Credit and Clarity

Edeline had provided one of the most memorable scenes of my first visit to Djomond. She is a young woman, probably in her twenties, who said that her business is in Ansapit, a Haitian market town on the Dominican border. Ansapit is, together with its Dominican twin city, an important center of trade.

What made Edeline so memorable was the way she screamed with rage and despair as I made it clear to the members of the Djomond credit center that I would be charging all the women who were late with their reimbursements the standard lateness fee of ten gourds per day. They had known about the fee, but the Marigo staff had become so lax about it that members like Edeline had come to see it as an empty threat.

Edeline’s response was filmable. I don’t mean to take it lightly. I cannot judge whether it was her sincere, heartfelt reaction to what was for her very bad news or a theatrical performance aimed at getting me to relent. But she yelled and cried and appealed to everyone within earshot. She explained: It wasn’t her fault. How could Fonkoze assess a penalty when someone had simply drawn away all the money she made in Ansapit? “Drawn away all the money,” is a rotten translation of what she actually said because it conveys nothing. What she said was “yo te rale tout kòb la.”

“//Rale kòb//” is something Fonkoze hears frequently from market women. It refers to a belief that someone with the right magical powers can siphon the money out of whatever purse or bag a market woman keeps it in. It is a standard explanation for an unprofitable day at the market.

Generally speaking, market women who participate in Fonkoze’s Business Skills class come to realize that no magic is involved. The truth is that they hadn’t kept track of their expenses. They knew how much they had paid for their merchandise, but not what they’d paid to transport it. They hadn’t recorded money they spent on food and drink during the workday. They had forgotten about the couple of gourds they gave their godchild when he or she came by to say “hello.”

Once Fonkoze members learn to keep close track of their income and expenses, once they begin separating the money in their business from the money in their household, Fonkoze hears very little further talk of money drawn away. Helping women understand their own business clearly is a basic objective of the Business Skills class because it is the key first step that can eventually enable her to make that business grow.

When I returned to Djomond yesterday, I was able to put Edeline’s explanation in context. She had come with her reimbursement and also with a friend’s. She brought exact change for her own, but the friend had given her 1000 gourds to pay a balance of 970. I gave her back 30 gourds, and asked her to verify whether the change was correct. She couldn’t. She had to ask other members to count it for her. She couldn’t distinguish different bills accurately.

It’s easy to imagine why Edeline would think her money had magically disappeared. If she can’t identify the different bills she receives, then a dishonest client could easily give her smaller bills than she is owed or talk her into paying out more in change than she should.

This is especially true in Ansapit, where commerce involves both gourds and Dominican pesos. It even can involve dollars, since moneychangers generally won’t go between gourds and pesos in a single transaction. Market women can have to change gourds to dollars and then dollars to pesos. Edeline could have been cheated in either of those transactions as well.

I’ve written about how microcredit depends on discipline and solidarity, but it depends on clarity as well. The small business women who take Fonkoze loans needs to see what they are doing clearly, otherwise their businesses are almost certain to fail. That is why Fonkoze struggles hard to provide educational programs to accompany its credit. Money alone is not enough.

It’s a struggle in two respects. On one hand, the programs, though inexpensive, are not free. It costs about $25 to provide one woman with one four-month class. With more than 50,000 members, the cost of providing it to all of them would be significant. As the credit operation grows increasingly profitable, it will be able to take over much of the expense. But, for now, Fonkoze depends on fundraising. On the other, offering the programs depends on the existence of credit centers where women are willing to come regularly to participate.

It’s true that the programs can sometimes serve, in fact, as an incentive that brings women together. Members can initially find it hard to understand why they should come to their center more than once a month, when a reimbursement is due. They can even want to send their reimbursement in with their husband or a child. They resent anything that takes them away from the market. That sentiment begins to change as they see that the meetings are valuable. Most eventually see how important their regular discussions with their fellow members can be, but educational programs offer value that is easier to see.

At the same time, in really dysfunctional centers, in centers in which any sort of regular contact with members is hard to maintain, it’s hard even to establish the educational programs that could eventually bring them back together. It’s a challenge.

But it’s one that needs to be faced and overcome. Members like Edeline, with all the best goodwill, will never prosper until they learn to see their businesses clearly. And their growing prosperity is both the end that Fonkoze seeks to attain and a key piece of the means that can further us towards that end.