In impoverished Haiti, a Jewish prof advocates for a hand up, not a handout
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Interview'There is something very Jewish about what we’re doing'

In impoverished Haiti, a Jewish prof advocates for a hand up, not a handout

Steven Werlin charts his 20 years on the ground in the poorest country in the Americas in new book 'To Fool the Rain'

Professor Steven Werlin works with the Fonkoze (short for 'Shoulder-to-Shoulder) non-profit to help microfinance impoverished Haitian families. (Courtesy Fonkoze)
Professor Steven Werlin works with the Fonkoze (short for 'Shoulder-to-Shoulder) non-profit to help microfinance impoverished Haitian families. (Courtesy Fonkoze)

In Haiti, where poverty is a pre-existing condition, helping someone become self sufficient makes a bigger impact than another box of toiletries or some second-hand clothes.

“That Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and one of the poorest countries in the world is a fact almost too commonly known to be worth mentioning,” Prof. Steven Werlin writes in his new book “To Fool the Rain: Haiti’s Poor and their Pathway to a Better Life.”

Speaking on the phone with The Times of Israel from his home in Mirebalais, Haiti, Werlin said it’s time to take a long-term holistic approach to the country’s poverty.

“The ultra-poor aren’t often looked upon as people capable of making a decision. We’ve seen that over and over,” Werlin said. “They need support, they need understanding. But the fact that they’re not decision makers right now is more because of circumstances than anything else.”

Werlin has a PhD in philosophy and, until February, was a professor at Shimer College in Chicago. He found his calling — helping impoverished Haitians — nearly 20 years ago when he connected with the non-profit organization, Fonkoze, short for Fondasyon Kole Zepòle. It is the largest micro-financing organization in Haiti that provides small loans to the nation’s most impoverished women, many of whom live on less than $1 a day per household.

‘The ultra-poor aren’t often looked upon as people capable of making a decision’

Werlin first fell in love with Haiti back in 1996 while visiting a former student who was working in the tiny nation. During his stay he stopped in on schools and clinics. It was during one such afternoon spent at an adult literacy center near Port au Prince that cinched it for him. After seeing the women so eager to learn, he decided he had work to do in Haiti.

Fonkoze was established in 1994. The organization’s name translates roughly to the Shoulder-to-Shoulder Foundation. It comes from the idea of its founders that lifting people out of poverty requires solidarity. Anything else is, to use a Haitian proverb “like washing one’s hands and then drying them in dirt.”

Professor Steven Werlin. (Courtesy Fonkoze)
Professor Steven Werlin. (Courtesy Fonkoze)

“In a way there is something very Jewish about what we’re doing. It mirrors the Jewish tradition of going out in the world and finding places that need help,” said Werlin, who grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts.

While Werlin visits his parents in the United States during the High Holidays and during visits on behalf of Fonkoze, he no longer lives there. He now divides his time between a room in a house in Kaglo, a village in the mountains above Port au Prince, and several other residences.

It’s a move he most certainly doesn’t regret.

At one time traveling between Haiti and the US was jarring. He no longer feels the culture shock as deeply, clearly at home in Haiti where he said he doesn’t feel bogged down by trivial things such as being stuck at a traffic light or being late to an appointment.

It’s not that Haiti is without development projects or charity. As Werlin writes, there is almost an overabundance of well-intentioned programs. But most women don’t participate, he said. They either lack the initiative to seek out the programs or aren’t sure how to get into a program. And some women may have had a bad experience.

With the education and small loans provided by Fonkoze, families can farm crops sustainably rather than rely on continued relief aid. (Courtesy Fonkoze)
With the education and small loans provided by Fonkoze, families can farm crops sustainably rather than rely on continued relief aid. (Courtesy Fonkoze)

For example, Werlin writes about cash-for-work programs in the central plateau. These kinds of programs hold appeal for funders because they think they are both improving local infrastructure while paying those in need, he said. But participants often receive less pay than promised — and worse, community leaders often reportedly take a cut of the pay, or dole the jobs out to friends and family who aren’t in need.

For Fonkoze the idea isn’t a handout, but rather a hand up through its program Chemen Lavi Miyò (CLM).

Girls hold hands as they help each other wade through a flooded street after the passing of Hurricane Matthew in Les Cayes, Haiti, Thursday, October 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Girls hold hands as they help each other wade through a flooded street after the passing of Hurricane Matthew in Les Cayes, Haiti, Thursday, October 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

It uses the Graduation Approach, a program that offers training and assets for Haiti’s poorest women who have demonstrated their dedication to lifting themselves and their families from poverty. They work closely with CLM case managers who provide women with confidence building, enterprise management, and life skills training.

Those that graduate from the program feed their children every day, have no untreated malnutrition, live in a house with a good tin roof and have their own latrine. Most or all of the children in a family attend school and the household has at least two sources of income and productive assets worth 40% more than those the program gave them, according to Fonkoze.

Cover, 'To Fool the Rain,' by Professor Steven Werlin. (Courtesy)
Cover, ‘To Fool the Rain,’ by Professor Steven Werlin. (Courtesy)

A 2014 study by international humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide showed that four years after graduation, two-thirds of the participants maintained their situation and one-third continued to make significant progress. Additionally, half of the graduates continued to improve their housing situation, and four times as many were sending their children to school.

Each member also receives a small cash stipend while her fledgling business grows and free healthcare in partnership with Zanmi Lasante, Partners in Health’s Haitian sister organization. To date, 4,642 women and their families in Haiti’s Central Plateau have completed the program and there are currently 850 families participating in the program, according to Fonkoze.

And while there isn’t a one size fits all approach to ending poverty around the world, there are elements of Fonkoze that could apply elsewhere, Werlin said.

“There are differences regarding what works here and what would work in the poor areas of the United States. We benefit in Haiti because the economy is fairly informal. The main strategy is developing people to become entrepreneurs,” he said.

‘The main strategy is developing people to become entrepreneurs’

“In the US its more about creating jobs. But around that there are the same issues and principles of childcare, wellness and community support. Of access to family planning, and pre- and post-natal care.”

Throughout the book Werlin shares stories of people he and Fonkoze have helped. Even today, the story of Orélès and Mirléne stands out.

The couple lives on a mountain ridge above Bwawouj, in the central highlands.

When Werlin first met the couple, they were facing a myriad of problems including sickness, dilapidated housing, a failing arm and most devastating, the loss of a child. Slowly, through CLM, the couple was able to begin raising livestock and get a bean crop together. Most importantly, Mirléne’s mother helped care for their surviving daughter. That freed the young couple to spend time on their burgeoning farm.

“It is rewarding to see a really happy, cheerful couple with happy, playful kids running around,” said Werlin.

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