Tonton Palmis

The Haitian five-gourd coin has the national logo, with its cluster of palm trees, on one side. On the other, it has images of the five fathers of the Haitian revolution, which led to independence in 1804. Children play a gambling game that involves flipping a coin and calling “tonton” or “palmis”, which is to say “uncles” or “palm trees”. It’s the Haitian equivalent of “heads or tails”.

It’s also a convenient image for the two sides of an issue, an image that’s been on my mind a lot these days. Since the earthquake, I am especially aware of the two sides of microfinance, as opposed to microcredit. Microfinance includes the microcredit that the worldwide movement is most known for. But it also involves making a range of other financial services available to the poor.

Wednesday I was at the market in Kajak working on the credit side of the equation.

Kajak might be the highest market town in Haiti. It’s just below Pic Cabaio, one of Haiti’s highest mountains, on the edge of a pine forest. It sits at the entrance of the path that leads from ridge overlooking the southeast coast, through the hills, to the large market in Kenskof, above Port au Prince. Though the path is almost impassible for motorized vehicles most of the time, it bears heavy pedestrian traffic. Market women from the fertile region around and beneath Segen load produce – potatoes, beets, onions, leeks, carrots, whatever the season brings – onto their heads or their animals and bring it for sale in Kenskof and Pétion-Ville.

Fonkoze’s Marigo office has a long, unhappy history in Kajak. We once served so many borrowers in the region that we had to divide them into two credit centers. They were the largest and second-largest centers we managed. Though we had over forty other centers throughout three large counties, Kajak was home to over 10% of our portfolio. But that portfolio collapsed for a number of reasons, centered on a credit agent’s poor work and the dishonesty of a man named Dickenson, who was permitted to have a role in the center that he never should have had.

Effective microcredit depends on the close relationships that the staff of an institution like Fonkoze develops with the institution’s borrowers, but in Kajak those relationships were mediated by Dickenson, who was always closer to our members than we were. Rather than doing the hard work involved in recruiting new Fonkoze members, or leaving that recruitment in the hands of women who are members already, the center’s former agent just had Dickenson hand him lists of women whom he would then add to his portfolio.

Dickenson used a combination of his relative closeness to the women and the appearance of a close relationship with Fonkoze to profit handsomely at the great expense of both the borrowers and of Fonkoze. On the one hand, he would charge women for introducing them to Fonkoze and demand a fee from them for every credit they received. On the other, he collected some reimbursement payments at a time when hurricane damage made it difficult for Fonkoze’s credit agent to get to the area, and then he kept those payments. The women were left thinking they had repaid Fonkoze when, in fact, they had only paid him.

For the past couple of months, some of the former members of the Kajak center had been visiting the center closest to them – a very high-functioning little one in a place called Granfon – and politely but firmly pressuring its credit agent, who goes by “Bob”, to accept them into it. At first, I was pleased by the development. The one problem with the center in Granfon is that it has too few members. Though its members have finally recruited a third five-women group, it has been functioning with only ten women since I arrived in Marigo. I imagined the introduction of two or three solidarity groups from Kajak as a quick and easy way to expand the center.

I realized, however, that inserting them into the center would be creating a of trap for Fonkoze that the history of that same Granfon center can help illustrate. That center was established when three groups, who were already members of a center in a place called Kasedan, decided to pull out of the Kasedan center because it was functioning poorly. They didn’t want to be held responsible for the center’s other groups. They felt no commitment to the other women, nor did they trust them to right their ship. As it turns out, they were correct. The Kasedan center collapsed even before I got to Marigo.

What’s worse, of the three groups that originally pulled out of that center to form the one in Granfon, two of them were from Granfon itself and one group of only three women was from an area on the other side of the same ridge. The ten women in the two Granfon groups didn’t know these other women very well, and that third group has been a constant source of problems.

Though the members of the two Granfon groups sometimes have problems too, they have consistently shown their readiness to help one another out. I sat with them one day as the nine who were present at a reimbursement pitched to make a repayment for the tenth who was only her way from Port au Prince. They had assembled all the money so that the center’s payment would be complete when she arrived out of breath from her five-hour hike, with a smile on her face and her own payment in hand. They have been unwilling, however, to do anything for this third group, just as they were unwilling to do anything for the other members of the center in Kasedan.

The lesson is that members need to have control over their center’s membership. We cannot expect them to stand by one another unless they can choose their own team. Inserting the women from Kajak into the Granfon center would be asking for trouble.

So I offered them an alternative: Fonkoze would try to open a new center for them in Kajak if they could recruit at least four solidarity groups to start with. The center would eventually need to be larger than that. We would not be able to justify the distance for twenty women. But with twenty we could start. We know from our albeit-unsuccessful first experience there that the demand for credit in Kajak is great.

These four groups could include both new members of Fonkoze and members of the old Kajak centers who do not owe Fonkoze money. The women themselves would do the recruiting. Both new and old members would then go through the training in Fonkoze credit that we offer to all new members. Bob would spend a couple of days in Kajak, visiting them in their markets and their homes, getting to know them. He’s been very good over the last several months at building relationships with the members he serves and has this been able to bring a couple of large moribund centers back to life. Kajak would be a new an different challenge, but he seems anxious to undertake it.

Wednesday was our first meeting with them in Kajak. We all sat shivering in the breezy mountain air in a stone house that had lost one of its walls to the recent quake. Bob and I met with 25 women, ten of them new to Fonkoze. We spoke at length about credit and the other services we offer. They talked to us about their need. Most of them depend on the same core business. They buy produce in the mountains and bring it to market in , Kenskof, Pétion-Ville, and Port au Prince, and they need more money to buy more produce to make their trips back and forth more profitable. They are, I think, exactly the sort of women whom Fonkoze was created to serve. A few were young women, formerly sent by the families to school in Pétion-Ville, now returned home because the earthquake destroyed their schools. Most, however, were older women who had to “sign” the forms with which they opened their new savings accounts with a thumbprint and an “x”. We are going to want to get educational programs to them as quickly as we can.

We won’t want to rush the process as we open this center. Shortcuts are what got us into trouble here in the first place. But we are optimistic. We were brought back to Kajak by the insistent initiative of the very women who want us there. Our credit agent is, unfortunately, a man, but the movement is being driven by the women it means to serve. No Dickenson. No other local male leader either.

So credit remains one important side of microfinance, but other financial services, what Fonkoze usually lumps together and calls “operations”, present an important flip side. These include savings accounts and microinsurance, but since the earthquake remittances have taken center stage.

Fonkoze entered into the remittance business because it recognized the central role that Haitians abroad will have to play in their country’s development. Fonkoze’s original mission, to democratize the Haitian economy, would not be able to succeed as long as its citizens lack the resources to participate in their nation’, their own community’s, development. By facilitating transfers from friends and family members abroad to the rural Haitians who need them, Fonkoze branches enable otherwise isolated communities to accumulate what they need to take their own steps forward.

These remittances are an important part of the Haitian economy at any time. Estimates vary, but they account for a substantial percentage of the money here in any case. But the earthquake left Haitian families in the States scrambling to send what they can to survivors, and left those survivors scrambling to find financial institutions open and ready to serve them.

The commercial banks are still not fully operational. Unibank is perhaps the largest. It’s the one Fonkoze itself uses. Its office in Jacmel is still closed almost three weeks after the quake.

Fonkoze’s own office in Jacmel, a city that was hit almost as hard as Port au Prince, was decimated. But it has been up and running in a new building, though without any materials, for more than a week. Fonkoze’s office in Port au Prince has been paying hundreds of remittances every day. Much of our central office staff have turned themselves into makeshift tellers so that they can serve as many people as possible.

We have been helped considerably by the way our branches are scattered throughout the country. Paying remittances requires internet service, but long before it was restored to the branches that were hardest hit, Fonkoze was able to serve its customers by telephoning branches that continued to have good connections. A branch like ours, in Marigo, was doing double duty, paying not just its own clients but those of other branches as well. We in Marigo are still paying most of the remittances for the branch in Jacmel.

Here, some data might help. The first weeks of the year are usually a slow time for remittances. Haitian Americans like to send something to Haiti in December to help their families celebrate Christmas and January 1st, which is Haitian Independence Day. Our Fonkoze office offers remittances through several different companies, and in the third week of January 2009, for example, we paid one dollar-denominated remittance for one company and none for a second. This year, the week of January 18th saw us pay 21 for one company and 14 for the other. That was while we were forced to change all remittances into gourds. We received a shipment of dollars on Saturday, January 23, and in the three days that followed we paid out 36 remittances for one service and 41 for the other. None of this increase includes the remittances we were paying for Port au Prince and Jacmel.

Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our central office and its friends in Port au Prince, Washington, and New York, liquidity has not been a problem for us for over a week. We have never had the level of activity we’ve had for the past two weeks, but our cash reserves have held. Although in the first days after the earthquake, we had to ask a couple of customers to make smaller withdrawals than they planned – I thought of Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” – and though we spent a week paying all remittances in gourds because we didn’t have dollars, we never had to turn anyone away. Our biggest, our only, priority has been to get money into the hands of people who need it, and at this we have succeeded without qualification.

And getting cash to our customers is important. And not only because, like Jimmy Stewart’s bank, Fonkoze needs to be there for them for the long term. Our customers need the money that’s sent to them, right now more than ever. There are many indications of its importance, but none is perhaps more telling than the difficulties they are willing to endure to receive even small sums. We have been paying remittances as small as $20 for our Port au Prince office. That might not be a lot, but it’s enough to drive someone to wait in line for half a day, in the hot tropical sun.

Right now, they are not using the money to pay school tuition or to buy the presents for their kids they tend to buy with the transfers that annually arrive as Christmas approaches. They may have no other way to access to money they need to feed themselves and their families every day.

So microfinance is, more than ever, showing its two sides. But those two sides are connected by a common substance, just as the two sides of a coin are equally connected to the metal the coin is made of. Everything we do aims to get resources, money, into the hands of people who would otherwise have no easy access to them. Once they have money in their hands to work with, their own intelligence and energy combine with educational programs that we also provide to give them their most likely route out of poverty.