Alex Counts is the President and CEO of Grameen Foundation.
I didn’t know what to expect when my plane approached Port au Prince, Haiti, a little more than one week ago. Like many people around the world, I had been working hard to help Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest microfinance institution, since it was devastated by the January 12 earthquake. I acted in my capacities as President of Grameen Foundation, which has a long-standing relationship with Fonkoze, and as the volunteer Chairman of Fonkoze USA.
Some of the reports I’d received from Fonkoze after the earthquake were depressing: food and fuel shortages, growing death tolls of Fonkoze staff and clients, homes and businesses destroyed, survivors enduring maddeningly slow recovery from injuries (their progress often stunted due to intensive work against doctor’s orders). Others reports were inspirational: the U.S. military’s heroic, James Bond-esque effort in the dead of night to transport $2 million in cash from the US to Fonkoze’s 40 branches via helicopters (so that clients could withdraw savings and remittances), the successful pilot of a “mobile branch in a van,” and, above all, the tower of strength that Anne Hastings and her team displayed to me and millions of others once communications were restored and a plan for recovery could be developed and shared.
With your generous support, our first priority was to provide small grants for transitional housing for Fonkoze staff that had lost their homes. Without such support, it was understandably difficult for Fonkoze’s staff (many of whom were left homeless) to focus on the work at hand. Grameen Foundation’s Regional CEO Alberto Solano led our efforts to finalize how your dollars can make the greatest impact on Haiti’s rebuilding process. Although your quick response to our call to help Haiti was gratifying, I know one thing for sure: we have more good ideas than we have funds available to implement them.
While I toured Port au Prince, I was startled to see that the earthquake’s damage was hit-or-miss. Rows of buildings on some blocks seemed minimally impacted. Street vendors and stores were actually conducting business. Then, I turned a corner, wham! The landscape resembled Dresden immediately after the Second World War. When I looked at many of the buildings, it was hard to imagine how anyone could have survived the quake at all if they were inside when the earthquake struck.
During the weeks before I went to Haiti, I avoided reading newspaper accounts of the situation on the ground–it was too painful. I limited myself to analyzing and sharing the stories of the needs and plans of Fonkoze and related organizations. But I did read that people were pulled alive from the rubble 14 days after the earthquake – defying what were thought to be the limits of human physiology. Those stories were reminders that the human spirit is much more resilient than most of us realize, and that the survival skills of the Haitian people are more developed (out of necessity) than practically any people on earth.
Actress Yeardley Smith joined me at a meeting the day after my tour of Port au Prince (reprising our trip to Haiti in May 2009). At the meeting, I was impressed with how energized and entrepreneurial Fonkoze’s microfinance leaders were as they presented their plans for rebuilding. Still beneath the surface, there was exhaustion and sadness. Clearly, it will be a long road ahead, but one that I left Haiti feeling more optimistic about than when I had arrived.