How People Are Fighting Poverty — And Winning — In Haiti

An incredible story of lifting people out of poverty.

When I first met Alta, she was still in her teens. She was living with a much older man and her two daughters in Viyèt, a hilly area just northwest of Difayi, one of Boucan Carré, Haiti's couple of towns.

She was a beautiful young woman, with smooth, light brown skin and small, clear eyes. Her older girl was a toddler, a little image of Alta, and the second was a baby, less than two weeks old, who had not yet been carried outside of the small shack. She hadn't yet even been named.

She was her mother's first child, and she didn't grow up at home. Dire poverty had forced her mother to send her to be raised by a wealthier neighbor, a woman who had a house and a business in Mirebalais, the closest major town. There, Alta grew up as a servant. She was never paid. She was not sent to school. But her guardian fed her and clothed her, which was more than her mother could do. Alta spent years with the woman, doing housework and helping her run her business. She would sit, crouched under the small, homemade table that her guardian would use to display her merchandise, ready to run errands or help make sales. Then she became pregnant. The woman kicked her out, and her child's father abandoned her. She was left without a place to live. Her mother had just built a small house on her own father's land, and at first Alta just moved back in with her.

Then she became pregnant again, and the second child's father also abandoned her. The old man decided to give Alta, his granddaughter, a little plot to live on. The man Alta was together with by then — who was not the father of either child —built them a small straw hut. 

Life wasn't easy. The couple had no land of their own. The man could have worked other people's land as a sharecropper, but he had been sick during the planting season and so had failed to get any crops into the ground. He could do nothing but spots of day labor when his neighbors were working in their fields. Alta could do no heavy farm work that year because of her pregnancy. She had learned to run a business by watching the woman she grew up with, but without any money to invest she wasn't able to get started. The couple had no livestock.

That Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and one of the poorest countries in the world is a fact almost too commonly known to be worth mentioning. 



Housing stacked up a hillside in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Shutterstock / Sylvia Contreau.
Housing stacked up a hillside in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Shutterstock / Sylvia Contreau.

Its poverty can be described in various ways. One can consider the indicators that economists have traditionally used, like per capita income or per capita gross domestic product. Or one can look to more sophisticated, humane measures, like the United Nations Human Development Index, which attempts to capture how well or badly a population lives. But all the various measures paint a consistent picture of people who enjoy neither the wealth nor the standard of living of even the least of their neighbors. Haiti is roughly twice as poor as the other poorest countries in the Americas. 

Alta was just the sort of woman Fonkoze had been created to serve: a poor rural mother, unable to support her own family, much less participate in development. Fonkoze was offering credit along with educational services that would help women use credit well. And you might think that giving Alta access to credit would be just the thing to get her on her way. She had learned how to run a business in the years she spent helping her guardian in Mirebalais run one. 

But Alta had a newborn and a toddler on her hands, and her shack in Upper Viyèt was a long hike from anywhere she would have been able to set up a new business. She was in no position to make use of a loan. Others might fail in credit programs for other reasons. They might have too many children to leave capital in a business while Little faces went hungry. Or they might lack the skills or initiative or imagination that even the smallest business requires. Fonkoze came to realize that it was failing in a crucial respect. It wasn't reaching the poorest Haitian women. It was succeeding well with many poor women who were already managing small businesses. But it was failing with women who didn't yet have businesses or whose businesses were especially small. Such women could not generate enough income to both feed their children and repay their loans.

Fonkoze tried tinkering with its credit program, adding smaller loan amounts and extra support and training as a way to help poorer women succeed, and the results were encouraging. The new program Ti Kredi, or "Little Credit," enabled thousands of previously excluded women to start developing small businesses. But there were still women who were simply too poor. So the institution's leadership realized that they needed a way to help those families whom credit couldn't serve, those without other assets to fall back upon, those so incapable of managing their minimal daily expenses that a loan would almost certainly evaporate in their hands.

They would not, however, need to invent the approach. Anne Hastings, Fonkoze's Executive Director, was able to find what Fonkoze was seeking. BRAC, a very large development organization, had already created a program called "Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction: Targeting the Ultra Poor." BRAC had been implementing the program in its home country, Bangladesh, since 2002. By happy coincidence, the BRAC team was at that very moment working with a unit of the World Bank to replicate the program in other countries, and Fonkoze was able to secure a place in one of the pilots. The folks at the World Bank agreed to try it in Haiti because they imagined that if it could work in Haiti, it could work anywhere.

The program's success relied on its comprehensive approach. It gave extremely poor women the assets they would need to establish small businesses. These assets were not loans, but grants. Then, it provided them with the training they needed to use those assets effectively. In addition, it helped them with home repair, sanitation, and access to safe drinking water. It also linked them to essential health care. It even created networks of social support in the communities that the extremely poor women lived in. Finally, and most importantly, it offered months of close, one-on-one coaching, helping the women learn to manage their assets, but also to live healthier lives.

Women selling fruits and veggies along the street in St. Marc, Haiti. glenda / Shutterstock, Inc.
Women selling fruits and veggies along the street in St. Marc, Haiti. glenda / Shutterstock, Inc.

Fonkoze used the Haitian government's poverty map to select the three poorest areas of the country – the western end of la Gonâve, Boucan Carré, and Trou du Nord in the northeast – and determined to serve 50 families in each area. It sent case managers and supervisory staff to Bangladesh to receive training from BRAC, and then welcomed BRAC staff to Haiti to assist with the program's adaptation. The team came up with a Creole name, Chemen Lavi Miyò, or "Pathway to a Better Life." The name was a way to point out that no one would be able to give a family a better life, but the team would help a family find its way.

The pilot was wildly successful, with 144 of the 150 families graduating after 18 months. Then, as now, graduation from the program was measured in relatively straightforward terms: Women left the program able to feed their family a substantial meal at least once each day. They had at least two income-generating activities and at least $150 worth of productive assets. Finally, they had a plan for the future and the confidence to know that they could succeed. In other words, they might still be very poor, but they were no longer living in misery. They were not pòv, but malere. And they had good reason to hope for even greater future progress.

The last time I saw Alta, we were crossing the face of the ridge overlooking Viyèt, walking in opposite directions. I was headed back to Mirebalais after a day in Mannwa, and she was hiking up to her new home in Gapi. She had left the older man whom she had been with. She and her girls were together with an ambitious young farmer. She had had a third child with the man, but all three were healthy. She was a strong contributor to the household, managing a small business while her new partner used his fields to bring in food to eat and cash from the crops she cold sell for them. She's doing well.

Over 5000 women have now passed through the CLM program, and more than 95% have graduated from it. That means that after 18 months they are feeding their families hot meals every day, they have at least two sources of income, and they've proven that they can increase the value of the assets that the program gives them. They also have a plan for the future and the confidence to know they can succeed. Like Alta, they have taken the first small but strong steps on the path to a better life. 

This post is an excerpt from To Fool The Rain: Haiti's Poor and the Pathway to a Better Life.

Steven Werlin, a faculty member at Shimer College, in Chicago, since 1996, first began traveling to Haiti the same year to learn from literacy programs abroad. To Fool the Rain: Haiti's Poor and their Pathway to a Better Life (Ti Koze Press) is available on www.fonkonze.org and will be available at all major outlets as of January 17, 2017. More information about Steven Werlin can be found at www.stevenwerlin.com, Facebook, and Twitter

Cover photo:  arindambanerjee / Shutterstock, Inc.

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