A New Direction

I’ve been back in Haiti for just over a month, and I can’t really say that I’ve settled into any particular focus. I’ve made a couple of trips into the field for Fonkoze, attended a conference of the leading Haitian practitioners of Reflection Circles, participated in a few meetings with the guys in Cité Soleil, and made lemon batteries — actually, we used sour oranges — with students and teachers at the Matènwa Community Learning Center. And I’ve spent a lot of time talking with friends, neighbors, and colleagues, trying to get a sense of the lay of the land.

My sense is this: Things are worse than they were just a few months ago.

It’s not surprising. Food prices were already increasing rapidly before hurricanes swept through Haiti in August and September. Lives and homes were lost, and the crop losses they occasioned did double harm, even in my home community of Kaglo, where the damage was less dramatic and the people are a little better off than in most areas of the country. On one hand, a harvest that would normally supply much of the food my neighbors consume disappeared. They now must buy everything that they eat. On the other, they have less money to purchase food with because their crops are also an important source of income. And this came, as I said, as food prices climbed especially high.

I had a long talk with a young friend the other night. He’s an 18-year-old 7th-grader who attends a small private school down in Pétion-Ville. He hikes down the hill each morning with his best friend, and back up under the searing afternoon sun. It takes about an hour to go down the hill, but much longer to return. He gets a cup of coffee at most before he leaves, and these days he never knows whether food will be waiting for him when he gets home.

His father is a mason who hasn’t worked since October. His mother is a market woman. She normally sells their agricultural production, but it was wiped out by the hurricanes. They have seven of their children on their hands, and cannot provide even one substantial meal every day. That’s the simple reality. And the family is by no means one that you would normally identify as among the poorest of the poor. They have a well-built house, substantial farmland, some livestock, and five family members who at various times earn income of different sorts. But right now, there are days when they have no money for food.

So while my friend goes to school — he has an older friend who pays his way — most of his siblings don’t right now. Paying school expenses must seem hard to justify when you can’t put meals on the table.

Stories like his, and the economic situation in Haiti generally have pushed me to consider my role. I have spent a lot of time working with teachers at various levels in the hope that together we can improve, maybe even transform, certain aspects of the education they offer. I work with community organizations to help them learn about themselves and their situations in the hope that better self-knowledge can guide the decisions they make to change their world.

I learn a lot in these collaborations, and I think they do some good. But evidence of the urgency of the current economic situation is everywhere around me. I am increasingly convinced that education can only be transformed and transforming if the families and communities that it happens in can make themselves less poor. Education is surely not just for the rich. But it’s not for the extremely poor, either. Minimum standards of nutrition, for example, probably must come first. So I began to ask myself whether there was more I could do towards the economic side of community development in Haiti.

Even as I’ve had these thoughts, I realize that I’ve been working closely for four years with an organization and an approach that aims directly at helping Haitian families lift themselves out of poverty. It’s Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest microfinance institution. I began helping out with an interesting assignment that had me tinkering with its excellent literacy program, but have been involved in more and more aspects of the organization as the years have passed.

So my sense has been over the last weeks that Fonkoze should have an increasingly important place in my working life, at least insofar as its needs correspond with a contribution I can make.

These have been hard days for Fonkoze. As the economic situation in Haiti has deteriorated, borrowers are having a harder time repaying their loans. They’re also less able to make the savings deposits that are Fonkoze’s least expensive and most sustainable source of loan capital. Their businesses are providing less income, and their household expenses are increasing.

In all but the best-managed Fonkoze branches, this has led to decreased repayments rates. Repayment rates for microcredit are traditionally very high. They hover around between 97% and 99%, and Fonkoze has been right up there. But except for a few very well managed branches, where it is 100%, it is much lower now.

The problem is that Fonkoze does not know exactly what goes into good branch management. Fonkoze has a handful of excellent branch directors, but does not know how to reliably produce more.

So management and I have decided that I will take over one of the branches as its director. My goal is two-fold: to make the branch I am assigned a high-functioning one – to help its staff turn it around – and to learn as much as I can about what good management requires. I hope that will help Fonkoze develop more good managers in the years to come.

It is a strange departure for me. Though my work with Fonkoze has gradually brought me closer to the financial side of the operation, it is still very far from what I feel I know. In addition, the closest I have come to running an organization was my turn as dean of Shimer College. I mainly used what I would call the “I’ll-do-it-my-own-damn-self” approach to management, and it was ineffective for Shimer. It would be disastrous for Fonkoze. I’ll have to learn to be in charge, and do it in a culture that is still in many ways foreign to me.

But I feel as though I have very little choice. If I can play even a small role in Fonkoze’s effort to strengthen itself for the fight against poverty, that is an opportunity too important to pass up.