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Professor sees hope and innovation among rubble in Haiti

By Susan White

Seven months after a devastating earthquake rocked Haiti, recovery efforts continue, but among the remaining rubble are glimmers of hope and signs of innovation. Mat Despard, a clinical assistant professor at UNC’s School of Social Work, got a glimpse of both this summer during a volunteer trip to assist a Haitian-run organization that offers business training and health education to some of the country’s most fragile families.

Despard traveled in early August to Lamardelle, a rural farming village about 20 miles east of Port-au-Prince, and home to Fondation Enfant Jesus (FEJ), a small nongovernmental organization (NGO) that operates a school and an orphanage. Among other projects, FEJ also manages a microenterprise program, an initiative that has begun to flourish in other developing countries as a means for helping the poor lift themselves out of poverty.

FEJ officials requested Despard’s assistance in evaluating their program, which may expand this fall. About 115 women have participated thus far, but officials are seeking a grant to enroll a new group of about 200, including 100 displaced by the January earthquake.

Despard, whose interest and expertise are in nonprofit issues, said much of his eight-day trip focused on helping the foundation document the services that the microfinance program offers, defining the women who have participated and teaching staff how to evaluate their own programs so they can be more self-reliant.

“I also helped get some idea — from the women’s point of view — what the benefits of the program have been and how their quality of life has been impacted,” he said. “It really is very, very innovative.”

Generally, microfinance programs work by offering the poor small loans for business startups with the hope that in time, they will become economically stable. FEJ’s program began several years ago and targets single mothers who have a child enrolled in the foundation’s school. These women are trained in basic business concepts, such as supply and demand and cash flow. The goal is to offer each the tools she needs to successfully buy and sell goods within her own community. After completing the business training, the women are loaned the equivalent of $100 U.S. dollars to purchase the goods they have chosen to sell in their villages. Most sell basic staples, such as rice, sugar and cornmeal. Participants are expected to repay the program about $3 per month, although they generally receive about a 70 percent subsidy, Despard explained.

“It’s really about introducing them to the idea of microloans and repayments, so they can begin to habituate to that practice,” he said. The program, he continued, is “very much a story of grass roots community economic development.”

“Here in the U.S., we’re so used to trying to help low-income people and our assumption is, well let’s just help them get a job with a living wage and benefits and so forth. You really have to flip that in a context like Haiti where it literally is people engaging in trade with each other as micro-entrepreneurs.”

Although he was unable to fully evaluate the program based on time constraints, Despard said he still discovered successes and challenges. Most notably, he found that many of the women felt more empowered and more engaged in their communities after participating in the program.

Despard attributed these benefits to the heavy dose of health education that the women also receive. As part of their training, program participants learn about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as the importance of birth control, clean water and nutritional foods. Despard found that many of the women eagerly shared this information with neighbors.

“And they talked a lot about the understanding that they have legal rights,” he added. “One thing that came through is they would say, ‘I know I have a right to have a business. I know I have a right to have assets, and I also know that abuse is wrong and that a man has no right to hurt me.’ They spoke of those basic human rights principles.”

Long-term, Despard said he advised FEJ’s leaders that they will need to help the women diversify their business prospects so that they do not end up competing for the same products and market. Officials must also determine how much of an investment is needed to truly help the women become more self-sufficient, he said.

“But the one thing I’m learning really quickly is that NGOs, especially the smaller ones in developing countries, do things incredibly efficiently,” Despard said. “There aren’t big managerial salaries. It’s very bare bones, but in the value that’s delivered to the women, it’s pretty obvious and apparent.”