PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Piles of rubble and acres of tents still dominate the skyline of Haiti, a country in which supplies remain scarce, violence sometimes threatens and the struggle for survival continues. But one year after the most devastating earthquake in the country's history, hope looms on the horizon as Haiti's caisse populaires - or credit unions - begin their slow comeback. It's a comeback built on financial assistance from the global credit union movement and the will to once again serve members in dire need.
"Haiti's credit unions have a determination and resolve like none I've ever seen," said Greta Greathouse, chief of party for the Haiti Integrated Financing for Value Chains and Enterprises (HIFIVE) program, implemented in part by World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU). "They are recovering with help from multiple sectors and will no doubt become stronger and more efficient than they were prior to the disaster."
An earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale struck Haiti's southern shore, including the capital of Port-au-Prince, shortly before 5 p.m. Eastern standard time on Jan. 12, 2010. The disaster claimed an estimated 230,000 lives and left an additional 1 million people homeless. Enormous tent communities arose in the quake's aftermath, many of which are still occupied.
Many of the credit unions in Haiti's earthquake zone were damaged and a handful destroyed. Greater problems loomed when balance sheets for even undamaged credit unions began to crumble as borrowers either had died or lost all their assets and were no longer able to satisfy their debts. Some credit unions estimated as much as 70% of their loan portfolios would default, potentially driving the institutions out of business.
The global credit union movement rallied to the cause, in the end contributing nearly $1.2 million to the Worldwide Foundation for Credit Unions, WOCCU's fundraising arm. The contributions were used to buy 175 tents to provide structures out of which the credit unions operated, as well as provide temporary housing for credit union staff. The funds also paid for psychological counseling for staff and helped support some reconstruction costs for qualifying credit unions.
Reconstruction grants drawn from funds raised as well as HIFIVE's own grant fund have been given in varying amounts to three credit unions. Applications from other credit unions are under consideration for a total amount committed of $377,000. Recently, HIFIVE officials presented a $200,000 grant to La Fédération des Caisse Populaires Le Levier, an organization representing 17 of the country's larger credit unions.
Le Levier's grant money will be used to provide balance sheet stabilization loans to its member institutions. As the credit unions pay back Le Levier, the association will create a pool of funds similar to an insurance fund to provide its member institutions with greater stability. Haiti's credit unions currently have no form of insurance.
Not all credit unions are in such dire straits. Mango farmers in Mirebalais benefited this past year from Kredi Mango (Mango Credit), a micro-credit program developed by HIFIVE to provide credit union loans at critical times during the mango growing season. The loans enabled farmers to delay crop sales until they are guaranteed the best possible price. Loans also cover the costs of seed for growing other small-market crops.
This past year HIFIVE also cosponsored Mon Enterprise, Mon Avenir (My Business, My Future), a business plan competition that aimed to inspire Haiti's entrepreneurs to more effectively participate in the rebuilding of their country. The competition attracted 377 participants - nearly twice the anticipated number - and the 10 winners each received US$10,000, as well as additional assistance to support their enterprises. Several credit unions have also stepped forward to provide support to the semifinalists.
"Haiti's credit unions prove what an indomitable spirit the movement has in times of trouble," said Pete Crear, WOCCU's president and CEO, who led an April delegation of credit union officials to the Caribbean island nation to view the earthquake devastation firsthand. "We can be proud of the work Haiti's credit unions have done, as well as the support and goodwill that the global credit union movement has provided. Together, we will turn this situation around."
World Council of Credit Unions is the global trade association and development agency for credit unions. World Council promotes the sustainable development of credit unions and other financial cooperatives around the world to empower people through access to high quality and affordable financial services. World Council advocates on behalf of the global credit union system before international organizations and works with national governments to improve legislation and regulation. Its technical assistance programs introduce new tools and technologies to strengthen credit unions' financial performance and increase their outreach.
World Council has implemented more than 290 technical assistance programs in 71 countries. Worldwide, 56,000 credit unions in 101 countries serve 200 million people. Learn more about World Council's impact around the world at www.woccu.org.