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February 13, 2017, Adrian, Michigan – Many people equate Haiti with poverty – with its reputation as the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere. But Leigh Carter, who has worked with Haitians for nearly 20 years, sees signs of hope in the women who have climbed out of poverty and now provide a decent life for their families.
Leigh, founder and Board Member Emeritus of Fonkoze USA – the U.S. non-profit organization that raises funds and awareness for Fonkoze – gave a special presentation on the work of Fonkoze February 6 in Weber Auditorium at the Adrian Dominican Sisters Motherhouse. Her presentation, “The Adrian Dominican Sisters and Two Decades of Partnering with the Women of Haiti,” followed a meeting of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Portfolio Advisory Board (PAB).
Founded by the Adrian Dominican Sisters more than 40 years ago, the PAB helps the Congregation to use its resources to bring about economic justice through socially responsible investing in corporations and communities. The Adrian Dominican Sisters were among the first to grant low-interest loans to Fonkoze, and have been partners with the organization since 1997.
Leigh became director of Fonkoze USA at the invitation of Father Joseph Philippe, a Haitian priest who founded Fonkoze in 1994 to address poverty in Haiti. She attributed her connection to the Adrian Dominican Sisters to Sister Maureen Fenlon, OP, who encouraged Leigh to apply for a low-interest loan from the Congregation. Fonkoze USA received $200,000 in loans from other congregations of women religious after the Adrian Dominicans approved an initial loan.
In 20 years, Leigh said, Fonkoze has become “Haiti’s largest microfinance organization,” offering loans and other banking services to individuals – mostly women – in their efforts to become self-sufficient. Fonkoze now has 45 branches throughout Haiti, with $65,000 outstanding in loans to Haitian market women, and more than 200,000 people who are saving their money through Fonkoze.
Leigh spent much of her talk describing Fonkoze’s “staircase out of poverty” program. The first step, “Chemen Lavi Miyò,” focuses on the “ultra-poor,” women who “basically haven’t managed money ever or touched money – they’re basically begging at the marketplace.” The women receive $25 loans to help them get started in a business. In addition, Leigh said, their homes are upgraded to include a cement floor, a tin roof, a latrine, and a water filter. They are also expected to send their children to school.
After two years of group training, Leigh said, the women are “arguing over who’s going to speak at the graduation in front of 400 people” – a drastic change for women who, at the beginning of the program, “can’t look you in the eye” because they feel ashamed. Not all of the women who undergo the most basic training program move up the staircase, Leigh noted, but they have still found their lives to be “amazingly improved.
Higher up the staircase, Leigh said, women are organized into groups of five or six, forming “credit centers.” Currently, she said, some 65,000 women are organized into 2,000 credit centers. The women meet twice a month – once to meet with their credit agent or to repay their loan, and the second time to receive education on anything from cholera prevention to improving their businesses.
Leigh pointed to success stories of women who began as “ultra-poor” and became successful market women. One such woman, now in the business development stage of the program, works in wholesale, which loans in the thousands of dollars. “Instead of her husband sending her money from Miami, she sends money to him,” she noted.
Fonkoze thus focuses on “meeting women wherever they are in this journey out of poverty,” Leigh said. “Some people don’t make it,” often because of challenges such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. Nine Fonkoze branches and about 14,000 clients were affected by the recent Hurricane Matthew. Fonkoze has been monitoring all of these clients to determine who has repaid their loans, who needs to restructure their loans, and whose loans need to be written off, she said.
Photos courtesy of Fonzoke, USA
In the question and answer session, Leigh noted that Fonkoze has been able to make a difference in the lives of individual Haitians – but that Haiti, as a whole, could be in “worse shape” than when she arrived 25 years ago.
“We’re dealing with the informal sector, and for Haiti to really, really succeed, there needs to be a thriving middle class and a thriving formal sector, and people who are creating jobs,” she said. In addition, she would like to see Haiti invest more in its infrastructure, such as roads. “That helps everybody.”
In the meantime, Leigh said, Fonkoze will continue to help individual women who are striving to climb out of poverty and into self-sufficiency. “We hope to have 100,000 loan clients in the next three or four years,” Leigh said. “We’ll just keep doing what we do.”
Feature photo at top: Leigh Carter, of Fonkoze USA, gives a talk on how her organization has helped women in Haiti on their journey out of poverty. Photo by Jessica Havens.
View "Saincia's Journey Out of Poverty" on YouTube: https://youtu.be/5mAa1x3QiQQ