Haiti womens micro-lending bank brings big cash to rescue

 

Able to quickly reach a well-developed network of women throughout the country, an alternative banking system performs while the Haitian economy is in shambles


Peggy Simpson – WNN Features
in partnership with the WMC – Women’s Media Center

Magazine cover - 'Haiti: How much do you know?'

A micro-credit program and banking system for more than 200,000 women in Haiti has come to the rescue of the Haiti economy in the wake of the devastating earthquake.

At a time when Haitian commercial banks remain closed, Fonkoze, the Haitian branch of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, mobilized over one weekend to get funds to its members in rural towns as well as Port-au-Prince.

Between 2 a.m. and 2 p.m., last Saturday, January 23, Fonkoze brought in two million dollars in cash from their U.S. bank and distributed it by helicopters to regional offices in the most remote parts of the country.

That got money flowing again. The cash came from Haitians working abroad who had sent funds — called remittances — to their relatives.

Also known as Haiti’s, “Alternative Bank for the Organized Poor,” Fonkoze found a way to get money to its members through the 34 of its 41 branch offices still open after the earthquake. It had a lot of help in high places: the U.S. Secretary of State, top Treasury and Defense Department officials, the Federal Reserve, the Agency for International Development, the United Nations, the Inter-American Development Bank and more.

The operation read like a cloak-and-dagger saga. Anne Hastings, the CEO of Fonkoze Financial Services, was point person on shaping the unorthodox solution. It involved many conference calls to Washington, New York and Miami, as well as intricate strategies with managers on the ground in Haiti who would get the money to the women.

By Friday, January 22, the plan was ready. Remittances from U.S.-based Haitians deposited in Fonkoze’s accounts at City National Bank of New Jersey were sent to JP Morgan Chase in Miami, converted into cash — and packed in office supply boxes. An armored vehicle then transferred the boxes to Homestead Air Force Base.

A C-17 plane, diverted from Langley Air Force Base, landed at Homestead at 3 a.m. Saturday, took on the camouflaged cargo of cash, and flew to Haiti, where the major airport at Port-au-Prince has been under U.S. military control since the earthquake.

Fonkonze wall banner sign
Wall banner sign for Haiti’s leading micro-lending bank, Fonkoze.

Once there, Hastings and two other Fonkoze executives inspected the cash cargo — and called the Pentagon to say so far, so good. Under a military escort, the Fonkoze vehicle loaded with the boxes of cash awaited the two helicopters that could fly the money to 10 designated drop-off locations.

Fonkoze’s Jean-Guy Noel rode with the helicopters as they began deliveries before dawn. Seven hours later, all the cash had been delivered and the helicopters were back in Port-au-Prince. By early afternoon, the cash had been distributed to the 34 Fonkoze branches. Almost immediately, the Fonkoze managers began giving Fonkoze members cash from their relatives, a financial lifeline at a time when the formal banking system is in shambles and remittances sent through it from overseas Haitians remain locked up.

Jennifer Harris, a member of the policy staff of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a memo to Pentagon officials released by Fonkoze, spelled out the implications of the combined State-Defense operation.

“Fonkoze has by far the deepest reach into the country’s rural poor, a remittance network that would take years to recreate from scratch. As people continue to migrate from Port-au-Prince, Fonkoze’s branch network will become even more essential,” she said. “Perhaps most important, unlike the commercial banks, Fonkoze has re-opened many of its branches and has continued to pay out remittances using its cash on hand.”

In essence, she said, the unconventional operation “may well have stabilized the banking system for the country’s most vulnerable population.”

Fonkoze has been operating in Haiti for 15 years. Ninety-nine percent of its members are women. By midweek, it expects all but three of its branches to be open. In the heavily damaged capital city, Fonkoze managers set up shop at a makeshift office in the courtyard next to its damaged headquarters—as hundreds of Haitians lined up to get the money due them.

In addition to micro-lending programs, Fonkoze sponsors major literacy, health care and micro-insurance programs. Its remittances and savings accounts serve more than 200,000 people, making it a significant part of the country’s financial system. Relatives of Fonkoze members working abroad use its conduits to send back money — “that taxi driver in New York City who wants to send fifty dollars to his mother,” says Leigh Carter, Fonkoze USA fundraiser — amounting to $57.7 million last year.

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