Haiti was in the midst of a struggle for freedom and equality. Its first democratically elected president was living in exile, and a brutal military regime ruled the country. 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.
A group of grassroots leaders – led by Father Joseph Philippe, a Spiritan Priest from Fondwa – envisioned a Haiti where individuals were not only given a chance at political democracy but at economic democracy as well. They had confidence their President, Jean Bertrand Aristide, would soon be restored to power and the military regime would depart. Fr. Joseph recognized that the grassroots movement organized to bring about historic political change could also be harnessed to bring about economic change on behalf of Haiti’s poor.
In 1994, Fr. Joseph – along with 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 Washington DC, an experienced management consultant and business owner, Anne Hastings, was applying for the Peace Corps. Then in her mid-40s, her only son was in college, and she felt something was missing in her life. She was ready to give back in a meaningful way. After being accepted into the Peace Corps and assigned to an African country, a client of Anne’s encouraged her to introduce herself to the Director of International Operations. Once he learned of her working background, he asked her if she had any interest in Haiti. She said that she did, 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. Joseph, and three days later, she received a message on her voicemail: “This is Fr. Joseph Philippe. We are pleased you have decided to work with us in Haiti. You may be the director of our new bank Fonkoze. Thank you.” Soon after that call, Anne found herself face-to-face with Fr. Joseph in Haiti. In the first fifteen minutes of their conversation, she says, “He convinced me that he had more vision than all the top executives that had been my clients in DC put together.” Fr. Joseph pulled a rickety typing table between them, and with paper and pencil in hand, said, “Let’s get to work.” And just like that, Fonkoze was on its way.
In the spring of 1996, Fonkoze organized a conference in Miami to bring together micro-credit practitioners, Haitian-Americans, and Haiti advocates to discuss how Fonkoze should be launched. One of the main topics of discussion was how to finance the work of Fonkoze effectively. From this discussion, Fonkoze USA was later conceived in the fall of 1996. And in January 1997, it held its founding board meeting. Fonkoze USA has been on a mission ever since to raise donated and invested (loaned) funds, increase public awareness about Fonkoze’s empowering work, and facilitate technical assistance to its partners in Haiti.
Fueled by donations and investments from individuals and organizations across the U.S., both Fonkoze in Haiti and Fonkoze USA undertook tremendous growth from 1998-2000. By the end of 1998, Fonkoze opened its first 15 branches (thanks in part to grant received by the Doen Foundation in the Netherlands) and had 101 employees. In the same year, Fonkoze implemented development programs such as literacy and business skills training to accompany its empowering micro-lending services.
In addition to the support Fonkoze received from donors and investors, it also received in-kind technical assistance from dedicated partners such as Arnold & Porter, Fairfield University School of Business and City National Bank of New Jersey. This assistance was key in helping Fonkoze to tackle the learning gap it was facing as it sought to provide high-quality, empowering financial services to the poor.
While the organization had come a long way, it seemed Fonkoze’s dream of sustainability (for the financial services work) was always just out of reach. Through its research, Fonkoze found that other micro-credit institutions throughout the developing world were also dealing with the same dilemma. It was at this time that Gordon McCormick, a Fonkoze USA major donor and Wall Street investment banker, became an active part of the team to shape Fonkoze’s future. He and Anne Hastings both believed that private capital could be accessed to tackle the problem of poverty in Haiti. Together, they set about to do just that by actively visualizing what it would take to create a solid financial base from which the institution could grow. Just as the organization was about to present their vision to the larger community, violent forces within Haiti moved on Fonkoze (Link to Amos Jeannot’s story below).
Despite the struggles Fonkoze had faced in its first ten years, it continued to thrive, determined to carry out its mission to empower Haiti’s poor and disenfranchised. By the end of 2000, Fonkoze was empowering tens of thousands throughout the country. In the span of about two years (between 2000 – 2003), Fonkoze became well known within the microfinance sector in Haiti and began to earn an international reputation for its provision of rural microfinance services. In December 2003, Fonkoze was one of five institutions selected to receive CGAP’s Pro-Poor Innovation Award – out of a pool of 300 applicants.
The institution (or movement) known as Fonkoze was now three separate organizations (Fonkoze Foundation, Fonkoze Financial Services ((SFF)) and Fonkoze USA) with three separate board of directors, teams – and one overall mission: to eliminate poverty in Haiti. Fonkoze Foundation (Fondasyon Kole Zepòl) still managed small, incubating branches and development services; Fonkoze USA continued to raise awareness and funds in the U.S. for the Foundation’s programs; SFF was now strictly providing financial services. As SFF set out to work towards sustainability as a financial institution with a social mission, Fonkoze Foundation was expanding as well, largely due to the invested and donated funds raised by Fonkoze USA. Fonkoze’s literacy and business skills training classes were augmented with education modules on reproductive health, women’s and children’s rights. And a health program was put into place to address the growing malnutrition problem in rural areas.
Fonkoze’s holistic approach to eradicating poverty – addressing its many causes, forms and roots – helps to ensure our impact has a lasting effect. Our clients’ children, for example, are now in a better position to succeed in life, building upon their parents’ progress. And we aim to make this a reality for generations to come.