The Microfinance Insider is a forum for graduate students engaged or interested in working in the field of microfinance. Through weekly posts and comments we hope to inspire students and foster the creation of a knowledge community of bloggers with a commitment to financial access and first hand industry information.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Komon ou ye?- TUP in Haiti

“How are you?” in Creole, this was one of three phrases I had at my disposal during my first few days in Twoudino, and next to “Where’s the bathroom?” and “What’s in this?” it was certainly the one I practiced most while working alongside Fonkoze’s staff. I must have seemed like the most concerned intern they’d ever seen, asking how everyone was doing every five minutes. Eventually I sat myself down, and with the help of our interpreter I can safely say that we’ve managed to improve my proficiency to a level at least on par with a 5 year old….maybe 6.

We interviewed 11 members of Fonkoze’s CLM program this past week in Twoudino (one of the three sites in Haiti where the ultra-poor pilot program has been started), and I tried to start each interview myself with “Mwen rele Constantino. Nou vreman kontan rankontre ou jodia. Komon ou ye?” My name is Constantino. We’re very happy to meet with you today. How are you? I have to admit, I felt pretty proud of myself for being able to make myself understood at least at this very basic level, but the frustrations would come later.

The women were usually very receptive and welcomed our interest in their lives by bringing out all the chairs they had, boxes, palm leaves, straw mats, anything to make us comfortable on the dirt floors of their homes (often 1-room, but CLM had been helping many build new, sturdier shelters). The questions I was given to follow as a guideline were fairly basic; How old are you?, How many dependents do you have living with you?, How often do you and your family eat? Questions meant to paint a general picture of where the person was before entering the CLM program, and how their quality of life had changed since, if at all. I learned quickly that the wording of questions is extremely important to getting an honest answer. For example, ask about expenditures in place of income.

We’ve been lucky to have such accommodating hosts in Fonkoze’s staff; every day they’d take us out to the “field” and find us members to interview. The frustrations began when I realized that the director of CLM, our host for the month, removing any fear I had of a biased sample of only the programs best and brightest cases, had arranged for us to meet members who were enjoying various levels of success with the program. This is a good thing, right?

One member, Melani, had been living with her three children under a makeshift tarp made of two plastic sacks sewn together before entering the program. Her house had burned to the ground and a flood had soon after wiped away all of her possessions. Yesterday, we took her to the market in town in our pick up truck (~3 mile walk) where she buys fruits to resell back in her more remote neighborhood, and there she bought us a small amount of fruit to thank us for sharing her story, but I think also to show us that she could. She now has a two-room house, goats she’s been raising, and a means to feed her children and hopefully begin sending them to school this October. The difference was remarkeable.

On the other end of the spectrum were clients who, through some misfortune, and at times their own mismanagement, were living lives largely unchanged by the asset transfers, training, and stipend the CLM program had provided them. They continue to struggle to find food to eat, have little or no money in their savings accounts with Fonkoze, and tragically spread their assets ever thinner among a growing group of dependents; some of the members we interviewed had just become pregnant again.

I was confused though, or rather, a bit discouraged. Even the success stories seemed bleek and I wondered about the future of these women, if they could graduate into Fonkoze’s microcredit programs. It was a hard pill to swallow, but I realized that the ultra-poor program had to celebrate success on the smallest of scales, because these women had absolutely nothing. It was the difference between a one-room house made of mud and sticks, and a solid two-room home made of cement and rock. It was going days without food, to being able to feed their children once a day comfortably. It meant having nothing, and now having the security of some savings and animals they can breed and sell. It is a move from extreme poverty to a more bearable situation (think extreme poverty-lite), and one through which micro-credit can be a promising foothold.

The CLM program tries to cover all the bases. ‘If we give them asset transfers like goats and chickens, what will they most likely spend it on…medicine and food. SO, we give them free healthcare with a local partner organization and an 8 month stipend.’ But in Twoudino, all the chickens given to their members had died, and CLM’s relationship with their healthcare provider had gone south. Consequently, the families were forced to sell what was left of their assets and empty their savings to pay for the high costs of medical care in Haiti.

I expected seeing women with beaming smiles eager to show us all of the things that now made life easier, hopeful. While we did have one or two cases like this, most were still scraping by. I’m eager to see this program as it was meant to be run, and they tell me Boukankare is where I’ll find that. As the week falls behind me, I think a little of my own naivety does as well.

1 comment:

Mat Despard said...

Constantino - thank you for your post. I appreciate you sharing your experience interacting with CLM participants. I'm a new PhD student in Social Work at UNC-CH and am working on a 4 country randomized experiment on youth savings accounts, yet also have an interest in Haiti and keep connected to a small NGO that runs a program very similar to CLM. In fact, just before the earthquake, I suggested that they initiate contact with Fonkoze perhaps for consultation (they are in Lamardelle - 20 mi east of PaP, but not an area presently served by Fonkoze).

Mat Despard