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Getting money into the hands of Haiti’s poorest

Leigh Carter


Photo: Fonkoze
Fonkoze employees pull desks and computers into the courtyard of the earthquake-damaged Fonkoze Port-au-Prince branch to serve clients days after the disaster, January 2010. 

The Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti left many, especially the poor, unprepared to cope with disaster. Many Haitians had to confront the immediate effects of the quake with no money in their pockets; many had their assets and resources destroyed, and lost key family members. After the earthquake, all Haitian commercial banks closed cutting people off from money sent by their family and friends in other countries. Suddenly, the $200 from an uncle in Brooklyn or the $100 from a sister in Miami became the only source of immediate aid available for many. 

It was not until 11 days after the seism that a few commercial bank branches in some parts of Port-au-Prince began to open their doors to their “best” customers. In contrast, and despite suffering severe damage to its headquarters and some of its branches, the micro-finance bank Fonkoze quickly re-opened 34 of its 42 branches, including its Port-au-Prince branch.

Determined to live up to its reputation as “the bank on which the poor can rely,” Fonkoze was resolute to remain open even if it meant dragging desks and computers into the courtyard to serve members and clients. Demand for remittance payouts from Fonkoze’s proprietary transfer system and providers such as Moneygram quickly swamped the available liquidity in Fonkoze’s branch network. But it was not long before Fonkoze’s branches depleted the reserves in their safes. 

Fonkoze holds deposits in Haitian as well as U.S. banks. Its primary bank in Haiti held the critical liquidity needed in Fonkoze’s branches. Yet, instead of providing Fonkoze —who had been a long-time dependable customer— with access to its money, the commercial bank treated Fonkoze like a regular customer, limiting withdrawals to just $5,000 per day. This represents a trivial amount for a financial institution needing to pay over $250,000 in remittances each day.

Determined to find a solution, Anne Hastings, CEO of Sèvis Finansye Fonkoze began to call anyone who would listen to her plan. After four days of negotiations that began on Jan. 18 with the U.S. military, the State Department, the Multilateral Finance Corporation and the Haitian government, Fonkoze secured approval to airlift $2 million in cash from Fonkoze’s accounts at City National Bank of New Jersey direct to its branches throughout Haiti. Once the key players realized that Fonkoze was the bank serving the most vulnerable people in Haiti post-earthquake, it took less than 24 hours for the U.S. military and the United Nations (UN) to complete the delivery. 

The cash was packaged in a bank by employee volunteers in Miami into storage boxes, driven in an armored vehicle to Homestead Air Force base, and transported aboard a military C-17 to Haiti. In the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, Jan. 23, Anne Hastings and her team met the C-17 on the tarmac of the Port-au-Prince airport. A member of the Fonkoze team accompanied the funds in the UN helicopter, guiding the pilots to designated landing areas —sometimes just a soccer field— where Fonkoze branch directors awaited pickup. Without a hitch, this unprecedented joint Fonkoze-military operation delivered money by helicopter to 10 locations across the country.

The media widely reported the mission as a tremendous success that was achieved in a timely manner. “As people continue to migrate from Port-au-Prince, Fonkoze’s branch network will become even more essential. Probably most important, unlike the commercial banks, Fonkoze has re-opened many of its branches and has continued to pay out remittances using its cash on hand,” said Jennifer Harris from the U.S. State Department in a message to Fonkoze staff after completion of the mission.

Few would imagine a micro-finance bank involved in such an action-movie scenario. Anne Hastings and the management team of Fonkoze connected the dots between the U.S. military, the U.S. State Department, the Multilateral Finance Corporation and the Haitian government to drop disguised boxes of U.S. dollars in some of the most remote villages of Haiti. This is just one of the many ways that Fonkoze, a bank designed for Haiti’s poor, has become a key player in the revitalization of Haiti. Since then, Fonkoze’s money transfer program has almost tripled in size. 

Leigh Carter is the Executive Director of Fonkoze USA, a non-profit organization working to provide resources for, and awareness of, Fonkoze’s work in Haiti.

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