A decade ago, Haiti was a country in the midst of a struggle for freedom and equality. Its first democratically elected President was living in exile, and the country was ruled by a brutal military regime. The organized rural and urban poor — the hundreds of grassroots organizations that worked tirelessly in the late eighties and early nineties for democracy in Haiti — were especially the targets of repression. Thousands were killed during this time, and many more were living in hiding or constant fear of reprisal.
This is the context of Fonkoze's founding.
The main concern of Fonkoze's founder, Father Joseph Philippe, was that although the majority of poor people in Haiti now knew how to organize themselves politically, they knew nothing about how to organize themselves economically. Even though the people might control who was president, they had no control over who ruled the economy. The poor did not have access to banks or to the financial services they needed to rebuild their lives and their country from the ground up. If you were a poor peasant or “ti machann” (women street vendor), who had no collateral, small banking transaction sizes, and could not read or write, you were not welcome in any of the commercial banks. Where would a coffee cooperative get enough credit to buy and process coffee harvests for export? Where would a "ti machann" get a small loan to buy her merchandise and increase the size of her business? Where could the poor go to open a small savings account, get money transfers delivered to them from their family in the U.S., or be able to convert money into Haitian currency at a reasonable rate?
Clearly, the poor who had organized themselves to gain political power now needed to organize themselves to create a bank they could call their own.
In 1994, the founders of Fonkoze – some 32 grassroots leaders – drew up the official papers to launch their efforts, and in 1995 Fonkoze (Fondasyon Kole Zepòl, or the Shoulder-to-Shoulder Foundation) was officially recognized as a foundation under Haitian law.
At about the same time, in the United States, Anne Hastings was applying for the Peace Corps. An experienced Washington, DC management consultant with a very successful business, Anne felt something was missing in her life. She wanted to give back some of what she had been given. After having been accepted to the Peace Corps and assigned to an African country, a client of hers encouraged Anne to speak to the Director of International Operations at the Peace Corps. After hearing about her background, he asked, “Do you have any interest in Haiti?” Anne replied that she was very interested in Haiti, but the Peace Corps wasn’t working in Haiti at the time. The Director said, “Forget the Peace Corps…I know a priest in Haiti that is doing amazing work.” He convinced Anne to send her resume directly to Fr. Philippe. Three days later, she received a message on her voice mail. “This is Fr. Joseph Philippe,” it said, “we are very pleased you have decided to work with us in Haiti. You may be Director of our new bank, Fonkoze. Thank you.”
Soon after the call, Anne found herself face-to-face with Fr. Joseph Philippe in Haiti. In the first fifteen minutes of their conversation he convinced her that he had more vision than all the top executives that had been her clients in D.C. put together. Anne recalls that he pulled a rickety typing table between them, and with paper and pencil in hand said, “Let’s get to work.” Fonkoze was on its way.
At that first meeting, Fr. Joseph elaborated for Anne many of the principles that were to guide the development of the organization. He explained to her, for instance, that:
- Women constitute the backbone of the economy in Haiti.
- You can’t just give a woman a loan and then send her on her way – you have to accompany her as she struggles to make her way out of poverty.
- All Haitians deserve a chance to participate in the economic development of their country.
- A political democracy cannot survive without economic democracy.
- Nothing in Haiti can be effective without the endorsement and support of Haitians living in the Diaspora, for it is those Haitians who keep the economy of Haiti afloat through the remittances they send home.
With deep commitment to a set of clear principles and a vision for economic democracy in Haiti, Anne and Fr. Joseph began the long journey to create the successful institution that Fonkoze is today. To read more, please download the complete history.