Thursday, February 17, 2005
Latinamerica PressHaitian women get boost with micro-credits
by Jane Regan
Poor women receive education and loans.
In Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world, more than half of the population scrapes by on less than US$1 a day. Walking along some of the streets here, though, one might think the United Nations and the World Bank which produce these statistics had gotten their figures wrong.
Customers and hustle in and out of the two chairs at the Lelène Studio beauty salon. Coffee farmers are busy tallying their profits and the lines have never been longer at the Fonkoze's brand new, bright purple-painted branch on the corner.
Business might not be booming but it is at least chugging along for the 2,000 street
merchants, entrepreneurs and small businesspeople who have borrowed money from the Jacmel branch of Fonkoze.
Fonkoze, short for "Fondasyon Kole Zepòl" or "Shoulder-to-Shoulder Foundation," was founded ten years ago by Rev. Joseph Philippe, a priest of the Holy Ghost order, and a group of grassroots leaders as Haiti was coming out of a three-year military regime. The economy was reeling from an embargo and decades of gradual decline and stagnation. Philippe thought one way to help was "an alternative bank for the poor."
Micro-credit for the poor
"Father Philippe had not heard of the Grameen Bank [a Bangladeshi pioneer of micro-credit]. He had not heard of micro-credit. But he knew several things," explained Anne Hastings, who became Fonkoze's director early on. "He knew that women are the ‘center post' of the Haitian economy. He knew that the poor needed a bank. He knew that literacy and training had to go hand-in-hand with credit. He knew that the Haitian dias
pora had to get more involved and he knew that people had to be encouraged to save money."
Ten years later, Fonkoze is Haiti's largest micro-finance institution with $2.5 million in largely foreign capital, $4.4 million in loans out and 26,000 borrowers — 96 percent of them women — mostly borrowing money at 20 branches, almost all in Haiti's smaller cities and towns. The average loan is for $120 but cooperatives and small businesses borrow much more. Despite Haiti's floundering economy — Gross Domestic Product contracted 3 percent in 2004 — the pay-back rate is almost 100 percent.
"Thanks to Fonkoze we have the money we need up front," said Rosette, who sells second-hand cups and plates on the edge of town.
"Before, we had to borrow from loan sharks. The interest was something like 20 percent for each month until you paid back. There's no way you can ever get ahead. But with Fonkoze we pay 5 percent, and if one person can't pay, the other one covers for you," she said.
the four other women in her borrowing group all have savings accounts, too. They can get by now, even though Rosette said she is still ransomed by gang members when she goes to Port-au-Prince to buy her wares.
Many of the capital's markets are run by "chimères," armed young men claiming allegiance to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1991, 1994-95, 2000-2004). Aristide tolerated the gangs in exchange for their political fidelity. He resigned and left the country almost a year ago but the gangs still terrorize many downtown areas.
"You have to fork over 250 gourdes (about $7) in protection money each time," she said.
Adult education classes
Still, her four children are all in school and she is in a Fonkoze adult education class. Even though they are covered with the dust, dirt, chicken grease or the onion and garlic smells of a day's work in the market, Rosette and about 10 other women muster the strength to come to class a little schoolhouse thre
e afternoons a week. Seated on tiny kindergarten-sized chairs, hunched over miniscule desks, these days Rosette and her friends are working on math.
All Fonkoze borrowers are encouraged to take the free classes. The second and third levels teach them how to manage their businesses as well as about women's rights and health.
"Our parents brought us up without teaching us how to read and write. We are humiliated all the time," said Rosette during a break. "But I figure, if I borrow money, I think I should be able to write down what I borrow, and at least write down my name."
Lelène Bellevue knows how to read and write already but she was having a hard time getting a loan she needed to expand her beauty salon, buy products and open a beauticians' school.
She had heard all the reports about Haiti's bad economy, but she did not let that change her plans. On a recent Friday night, her fingers could not move fast enough rolling curlers for her clients who were prettying up for weekend dan
"Fonkoze lent me $2,700," she said without looking up.
"I spent it already," she added, slicking hair around a pink curler. "Look at my shelves." They were overflowing with shampoos, conditioners, creams and fake hair pieces. She had 18 beauty school students waiting for her upstairs.
"I checked around. Fonkoze's rate was better than anyone else's, and I also get advice," she said. "I have already started to pay the loan back."
Fonkoze shares Bellevue's enthusiasm. In the next five years, the bank wants reach 100,000 borrowers and its sister foundation aims to help 10,000 "ultra-poor" using a another program modeled on one run by the micro-credit group BRAC in Bangladesh.
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Solidarity with the Haitian people's struggle for justice, participatory democracy and equitable devel
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