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Rebuilding Haiti By Empowering Its Residents

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Marie Georges is a 45-year-old Haitian mother of six. Until the earthquake devastated her country one year ago, she ran a small business out of her home that included a corn garden and some livestock. After the disaster, she lost everything.

For weeks, Georges couldn't even confirm whether all her children had survived the catastrophe. But she remained optimistic and determined to rebuild her business and her future, demonstrating a resilience commonly attributed to the people of Haiti.

"My commerce is my life," she said at the time. "I want to rebuild what I have left into something bigger than I had before."

Georges received an $88 loan from Fonkoze, Haiti's largest microfinance institution. She decided to invest the money in a small business selling chicken and oil. Reunited with her children, who she has taken out of a temporary shelter, she said she is confident she can feed them each day. "I feel much happier and healthier," she said.

When disaster strikes, many relief organizations and humanitarians respond by sending money and other forms of aid to the affected region. Haiti is a particularly vulnerable country, prone to an ugly combination of natural disasters and political unrest. And yet few organizations tap into the nation's greatest resource, one that has withstood every hurricane and dictatorship: the Haitian people.

"Haiti's most important asset is its own people -- 10 million creative, hardworking people," said Charles Ries, vice president of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, a joint effort formed after the earthquake by the two former U.S. presidents. "Aid-dependent support is not sustainable. Ultimately, the international community loses interest, donations go to another, more recent disaster. What Haitians need is the capability of building businesses that are sustainable and that link together to form a growing economy."

Microfinance organizations like Fonkoze operate with the stated goal of helping Haitians achieve just that. Founded in 1994 and run largely by Haitians, Fonkoze prides itself on being "the alternative bank for the organized poor," a financial institution that focuses on an otherwise-underserved population, CEO Anne Hastings said.

The group operates an array of programs for clients in varying levels of poverty, Hastings said, starting with what they describe as the ultra-poor, those who have no form of income and few job skills. Field workers trek into rural communities to seek out such individuals, mostly women with multiple children to support, and get them started with basic training, counseling and other resources.

Their clients must stay on a regimented course for 18 months, achieving milestones like enrolling their children in school and learning about nutrition and money management, before receiving any type of loan to start their own business, Hastings said. Once they demonstrate success, they receive a small sum of money to invest in such an enterprise. Along the way, Fonkoze tries to develop support networks and credit centers to further train and empower these women.

Experts are quick to tout the success of more single-minded microfinance programs -- giving poor individuals loans to start businesses off the bat -- but Fonkoze's leaders and allies stressed the importance of months of individual training for their poorest clients before providing them with capital.

"Microcredit is debt, and debt is not the right instrument for people who have no income," said Elizabeth Littlefield, CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a government agency that helps American businesses invest overseas and has done extensive work in Haiti. "Finance can expand economic opportunities, not create them. We must first give these individuals the mechanisms to steady and ready themselves so they can eventually expand."

Despite significant setbacks in resources after last January's earthquake, Fonkoze reports say the organization has managed to help thousands of families in the past year, many of whom were forced from the urban centers they knew into more rural territory. Both OPIC and the Clinton Bush Fund are among Fonkoze's investors.

Fonkoze has also recently rolled out a microinsurance leg of its programs, which promotes the use of property insurance.

Other programs that tap into the skills of Haitian people have also met with success. Architecture for Humanity, for example, provides the tools to help empower local architecture and design communities to rebuild structures on their own. And Grameen Foundation, an international non-profit that works to further the principles of microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus, supports several institutions in Haiti.

The tragic earthquake and its aftermath have undoubtedly had a devastating effect on Haiti and its people. But success stories like those of the women who work with Fonkoze form a thread of hope amid calamity. "Very few of us who know Haiti haven't fallen in love with the spirit of the Haitian people," said Joia Mukherjee, the chief medical officer of Partners In Health, an international medical charity which operates in Haiti.

Such a spirit resonated at Fonkoze's earthquake-anniversary benefit in New York City this week, which a number of survivors attended. From the choruses of Creole chants and traditional songs to the laughter and stories of hope from the field that characterized the evening, the benefit made a compelling case that Haitian society won't allow itself to be defeated by political or environmental unrest.

"These aren't changes you see overnight," Hastings said of her clients' progress. "But oh my gosh, when you see their transformation over six months, two years ... it's just amazing. It's really powerful."

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UPDATE: This story corrects an earlier version that stated Grameen Bank had efforts in Haiti. It was Grameen Foundation, not the bank.