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. Around the world, roughly one billion people are said to live in extreme poverty, living on less the $1.90 per day. In Haiti, where the bar for extreme poverty is set even lower, the percentage is nevertheless high, especially in the countryside. As many as two million rural Haitians may be that poor.
And yet they are not the poorest of the poor. In rural Haiti, as many as 15% of families are ultra poor, families who live on less than $1 per household per day. A day of work in a neighbor’s fields would generally pay 50 gourds, which is currently worth about eighty cents. That’s for an entire family adults and kids, not per family member. And such work isn’t available every day.
Rose Marthe lives in Mannwa, a small mountain community in Haiti’s Central Plateau, with her husband and five children. She used to scavenge around the rocky slopes that surround her home, looking for leaves she could boil. That might be the only food she’d have to give to her children before they went to sleep at night. Things were briefly better each year after her harvests of corn or millet, but without the resources to buy seeds and fertilizer, she couldn’t grow enough food for the family to eat decent meals all year round.
Her family went hungry much of the time. One or another of the children was usually sick, which only made it even harder for her to do the work she’d have to do to earn a living. Her family’s poverty was part of a vicious cycle that promised to go only from bad to worse.
But there is hope. A Haitian non-profit is sweeping through the countryside, community-by-community, effectively bringing ultra poor families the social and economic support they need to lift themselves out of the direst poverty.
Fondation Kole Zepòl, or Fonkoze, was created by a network of Haitian grassroots activists in 1994. It established its Chemen Lavi Miyò (CLM) program ten years ago. (See: www.fonkoze.org.) The name means “path to a better life.” The program is one of over forty in the world that target the ultra poor directly with comprehensive support designed to provide a one-time push so that they can lift themselves sustainably out of the worst poverty. We often hear that teaching someone to fish will help them eat for a lifetime, but Fonkoze’s program goes farther. It teaches participants to earn a living, gives them the tools they need to get started, and provides a web of protections that helps insure them against bumps they will encounter as they make their way.
The approach is generally referred to as “the graduation approach.” Program participants receive multiple layers of help: the training they need to manage small economic activities and the assets they need to get the activities started. They also receive close accompaniment for a limited period of time from case managers who visit with them regularly to help make sure they begin to find their way.
The approach was originally developed by BRAC, a Bangladeshi development organization, but it has spread as the evidence of its efficacy has emerged. The results of MIT-led random control trials from programs in six different countries were published last year in Science Magazine and demonstrated the programs’ enduring benefits. (See: here.) Evaluations of Fonkoze’s program in Haiti have been similarly promising.
Fonkoze’s roots are in microfinance. It was established to serve as something like a bank for the poor. Its founders built Haiti’s largest microfinance institution, which now provides loans to over 60,000 women and serves over 200,000 savers through 45 branch offices scattered throughout the country. It turned to the graduation approach after years of experience showed that some Haitians were too poor to benefit from credit. Mothers like Rose Marthe cannot keep loan capital in a business because their children are hungry every day.
Rose Marthe spent 18 months in the CLM program. She was trained to raise livestock profitably, and was given two goats and a pig to get started. Her goat business took off quickly. The goats’ young became assets she could sell to invest in her fields, so her farming grew more productive as well. Her improved harvests left her with extra food she could bring to market, and those sales became part of a growing business buying produce in remote rural markets and hauling it for sale in markets closer to the nearest towns. She was even able to buy a mule to carry her merchandise through the mountains. She now feeds her children three meals every day, and that gives them the energy they need to hike 30 minutes uphill to the nearest school. Rose Marthe can now afford to send them. The vicious cycle that once governed her life is now a virtuous one.
Since it first established the program, Fonkoze has provided it to more than 5,000 families with a success rate of over 96%. Initially working only with ultra poor mothers, it has expanded its vision to include ultra poor persons with disabilities. The program carries a one-time cost of approximately $1500 per household, and the institution struggles constantly to raise the funds it needs to expand the number of families it can reach.
But the magnitude of the problem that ultra poverty presents in Haiti and around the world exceeds what individual institutions can hope to address. Efforts to engage governments in the struggle are ongoing and have been successful in places. In Ethiopia and Colombia, for example, the graduation approach has become an important part of national anti-poverty efforts. Program designers from Colombia came to Haiti to study CLM as they were developing their own approach. And Fonkoze has provided assistance to others who want to use the approach both in Haiti and as far away as Burkina Faso, while a larger network of technical assistance providers is led by BRAC, the very institution that developed the approach in the first place. Over forty adaptations of the graduation approach are now at work around the world.
We may read that the poor will always be with us. But it has been proven that the ultra poor can leave the worst of their poverty behind them. All they need is the opportunity that a well-understood set of tools provides.
Learn more about Fonkoze’s CLM program here.
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. In 2005, he settled in Kaglo, a small village in the mountains above Port-au-Prince. Since 2010, he has been working for Chemen Lavi Miyò, or CLM, Fonkoze’s program for the extreme poor. He currently acts as CLM’s communications and learning officer.
To Fool the Rain: Haiti’s Poor and their Pathway to a Better Life (Ti Koze Press, January 2017) is