Grameen Foundation Stands with Haiti: Microfinance and the Earthquake
At 4 pm on Tuesday, January 12, Leigh Carter had just taken a seat at a borrowed desk on the second floor of Fonkoze’s office in Port au Prince, Haiti. Fonkoze, a Grameen Foundation partner, is Haiti’s largest, most innovative microfinance institution with over 200,000 clients. After only one hour at her desk, Leigh, director of the MFI’s USA operations, began to feel the entire office rumble. “We heard a little groan, then we were at 7.0 very suddenly, being thrown violently around the office with everything moving, falling, and crashing around us,” she said. “Concrete pulverizes, turns to a fine dust and makes it hard to breathe and see.” Witnessing the strongest earthquake Haiti had experienced in over 250 years, Leigh desperately sprang into survival mode.
“I turned and saw a hole had opened in the wall of our office … Once on the other side, however, the wall crumbled and I fell to the ground from the second floor. I landed in a pile of rubble, some rubble fell on me. I remember laying there in a fetal position saying to myself, ‘I’m ok, I’m ok, I’m ok.’”
The earthquake left many, especially the poorest Haitians, unprepared to cope with disaster. Many people have been left with no money in their pockets, no assets or resources, and no way of receiving help from key family members. Fonkoze lost five staff members and their central office, along with a number of branches close to Port au Prince, was destroyed.
Despite the devastation, Fonkoze has been able to quickly reopen 37 of its 42 branches, including the main branch in Port-au-Prince. Within the first week of re-opening these branches, Fonkoze delivered more than $1 million in remittances and savings to Haitians. The MFI’s tenacious leader, Anne Hastings, worked quickly to bring in an additional $2 million from its account at the City National Bank of New Jersey, working through a unique collaboration of the United Nations, USAID, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of Defense, and City National Bank.
Overcoming insurmountable odds, the U.S. military and the United Nations then helped Fonkoze devise a plan to drop bags of money at designated rural locations for pick up by Fonkoze’s rural branches. The money traveled from City National Bank of New Jersey to Miami where it was picked up by a military C-17 en route to Port-au-Prince. Helicopters were used to drop discretely packed boxes of money to Fonkoze branch locations. The deliveries enabled branches to continue to pay out money sent from abroad and withdrawals from savings accounts.
“This was an absolutely tremendous experience for all of us – military and civilian, government and non-profit alike,” said Anne Hastings, CEO of Fonkoze Financial Services. “Our branches have been working since the earthquake to pay the money transfers our clients so desperately needed to begin to put their lives back together.”
“There is much to be done,” Leigh said. “But, all the Haitian people need, all Fonkoze needs, is ‘a little light,’ and we can find our way.” In the weeks following the earthquake, Grameen Foundation raised $100,000 towards rebuilding efforts in Haiti. Long after initial disaster relief ends, Grameen Foundation and Fonkoze will be working to create a strategy for long-term economic recovery best suited for Haiti and helping these families rebuild their lives. Although Fonkoze has experience working on the ground in Haiti to provide relief efforts after natural disasters, the organization needs support and funding now more than ever to help Haiti rebuild and to continue to lift tens of thousands more Haitians out of poverty.
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