out one 3000-gourd loan, and it did not go well. Wisnel bought an avocado crop with the money, but a passing hurricane destroyed most of the crop while it was still on the tree, and the remainder rotted before it got to market when the truck he loaded it onto broke down on the long, bad road to the main highway. He and Modeline eventually had to reach into their savings and sell a goat to pay the debt.

But Wisnel is enthusiastic about the association anyway. They were about to buy 68 shares. “We worked hard, we saved, and we reaped our profit at the end of the year.” They plan to stay in the VSLA, and they’ll continue to borrow when the see a need or an opportunity. “We can’t be afraid of credit.”

Our program, and the communities we work in, still have a lot to learn about VSLAs. To this point, we find them functioning well when case managers take a strong hand in guiding them. Martinière’s leadership was evident throughout the meeting. They have run into trouble in places whether our case managers have decided to stay farther in the background. So we don’t yet know enough about how they function once the case manager leaves, after the CLM members graduate from our program. If we discover that the associations continue to need the program’s support to function well, we’ll need to choose between figuring out a way to provide it and letting the whole promising enterprise drop.

Selection: More about the Gray Area

Sandra and her partner Jean Ranel live in a small rented house. It’s set just back from the main road that runs between downtown Tomond and Kas, a large rural market near the Dominican border. The couple and their children live on what Jean Ranel earns as a motorcycle taxi driver. The road is busy, especially on market days, and Jean Ranel earns just enough to keep the family fed every day, even though he only rents the motorcycle he uses.

A few years ago, the couple even started to get ahead. Jean Ranel was willing to work hard, and the couple had enough money left over after buying food and paying for school to invest in livestock. They’d buy a goat now and again.

Then disaster struck. Jean Ranel was in an accident. His leg was badly broken. And though it eventually healed enough for him to start driving again, it wasn’t the same. He lives with constant pain in his thigh and hip. He can’t carry heavier loads or multiple passengers on his motorcycle because doing so stresses his hip to the point at which he can’t bear the pain. It means both that he earns less per trip than he used to earn and also that he loses out entirely on regular clients who travel to and from the market with significant merchandise. The couple sold some of their livestock during Jean Ranel’s recovery. They sold the rest last year to send their girls to school. This year, they couldn’t afford to send the girls. When Sandra’s family offered to take their oldest girl off their hands, they felt they had no choice. They sent her away and kept the two younger ones with them.

I met Sandra during the last step of our selection process. And I was initially unsure what I should do. The couple has a small but regular income. It probably ranges between $1.50 and $2.00 per day. As a way to emphasize how much poorer most CLM members are than even those typically defined as living in “extreme poverty,” I’ve often said that we wouldn’t normally take someone who had a reliable income of $1 per day, which was the United Nations threshold for extreme poverty when our work began.

But Sandra’s case gave me pause. They have enough to eat, but of their three children two are out of school and the third is out of their home entirely. They live in a rented house, and as the annual rent payment looms, they have no idea where the money will come from.

Even so, I might have decided against taking the family had it not been for the sense of hopelessness that was strong in Sandra. It was present in the way she spoke, the way she sat, and the way she looked. She told me that more than six years ago she had tried to start a small commerce once, but when the money disappeared, she just gave up. She never thought to try again. She was certain to fail.

She doesn’t believe she is capable of anything, and that total sense of incapacity made me think I had no choice but to take her. We need to help her discover her abilities. Her livelihood will remain terribly fragile if she thinks it simply must depend on her man.

Vilanie Assé, Fours Years After Graduation

When Vilanie joined the CLM program in 2012, her life was difficult. Seven of her ten children were still living at home, in a house that didn’t belong to her. She and her family were crowded in a small, broken-down house on the main road running through Chapèl, just below the Roman Catholic church in Bay Tourib. She struggled to keep her children fed and in school.

But she joined the program, and she got to work. She chose goats and small commerce as her two assets, and though the goats didn’t develop especially well, her small commerce flourished. She bought merchandise — either produce or charcoal — in Bay Tourib and sold it in local markets. She quickly added a second business. She was a good cook. People liked to eat her food. So she established a business preparing food at the market in Koray. She go early on Saturday morning with the ingredients she needed, and she always managed to sell out whatever she prepared.

Her most limiting factor initially was the size of the load and the distance she could carry it. She had no pack animal, so she had to carry everything on her head. So a soon as she was able, she used savings from her weekly stipend and earnings from her commerce to buy a horse. And that’s when her business took off. By the time she had spent twelve months in the program, she easily met all the graduation criteria. She and her husband had purchased a small plot of farmland, and she had 3000 gourds of savings in her bank account.

She built her CLM-house, but when the same landlord that had been pressuring her to leave the house she was squatting in saw her begin to progress, he offered her the chance to buy the house on reasonable terms, and she jumped at the chance. Its location made it a great spot to extend her business. She started serving her meals every day, not just market day, and her profits increased. She is careful to cultivate her customers, and the care pays off. “If you have a regular customer, and their short of cash one day, you sell them on credit. They almost always pay you back, and it keeps them buying from you. Sometimes if they’re hungry and can’t pay, I just give them a little something for nothing. It means they’ll keep thinking of me when things are better for them.”

With a horse to carry loads for her, and her sales growing, she combined her two businesses. She would bring loads of produce to market in Thomonde, where she would buy the ingredients for the meals she’d prepare. Her produce brought a higher price in Thomonde, and the ingredients her food stall required would be cheaper.

Her husband worked the farmland for them. She would use money from her business to buy seed, and supplement that with five coffee cans full that they could borrow each year without interest from the local peasant association. Before long, they had rented an apartment in Ench for two of her boys. She wanted them to go to better schools than they could attend in Bay Tourib. It was expensive, but to her the investment was worth the effort.

She was part of an evaluation we did of CLM members one year after graduation, and Vilaniee’s data shows that she continued to prosper. Her business grew, her fields yielded strong harvests, and her horse had a healthy colt.

In the three years that have passed since that post-graduation evaluation, Vilanie’s life has seen some ups and downs. Like many farmers in the Central Plateau, the last two years have produced weak harvests. She and her husband suffered a total loss of their entire millet crop two years in a row. That’s put a lot of pressure on her business because it has forced the family to live of what she can buy, rather than what they can grow. And it is doubly hard because she has to buy food both for her own household and for the boys in Ench. Last year, she made the difficult decision to sell off the colt to pay the boys’ tuition. It was a sacrifice, but she had a bit of luck that made up for it. Her mare’s second pregnancy resulted in a mule. The mule will eventually carry much more of a load than a horse and will be a more valuable asset if she ever chooses to sell it.

So the future for Vilanie and her family is looking bright. Her business is thriving, and she and her husband have planted ten cans of beans, enough for a major harvest if the weather is moderately favorable. She’s grateful for the tools that CLM put in her hands, but she knows very well that she is the one who changed her life. “I was careful with everything they gave me. I didn’t waste it. And now I have something to show for it.”

Carmelia

Carmelia Jarbath became a Fonkoze member in 2009, when she joined a newly forming center for its Ti Kredi program, in Madival, a small community on the road that rises eastward out of the coastal city of Marigo. Fonkoze had established Ti Kredi as a way to help women who were not yet in business. The women would receive and repay three small loans in six months, while participating in tailored education programs. During those six months, they would save up to pay their one-time registration fee and the balance they would be required to have in their savings account to secure their first standard solidarity-group loan.

Carmelia had been aware of Fonkoze credit programs for some time. In fact, she played an important role in the credit center in Madival. The center had been flourishing long before the Fonkoze branch in Marigo that serves it was, having been established by credit agents working out of the branch in Jakmèl, farther west along the southern coast.

When Fonkoze decided to offer education programs in Madival– basic literacy and business skills classes at first – it tried to recruit one of the borrowers to teach them. For Fonkoze, recruiting teachers from among its borrowers – rather than from local educators, who were mostly men – was an important part of building leadership and solidarity.

But the center in Madival had no one among its members with the education that teaching literacy would require. So, its elected chief, Iliamène, recruited Carmelia to be their teacher. She was then in high school. She taught basic literacy and business skills, and she really liked the work. She felt that the training and the experience made her better at communicating.

When she eventually joined Fonkoze as a borrower, it was almost by accident. A neighbor had asked to use her picture ID. She wasn’t sure why. One day, Carmelia went to the Fonkoze branch in Marigo to collect the small stipend she was receiving for teaching the classes. She was surprised when the branch’s teller said that she could not pay her. There was a hold on her stipend because she was behind on her loan repayment. But she hadn’t ever taken out a loan.

It turned out that her neighbor had used her ID to take out her own loan. She hadn’t had ill intentions. She just wanted to join the credit program, and didn’t have her own ID. At first, she repaid regularly, and the situation didn’t come to light. But when Fonkoze’s branch staff saw Carmelia’s account blocked, and knew that she hadn’t borrowed anything, they corrected things immediately.

At the time, Fonkoze was in the process of establishing a Ti Kredi center in Madival for women too poor to join the existing credit center, and Iliamène was helping out. “The women they were signing up really were much poorer than the ones in Iliamène’s center. They were too ashamed even to asked for credit there.” Carmelia asked Iliamène for advice, and decided to join.

Her first loan was for 1000 gourds, which was worth about $25 at the time. “I bought some things I thought I’d be able to sell quickly: some girl’s underwear and pens and pencils for kids in school. When I sold everything, I had 1500 gourds.” Since she was still living with her parents, she didn’t have to spend her profits, so she just reinvested them in her business. And after six months she was ready to graduate from Ti Kredi: She had a small but steady business, and was ready to move forward with standard solidarity-group credit.
From the start, the other women even chose her as their center chief. She would be responsible for representing their interests within the institution, but she would also work at center meetings alongside the credit agent to ensure that his recording keeping and the receipts he gave members – of whom many were unable to read – were correct. She liked being a center chief. It made her feel respected in her community. The women in the center listened to her and they showed that they trusted her. She received training from Fonkoze on center management: how to organize reimbursements, how to lead discussions, how credit works. “It was training I would have paid for, but I got it for nothing as part of the work.”

She continued with Fonkoze, as a borrower within a five-person solidarity group and the elected chief of her center. She would vary her commerce by the season. Sometimes she’d sell school books and supplies. Sometimes it was cosmetics. When nothing else was selling, she’d turn to groceries: rice, sugar, flour, oil, etc. She took larger loans as her business grew, but smaller ones occasionally when business would slow down. Even if she reduced the size of her loans, however, she never dropped out entirely. “The women who joined with me, the members of my group, never wanted me to drop out. They didn’t want to take loans without me. If I wouldn’t sign, they wouldn’t sign.”

Each year, Fonkoze holds an assembly for the center chiefs for each branch. Since Carmelia and Iliamène each led their own center, they would attend these meetings together. Those local assemblies would elect representatives to attend the annual general assembly in Port au Prince, and Iliamène was frequently sent from Marigo. After the general assembly, Iliamène would give a report to Fonkoze members back in Marigo. Carmelia liked to hear the news.

Once Carmelia asked whether she could go along. Iliamène was delighted. Still unable to read and write well, she could leave it for Carmelia to take notes. And Carmelia was just anxious for the experience, even though since Fonkoze would only cover the expenses for the women who were elected, she would have to pay her own way.

When they got back to Marigo, she listened to Iliamène’s report, but she had a lot to add. She had extensive notes to work from. The next year, she nominated herself to be a representative and was elected easily. In the following years, she went to three national assemblies as a representative for Marigo, and she always enjoyed them. “I liked hearing what other women would say. We were all there together, and we all had the same goals. The meetings made me feel independent. They made me feel like an adult.”

The assemblies discuss issues that are important to the women as Haitians, as businesspeople, and as Fonkoze clients. But they also elect members of Fonkoze’s governing board. Carmelia was nominated a first time by the manager of the Marigo branch, but she lost that election. The next year, however, she tried again and was elected. She’s into her second year on the board, and loves the opportunities it has offered her. “I’ve met all sorts of people and been to places I never would have gone. And I’ve gotten so much training.”

Through it all, Carmelia has kept up her business, using profits to start building her own house just downhill from her parents’. She’s continued to take out loans as well, but when she finishes her home, she’ll be ready to take her business to another level. It will include a storeroom for merchandise, and she plans to start selling groceries wholesale to smaller businesses in the area around where she lives. Right now, they have to send down the mountain to Peredo and Marigo to buy what they need. “I think I’ll find plenty of customers.”

She plans to continue as part of the credit center she was part of starting, but wants to shift to an individual loan. “I’m ready to take out my loan on my own.”

Solène Louis

Solène lives with her partner and their three children in a house that belongs to her mother-in-law. The older woman gave it to her son to live in with his family.

She grew up in Port au Prince, in a slum called Tokyo, where she lived with her aunt. Her parents were from Jeremie, in far southwestern Haiti, and they died when she was very young. She looks back fondly on her years with her aunt. She says she never was made to feel like anything but her aunt’s own child.

She first came to Kolonbyè as a teenager, when she and a friend from the area passed through on their way to look for work in the Dominican Republic. The other girl, however, abandoned her in Kolonbyè, running off with everything she brought with her. Solène had no choice but to stay with the girls mother. She knew no one else in the area, and had no way to get back to Port au Prince.

She stayed there until her first partner took her into his home. She lived with him for a while, but he was abusive. So she left him and moved in with her current partner.

She says that she was chosen for the program because the team saw that she was less capable than her neighbors. “Mwen pa gen lavni. Mwen pat ka pouse timoun yo.” “They saw that I have no future, that I didn’t have a way to push my children forward.”

She and her husband support their children with agricultural day labor when they can find the work. But it makes it hard to do much more than eat, when they can even afford food. “You have to find a way to help your children go to school so that they want to help you in the future, too.”

She listens carefully as we speak, and responds clearly, without difficulty.

Her hope is to buy a plot of land. She wants one of her own because she’s afraid that if something happens to her, her children will have trouble maintaining their claim to the land they’re on now.