I wanted only silence on January 12. Yesterday was the one year anniversary of a terrible natural disaster that set back an already fragile and weakened nation, Haiti—and one that’s very dear to me. The coverage of the 7.3 magnitude earthquake was clamoring. In Washington, DC it snowed on the eve of the 12th and the calm, serene, and silent snow seemed fitting to usher in the anniversary of the day that changed Haiti.
Finding the right words to reflect on where Haiti is one year later is hard because of the temptation to either peddle the “bad news” story or to inspire with the “good news” story. The stark reality is that at the macro level, the news is bad.
There is no real strategic recovery planning to speak of, and consequently even less implementation. And this is true for the Haitian government, the donor community, the Haitian private sector, and the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) that was supposed to align all these actors. But equally real are individual—and some institutional—good news stories. Since I work in microfinance, I could simply highlight microfinance institutions, their staff, and their clients as an example of good news, a beacon of light where there is so much failure. And it would be easy to do.
On Monday, I attended the moving “Haiti, One Year Later” event in New York organized by Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest microfinance institution. Fonkoze is remarkable. Its management team stayed and persevered, though many could have left the country and found jobs in the United States. Within one day of the earthquake and before some commercial banks, Fonkoze opened up half of its branches to ensure that clients who had lost everything had access to their savings to buy food and water. It also continued its already challenging work of targeting the very poor—the destitute—through its program Chemen Lavi Miyo so that they can gain the confidence, life skills, and livelihoods to create their own pathways out of poverty.
And Fonkoze is just one institution in a vibrant microfinance sector in Haiti. Organizations primarily in and around Port-au-Prince like ACME, institutions serving the poor affiliated with commercial banks like Sogesol and Microcredit National (MCN) as well as credit unions assessed the extent of the damage, provided for their staff, reached out to development partners, reconstituted files, and very importantly reached out to find their clients and let them know that they were still standing by them to meet their needs. In a country with few functioning institutions, the more serious and strong microfinance institutions emerged from the rubble—bruised, with serious fault lines, but standing.
But the fault lines run deep, and the bruises are ugly and raw. The financial hit of losing fixed assets like buildings and equipment and writing-off loans, the difficulty of keeping strong credit discipline with the influx of not-always-so-smart subsidies, the offer of higher salaries to staff by relief organizations and NGOs, and the short attention span of funders for long-term institution building are all real challenges. And these are simply additions to the pre-existing challenges of an imperfect regulatory framework, poor management information systems, high costs due to poor infrastructure, etc., etc.
So, on balance, just focusing narrowly on microfinance—which is of course only one part of Haiti’s development and future—is the news good or bad? I’m afraid, as I emerge from my silence of the 12th, that my answer is a long and complicated run-on sentence with many clauses, buts, and ifs. It is the reality of clients, staff, and management of microfinance institutions who press on, everyday. It is mourning still on many days. And it is, thankfully, also celebrating on several.
My final words go to the friends of Haiti and Haitian microfinance. Think long-term, leave egos aside, be patient yet rigorous and exacting, do your homework, listen, be creative, and support steady performance. It’s not glamorous or tragic, and it won’t make the front pages of the newspapers around the world. It’s a long hard slog to building a beloved country: Haiti Cherie.
Click here for OXFAM’s latest report,”From Relief to Recovery: Supporting Good Governance in Post-Earthquake Haiti.”
Among microfinance’s actors in Haiti, we can also mention KNFP which is strongly involved in promoting rural areas and makes a great job, even if it is a silent one.
You should also be aware that a recent news article on CBC News (Canada) very surprisingly revealed that Fonkoze appears to have had quite serious reservations about the simple microfinance model as applied in post-quake Haiti, and its CEO – Anne Hastings – conceded that very little progress has been achieved, unfortunately. This is because, as the article pointed out, most microfinance, when not going into simple consumption spending, predictably goes into very simple street retail operations – selling oil, sugar, corn, etc. As is well known, there is very little ‘development’ impetus to be achieved from the poor simply selling to others equally poor. Ms Hastings then seemed to agree with the proposition (a radical one for the microfinance industry) that was was REALLY needed in Haiti after the quake – as many of us said at the time – was not microfinance, but (among other things) a really solid effort to promote small and medium businesses serving non-local markets. I understand Fonkoze is by far the largest MFI in Haiti, so surely Ms Hastings’ very important reservations/views about microfinance should have been centrally reflected in this posting? The article I’m referring to can be found at: