Alex Counts is the President and CEO of Grameen Foundation.
Fourteen months earlier, I had visited Haiti and spent an afternoon meeting with five families who were beginning participation with the so-called “Ultra-Poor” program of Fonkoze, Grameen Foundation’s local microfinance partner organization. Also known as by its Creole acronym CLM (“Path To A Better Life”), this program takes people who would normally be too destitute, too sick, and too socially excluded to join and succeed in traditional microcredit programs (which Fonkoze also offers). Even after twenty years anti-poverty work, I was disturbed by my visit to early stage CLM clients: the children’s distended stomachs, the glazed-over looks of the adults, the abysmal housing conditions, the fact that almost everyone in those families was sick. I wondered, despite the CLM program’s carefully tailored economic, health, housing and empowerment interventions, whether any of those families would be ready for the traditional microcredit anytime soon.
Fast forward to my visit last week to Haiti with the wonderful actress Yeardley Smith. After an hour-long trek through muddy farmland, we met with about 20 women who had, five months earlier, successfully graduated CLM – as 96% of all those who had started in mid-2007 had done – and were now borrowing on more traditional microfinance terms. They beamed with pride and told stories of having become respected businesswomen. Somehow, the hole in heart that had opened up 14 months earlier somehow healed in that moment. I could see Yeardley coming to terms, emotionally and intellectually, with what microfinance could accomplish. After the meeting, we devoured the freshest mangoes I have ever tasted and headed off to visit some new CLM clients – a subject I will write about tomorrow.