Monthly Archives: May 2014

Why Village Savings and Loan Associations work better for Plant With Purpose

While in Haiti I visited several of our 76 Haitian VSLA groups.  After first using this system in Tanzania in 2006, we have gradually adopted it throughout our programs, phasing out all of our more traditional microcredit work.  Like many of our country directors, I was skeptical at first, but began to see why, for us, it was a much better system.  It has been nothing short of revolutionary.  Here are just some of the ways it has been better.

  • Sustainable – VSLA groups are more sustainable than traditional microfinance. In a traditional system we would need to stay in the community and be the banking institution for the foreseeable future. In VSLA, the community fulfills that function themselves. This allows us to truly graduate communities.
  • Conducive to Relationships – It changes the relationship with our staff. No longer are they seen as the loan collectors, to be avoided or feared. Instead they are freed up to offer training, empowerment and ministry to the community members.  I have often characterized this as moving from collection agents to coaches.
  • Low Cost – The cost per client is far lower, especially in a rural setting, making it more cost effective when working with very poor clients. Thus we can impact far more clients for the same price.
  • Repayment Rates are Higher and Loans Easier to Collect – Because the money comes directly from the community, they take repayment much more seriously than they would if it came from a foreign or even local NGO.
  • Encourages Mutual Support – Because the success or failure of someone’s business directly impacts the return on the savings of all the other members, group members will often come alongside borrowers to ensure their business ventures succeed.
  • Empowering I – The interest accrues to the savings accounts of the group members rather than paying for the overhead of the institution. Hence more money and benefit remain in the community.
  • Empowering II– People see the money as something they have raised and become very excited at realizing their power. The testimony from the communities as they realize these are assets that they have had all along is absolutely amazing. New groups are often forming faster than we can train them.
  • Builds Leadership – Since the communities run the system, many more community members get to exercise leadership than in a traditional system.
  • Provide Savings – For the very poorest and for the less entrepreneurial a secure place to save money is of far more immediate use than a loan.
  • Foster Good Habits I – Many farmers experience only one or two “paydays” per year, so without a good place to save that money, it is often spent on the lottery, alcohol or put to other even less desirable uses.
  • Foster Good Habits II – Small fines keep members attentive and coming to meetings on time. This has dramatically affected behavior outside of the groups as well.
  • Provide a Platform for Further Training – The tight knit groups that we work with also provide a perfect platform for teaching agriculture and business skills.

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Haiti Cherie

One of the things people most often know about Haiti is the fact that from the air you can see the border of the Dominican Republic by where the trees stop. There are some very celebrated photos that show this to often be the case.

However, while that is true in many places, it is not universally true. In fact, where we work in Fonds Verrettes, the reverse is true.   Fonds Verretes is on a tree-lined ridge in the mountains above a Dominican desert. As I explained to our guests on this recent trip, you can tell approximately where the border is by where the trees end.

Haiti_dr_trees_JPG (1)

Furthermore, much to the surprise of those who believe that Haiti has no trees, we usually stay just up the road in the middle of a gorgeous pine forest, Foret des Pins. Foret des Pins is a place of almost surreal beauty, as the morning sun filters through the tall pines illuminating the abundance of bromeliads. Foret des Pins has the potential to be a tourist destination, if the road were not so difficult.

Photo : Srdan Slavkovic & Audrey Goillot – UN/MINUSTAH

Photo : Srdan Slavkovic & Audrey Goillot – UN/MINUSTAH

On this trip, we stayed in a lodge built in the 1940s. The roof leaks like a sieve, creating community in unexpected ways, as we continually shifted our mattresses to find the dry spots. It can also be quite cold at night, defying another expectation, and making the large fireplace quite welcome. According to the Ministry of Agriculture workers who briefed us on the history of the forest, the lodge and surrounding cabins, which today are often used for visitors, were originally built to house loggers.

Indeed logging and more recently agricultural encroachment have reduced the area of the forest to a mere fraction of its former size. A large and growing town is carved out of the center of the forest just a few hundred yards from the lodge, although you might never know it was there.

As we have recently learned, this area is also home to the endangered Black Capped Petrel, which provides yet another reason for working to harmonize the conservation of this forest with the needs of the local people. And it provides yet another reason, as if I needed more, to love this amazing and fragile place called Haiti.

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Going to a Tropical Island

I am heading to Haiti in the morning. It will be my first trip in…well, too many years.  Preparing for the trip has given me some great opportunities to remember our history there, including the very first exploratory trip we made in April of 1995.  We had come at the invitation of Pere Albert, a local Episcopal priest and one of the most remarkable people I had ever met.  Here, from something I wrote a dozen years ago, is a description of that first meeting:

I had no intention of getting involved in Haiti, but after twenty-four hours with Pere Albert I knew I had no choice. We sat around a table far into the night, our faces illuminated by a propane lantern, while Pere Albert described the local struggle for survival. I learned how he had almost single-handedly founded thirty schools in the parish and was now responsible for the education of over 11,000 children. In the morning we paid a quick visit to some of the nearby fields where farmers eked a living from the rocky mountainsides.


We couldn’t stay long. Mike had a flight out of Santo Domingo the following morning and we had to make it back to the Dominican border before it closed at 7:00 PM. As we prepared to leave, a couple of locals produced some plastic bottles with gas and put a few gallons in the truck. Then Pere Albert called out something in Creole and instantly a crowd of children surrounded us. On cue they sang a hymn, a cappella and in perfect harmony. The dirt road, overhung by trees, became an ethereal chapel, filled with sweet voices. I realized that I had no choice but to get involved in Haiti.


As they finished, Pere Albert turned to me and asked if we would sing. I looked at Mike and Eldon and reflected on our linguistic challenges, to say nothing of the fact that I had been asked to lip-sync or quit when I was in youth choir. We declined. Instead we prayed and said our good-byes, making it back to the border with one typically surreal incident. Passing through Croix des Bouquets, east of Port-au-Prince, we became momentarily lost, and were helped back to the highway by a dozen very young boy scouts in uniform, following their leader, who was also in uniform and carrying a troop flag.

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