It’s hard to believe that while some of us live in a world of excess, others continue to live in extreme poverty. If you have ever felt helpless when hearing about how our fellow neighbors live and ever wondered what is being done about addressing extreme poverty, Steve Werlin’s book is for you. It is beautifully narrated and tells the stories of brave women who are transforming their lives and those of their children. His series of vignettes put faces on and fleshes out the day-to-day lives and struggles of the people of Haiti.
What is extreme poverty? Here is a glimpse: about two million rural Haitians live on less than $1 a day. Furthermore, the poorest of the Haitian women are so focused on trying to feed their children that they lack the time to even think about their future. This is where the Chemen Lavo Miyo (CLM) program comes in. CLM is a microfinancing program aimed at improving the lives of these rural families. It’s one of many of Fonkoze’s (Haiti’s largest microfinance institution) programs.
As Steve puts it himself, he was lucky enough to end up in the towns and villages of Haiti’s Central Plateau through the serendipities of American privilege. The stories that Steve Werlin presents are the real, lived experiences of women who have been impacted by Fonkoze and its Chemen Lavi Miyo program. Steven, thank you so much for being with us here today. Before we get into the women’s stories, can you please tell us a little about how you became involved and what your initial reaction was when confronted with the community you now live and work with?
Steve Werlin: Thanks, Maribel. I first started traveling to Haiti because I wanted to learn about the literacy movement. A former student invited me to work with two literacy programs that his organization was supporting. I was struck initially by the importance the programs’ participants placed on education. They were willing to put up with so much so that they might learn how to read a little bit. The more time I spent with literacy learners and teachers, the more I felt I was learning about how education can be designed to help us change our lives and our communities for the better.
My work in literacy brought me to Fonkoze, which had education programs struggling with issues I was invited to help address. Working with Fonkoze was a good next step for me because its education programs — including basic literacy — were designed specifically to help women whose primary need was to develop businesses that would enable them to better support their families. Working with them, I was increasingly drawn to the importance of the businesses themselves. The women I met were hard working micro-entrepreneurs, and they had a lot to overcome to succeed. I eventually became the manager of a small, rural branch in southeastern Haiti, and that helped me better understand how Fonkoze’s educational and financial programs complemented each other.
When I was ready to leave that job, I was offered the chance to join the team Fonkoze was building for its extreme poverty program, Chemen Lavi Miyò, or the Path to a Better Life. Its focus is on the very poorest Haitians, those with no decent livelihoods at all. For them, literacy could not yet be a priority. They were not even able to feed their children.
It’s hard to describe what it is like the first time you appear at the home of a family that can’t eat a meal every day: lifeless, cranky younger children, an absence of any older children at all. Homes in hopeless disrepair because there seems to be so little point to maintaining them. The work is very hard to do until you start seeing women succeed. Their successes give you the strength to go on because they provide hope even as you find yourself among people who are themselves in very difficult circumstances.
Maribel Garcia: Father Joseph Phillipe, the founder of Fonkoze, understood that to make a difference in these women’s lives, they needed more than just access to financial services. Fonkoze is Haiti’s largest microfinance institution serving poor and ultra-poor women in rural Haiti, with 44 branches located throughout the country. The name Fonkoze is an acronym for the Haitian Creole phrase “Fondasyon Kole Zepòl” meaning “Shoulder-to-Shoulder Foundation.”
The women in the program are being trained to become entrepreneurs, and they receive access to education, training, and health services, in addition to extensive one-on-one coaching. I enjoyed the stories in your book so much that I didn’t want the book to end. I would encourage all of our readers to go out and buy the book (especially because the book’s profits will benefit the program’s participants.) You so effectively convey the difficult starting places of the women in the program. In one case, you write:
“The first time that I saw Rose Marthe, she was more than eight months pregnant … I had hiked for a couple of hours to talk to her … The roofing on her home was cracked and lacked protection from the rain … She tried to send her oldest boy across the small clearing to neighbor’s house to borrow a chair, but he was lethargic from hunger …”
Your book offers a window into the lives of Haiti’s poorest. Furthermore, the book takes you through what Dr. Paul Farmer refers to as the geography of poverty. Readers learn how you go about identifying the poorest of the poor in these rural communities. We also learn that these families are constantly at risk because of the fragility of the economic activities that sustain them. The poorest of the poor are living on the edge without any safety nets. They are landless, without crops to harvest or business to invest in or livestock to sell or consume, not to mention a job. They eat what they can when they can. How do you explain what the Chemen Lavo Miyo (CLM) program can do for them and what are the usual reactions?
Steve Werlin: Our approach is comprehensive because it is designed to help women transform their lives comprehensively. When they complete the program, they are not just wealthier than they were when they started. They have to be more than just wealthier because their poverty is more than a lack of riches. It’s poor health. It’s social isolation. It’s an inability to look beyond their daily struggle to make plans.
When they graduate, they are more knowledgeable, more self-confident, and more focused on the future. CLM makes a series of material investments in them, buying them productive assets, financing home repair, and even providing a small weekly stipend for the first six months. But these investments come with regular training sessions, and 18 months of regular, individualized coaching. The coaching is key because it means that families have more than the tools to change their lives and more than the basic know-how they need to use the tools. They also have someone to guide, encourage, and challenge them as they develop their livelihoods.
Make no mistake: The women who leave the program are still very poor. But they can keep their children fed and to send them to school. They require no further subsidies, and are ready to continue their progress on their own.
MG: For many of the poorest women in the program, rain meant that they would have to place a sheet of plastic over their bed and scramble to put their children and some clothing under it to stay dry. With the CLM program, women can build a sturdier home with better roofing. One of the women in your program, Cermene Bruno, who used to have to scoop water out of her house with dishes after a rain, secured a better home through your program. After moving into her new house she says, “Now if it rains during the night, I don’t even know it until I get up.”
What’s it like to go from our country (where we take such things for granted) to these rural parts of Haiti where extreme poverty makes women so vulnerable?
Steve Werlin: I’ve never really had occasion to focus in a general way on the kinds of comforts that Haiti lacks, but every now and again I’ve had a particular experience that has brought the lack of a developed infrastructure home.
I remember I once spent a weekend in a place called Bay Tourib. It’s about 90 minutes from downtown Thomonde on a motorcycle. A pregnant woman was brought to the small clinic where I was staying suffering from preeclampsia. She was shaking horribly and unable to speak. The clinic staff had gone home for the weekend, and her family brought her to me thinking I might know what to do. I didn’t. So I convinced them to collect some neighbors, put her on a stretcher, and hike down the mountain to the hospital in Thomonde. But by the time they had gotten halfway there, she gave birth to a dead child. Her family, thinking that was the end of things, turned around and started to hike back up with her. Shortly after they got her back to the clinic, she died.
She and the baby probably would have been fine if she had had access to even basic prenatal care. But women in Bay Tourib were only starting to have access, and it was only three to four days a week. So they both were lost. That’s just one example, and it isn’t often that you confront anything that dramatic. But the differences between the privileges I grew up with and the lives the women we work with lead don’t go away. They are around me all the time.
MG: The CLM program lasts for 18 months, or 21 months if you count the time it takes to select the families who participate. Can you tell us a little bit about how the families get selected?
Steve Werlin: The selection process is long. Haiti may have a lot of very poor people, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to identify the poorest. We base our work on two conflicting assumptions. On the one hand, we know that we cannot expect to walk into a neighborhood we don’t know and figure things out for ourselves. We need help from the local population. On the other hand, much of the information we get for the local population will be false, for many reasons. So we need to have a disciplined way to verify what people tell us.
So we start with an open community meeting. We try to get broad attendance. The meeting unfolds in two steps. First, we invite those present to draw a map of their neighborhood, placing and identifying all of its residences. We use that activity to get the name of the person who leads each household onto an index card. In the second part of the meeting, we get participants to separate the cards into five piles, representing five different levels of wealth.
We then take all the names in the poorest two piles and send teams of surveyors to interview them against a series of selection criteria. When the surveyors have recommended a family for inclusion in the program, we visit them again. This time, a member of our management team interviews the woman who has been recommended and verifies that she indeed qualifies.
The whole process takes about three months.
MG: After you choose the women, each gets a case manager who then helps the recipient start her own business and coach her toward graduation. How do your participants take that initial challenge: we are going to help you, and eventually, you will be able to start a business, make a profit and be able to feed your family and plan for your future.
Steve Werlin: As you can probably imagine, their reactions vary. But I think that they typically just agree to go with the flow. The program probably sounds too good to be true. But following along with what an authoritative young professional tells them must seem like the easiest thing to do, especially when they start receiving the small cash stipend that we provide for the first six months. It probably takes about three months for most of them to really trust their case manager and our team. That’s when they really start to share their problems and when you see them taking on the challenge of transforming their lives.
MG: Your book has taught me so much about possibility. Those of us who are privileged to live comfortably and eat three full meals a day often feel helpless about extreme poverty. It feels like it’s a problem that doesn’t have a solution, yet the CLM method almost always works (95% success rate). All that these women need is a reasonable chance. Many of the women give great speeches at their graduation that address the kind of support that they have received from the program. Can you tell us about some of them?
Steve Werlin: To be honest, it took me a long time to really understand the speeches well. The women are excited, the venues are loud, and the sound systems are poor. I used to have trouble catching more than a few lines. I wrote in the book about the graduation speech of a woman named Rose Marthe, but I only really understood all of her speech because I recorded it and sat with her case manager later to make sure I followed it all.
She spoke as many do: about how difficult life had been and how she had made it much, much better. I remember her doing a little spin to show off her outfit, which she was proud of.
The high point of a recent graduation was a speech from a woman who had faced breast cancer while she was in the program. We had helped her get care from Partners in Health, and when her situation exceeded their capacity to treat her, we worked with Partners in Health to get her care in the Dominican Republic, working all the while with her husband to ensure that she would come back to a reliable livelihood. She spoke about how the program saved her life.
But the most interesting speeches, and the majority of them are the ones like Rose Marthe’s, which focus on what the women have achieved. The women are proud of the transformations that they’ve worked to make, and they want the world to know it. They list their successes — their home, their livestock, their businesses — and they speak of the struggles they’ve faced along the way. And they’ll very often speak of their determination to continue their progress. I remember Jean Manie declaring, almost chanting, that she had been a slave but that she wasn’t one anymore and never would be one again.
MG: This particular organization does not offer loans. It is based on the principle of helping women as she struggles to make her way out of poverty. In those 18 months, there are many days and weeks before hard work can turn into profit. There are many obstacles that the women must overcome. As you describe in the book, so many things can go wrong, and there are always setbacks. How have you and the participants handled this part of the process? Setbacks?
Steve Werlin: Setbacks are an important part of the program. When a woman you’re working with loses some livestock or fails in a business she’s attempted, your first instinct is to try to make up her loss. They’re so poor. Things seem so stacked against them.
But you have to remember the goal. If women are going to succeed over the long term, they have to be able to weather the storms, because there will be storms. So, when they suffer a loss, you help them focus on the fact that they’ve already proven their ability to move forward and then sit with them to help them make a plan. Rose Marthe, for example, had two or three pigs die one after the other as she was getting started. I remember hearing how she wept when the third one died. But eventually, she just decided that pigs weren’t her thing. Instead, she focused on goats and farming, and she flourished at both.
MG: Steve, again, thank you so much for joining us today. Our readers are going to want to know what they can do to help. Besides buying the book, how can we help?
Steven Werlin: Of course, someone could decide to support Fonkoze through our American partner, Fonkoze USA. (See www.fonkoze.org.) But, more importantly, there is poverty all around us. It isn’t just a Fonkoze issue or even just a Haitian issue. If you can convince yourself that people’s lives can change, then it is simply a matter of figuring out the best place to invest your time and your energy, or maybe your resources, in work that helps people make those changes happen.
Thanks, Maribel. It’s been a pleasure.