Building a Net

The credit center in Tèsè has been like a little gem for us. It’s a relatively new center, just a couple of years old. But its members are wonderfully regular about coming to meetings, and very good about making their repayments. Clotude, their center chief, is forceful, but also popular. Their loans have been growing, with some of them already managing as much as 11,000 gourds, or about $270. Things have been going pretty well.

It’s not as though they haven’t had problems. In May, we gave awards to the centers we work with that had no delinquency. Tèsè had none at the time, but did not win recognition because the reason it had no delinquency on our books was that we had just written off one of its larger loans. The woman who defaulted, Silvena, had never really had a business. She would simply turn her loan over to her husband. The Tèsè members knew this, but they didn’t give it a thought, because they knew her, and she repaid regularly. But when the husband left home to try to earn a living in the Dominican Republic, he walked away with the whole loan and she had no way to repay. The Tèsè women brought me to her home so that we could try to work something out, but we got nowhere.

The truth is that they were angry and worried, and they wanted me to arrest Silvena. When I pointed out that I am not the police, they said it didn’t matter. I could bring her to my office, and tell her she couldn’t leave. She’d obey. They thought that, until she repaid her portion of the loan they had taken together, they would be unable to get new loans themselves. They said her family would come up with the money somehow if they felt threatened.

But when I got to the house, I found Silvena, a sickly-thin young woman, with her even-thinner mother, and a skinny but lively little girl. There was a very small pot on a little fire in the yard, but it didn’t appear to have much inside it. Fonkoze is not in the business of making life harder for those already on the edge of survival. The leverage we have as we try to collect low-performing loans is limited. So we assured the women that their loans would not be delayed by her default, and we wrote off Silvena’s loan.

That was March. When I attended their first meeting in September, Clotude welcomed Silvena to the center as a special visitor, and informed her fellow members, their credit agent, and me that Silvena had come with more than half of what she owed. Apparently, her husband had send her some money. Silvena looked much better. The women gave her warm applause as she counted out the money. Everyone seemed pleased and hopeful about how it was turning out.

When Ilionna started to run into trouble, they reacted differently. She is an older woman, the mother of a grown daughter who had three children of her own. She and her group got their most recent loan in June, and her problems started right away. Her mother-in-law became ill. Since she and her husband thought she could take better care of his mother than he, she gave him her loan and sent him to Port au Prince to do her buying. A reasonable division of labor.

He was mugged and robbed, beaten up badly enough to require hospital expenses on top of the lost loan capital. He then got sick — Clotude thinks that it was the stress of the loss that made him ill — and that ate up even more of their money.

So Ilionna found a job in Jacmel, as the maid in a rich family’s home. It pays poorly, and interferes with her ability to run her business, but it brings in something, and the truth is that most of her business capital is gone anyway.

By working hard, and selling some livestock, she was able to make a payment and a half by mid-August, about six weeks late. She managed to pay the late fee as well. She worked things out with her employer so that she could take the days of her center meetings off, and, so, stay involved. She wanted to be sure she’d be ready to recapitalize her business with a new loan on schedule.

But disaster struck last week. One night, Ilionna’s daughter called Clotude, who is her neighbor, over in the middle of the night. Her five-month-old seemed sick. Clotude described how she felt the child’s arms, her legs, and finally her face for any sign of warmth or breath. She found none. The child was dead. The very least part of Ilionna’s loss was the fact that the money she had collected to bring her repayments up-to-date went towards her granddaughter’s funeral.

It is hard to talk about loans at such a moment, but that is the side of things I deal with directly. And Ilionna’s case brings out the fragility of the tools we can make available to women here, a fragility made worse when credit is given recklessly, without sufficient attention paid to building in as much of a safety net as circumstances here allow.

Fonkoze’s credit is designed to help women face even such grave obstacles to progress out of poverty. A credit center should have between thirty and fifty women, organized into six to ten groups of five. When women have small problems — a payment is a few gourds short — the four other members of her group give her a hand. When more serious problems occur, the whole center gets involved. Most of the financial problems a Fonkoze member would face in the ordinary course of affairs — I’m not thinking of the hurricanes that can wipe out whole regions — are manageable when her center divides them by thirty to fifty.

But the portfolio in Marigo was developed carelessly. The staff here wanted it to grow as quickly as possible, and they lacked to patience to do things right. One consequence is that some women were given bigger loans than they could manage. Another is that some women received loans without our office ensuring that they had real businesses they were investing in. But a third was that loans were handed out in new centers before those centers were to scale.

Normally, a center should start with four or five groups. A credit agent will recruit groups in a neighborhood, and won’t hand out credit until there are four or five ready to join. Two or three might get their credit first, but only when the others are already in line to join them.

But the center in Tèsè opened with just two groups, or ten women. One woman dropped out early on. Then we had to write off Silvena. That leaves just eight members, and even in the best of times, it would be hard for a group of eight women to step in to help Ilionna right now. And these are not the best of times. Her problem exceeds their ability to pitch in.

I went to the center yesterday to talk to them about Ilionna’s plight, and about how it underscores the danger they all face. We have been talking with them for almost two months about recruiting new groups, but they’ve made little progress. They are rightly careful about the kind of neighbor they invite to join them. They want women they can count on. Now they are ready to add one more group next month, and we’ll congratulate them when they do, but it isn’t really enough. I think they are now beginning to understand how important it is for them to make their center grow, but we’ll have to wait to see whether they can find he kind of fellow-members they are looking for.

For months I’ve been bemoaning the way the Marigo portfolio is divided into too many centers that are too small. I’ve thought of it as one of my hardest management issues: how to help a reduced number of credit agents serve the number of centers we have to serve. But watching Ilionna’s experience in Tèsè demonstrates that the management issue is the smallest part of the problem.

The other seven women in the Tèsè center will have problems, too. It’s easy to imagine losing them because they lack the protection that a well-built center provides. But if we can help them grow to a core of five or six groups, Clotude’s leadership could make them one of the strongest centers we have.