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Haitian heroines: women are the backbone of Haiti's market system. But they need help--desperately.

During a visit to Haiti, Daniel Morel, an Associated Press photojournalist, met me at my downtown Port-au-Prince hotel Sunday morning at 5:45. We were going to Sucre, a village about 150 kilometers north of the capital, to cover the opening of the twelve-day Voodoo Festival. We piled our gear into his small jeep. The route to Sucre passed by Cite Soleil and Daniel asked if I had ever been through the slum. The slum is reputed to be the worst in the world. It's the same slum from which Jean-Bertrand Aristide drew much support during his first election as President. The slum occupies about five square kilometers of land (or reclaimed sea swamp) and is the home of 360,000 people.

Daniel tums off the main road onto a trail. The trail, just barely wide enough for the small jeep, winds deeply through the slum filled with row, after row, after row of cardboard and tin shacks made from abandoned sheet metal, driftwood, mud, and cement bricks. Many shacks have dirt floors. There is no running water or sewage system. Open drainage ditches are filled with pungent excrement and garbage. As Daniel drives through the slum, the trail is lined with children and adults. Many wave at Daniel as we drive into holes and gullies and back out again, weaving and threading our way through the masses, through the debris, through the shacks. A track up ahead has ice on its flatbed. A man throws the ice into the dirt. People scramble to chip off blocks of ice to take and sell.

As we drove, I remembered a story a Reuter's reporter had told me about a Western reporter who went into the slum to interview people. The reporter had a translator since 90 percent of Haitians speak Creole. The reporter asked a woman what was her daily budget. The translator refused to ask the question. She knew that if the woman had any money that day she would eat. If she didn't have any money, she would not eat.

A woman who lives in Cite Soleil is an example of how women in the poorest slum in the world want to improve their lives. According to reports of the Trickle Up program, Anita Leroux is thirty-eight years old and has seven children. The father of the first five children died eight years ago. The father of the last two children abandoned the family a year ago. No one knows where he went. Abandonment is common in this neighborhood when men cannot support their family. Anita's economic situation improved, however, through an entrepreneur program designed to help the poorest of the poor. Anita started a business selling candies but has since changed to selling hot food. She cooks fried plantains and fried meat in her house in the early moming then sells it in the market during the day. With a US$50 grant from the Trickle Up program, Anita bought many plantains and a small amount of meat. She spends most of her profits on reinvestment, making approximately four Haitian dollars per day in profits. Five Haitian dollars equals one U.S. dollar. Now, four of her seven children go to school, whereas only three went to school before she had participated in the Trickle Up program. She says her life has improved considerably. She is able to provide more for her children. Her family eats no more than two times per day. Before the Trickle Up program, her family ate at the most once a day. Her method to curb her hunger was to eat her meal in the morning and then go to sleep early in the night.

Survival needs have been the basis for much of Latin American and Caribbean women's organized resistance to their subordination. These needs exist at the individual or family level as well as in the neighborhood or workplace, rather than at the level of large-scale social movements, political parties, feminist groups, or labor unions. For instance, families like Anita's use multiple income strategies, with members engaging in a variety of survival efforts, such as earning wages in the formal sector, growing subsistence produce, trading in the informal sector, or performing unpaid household labor. Women have played an active role in calling for new models of sustainable development. For peasant, poor, and working-class women, the primary concern is survival: escaping war and violence or having ready access to shelter, food, and potable water for their families.

Theoretical frameworks of women and development in Third World countries generally take a dichotomous approach: Women are viewed as either helped or exploited by development, either drawn into employment or excluded from it. In the latter case, theorists relegate women to the role of homemaker and ignore their contributions to the informal economy.

For professional women in Third World countries, they strive for increased political participation and socioeconomic equality. For other women, the topics are sexuality, reproductive rights, and health issues, running the gamut from sex tourism and prostitution, female circumcision, and selective abortion to protection from AIDS and the availability of safe birth control. And, in large parts of the world, with high rates of illiteracy, the basis of economic rights is sought in much-needed education.

The role of women in the Haitian economy is brought to light through examples of their entrepreneurship within their domestic economy. Haitian women can make a difference in their country's economy as they struggle to pull themselves out of poverty.

There are several organizations working within Haiti at the peasant level. One such organization is Fonkoze. Fonkoze is Haiti's alternative bank for the organized poor. It is an economic alliance of peasant organizations, women's collectives, cooperatives, credit unions, Ti Machann (women street vendor) groups, and religious communications, which assists grass-roots organizations in making the transition from political to economic activity by providing financial and technical services to its members. It is dedicated to building a democratic economy in Haiti by strengthening organizations, providing them with the capital and training they need to mount successful income-producing businesses.

Fonkoze is owned and operated by its member organizations, which elect delegates to Fonkoze's General Assembly, where all plans and decisions are made. The General Assembly annually elects a nine-member Board of Directors.

It is a non-profit, 501(c)3, tax-exempt organization. It supports the organized poor of Haiti by raising donated and investment funds in the United States to make grants and loans to Fonkoze. Its Business Development Program provides loan fund investment in businesses in the provinces to (1) keep money and activity in the rural communities; (2) create jobs, (3) prevent further migration to Port-au-Prince; (4) create future leaders; and (5) foster sustainable growth.

About 80 percent of Fonkoze's borrowers are illiterate--often to such an extent that they cannot even sign their names to their loan agreement with Fonkoze. Beginning in 1999, Fonkoze directly linked its micro-credit program for Ti Machann and its successfully tested Adult Literacy and Business Skills Training Program.

Another organization is the Trickle Up Program that provides conditional grants, not loans, of US$100. The program is designed to teach basic business skills and requires accountability. Professionals already in the development field implement the program, so there is not a need to fund headquarters around the world and more of the funds can go directly into the hands of the aspiring entrepreneurs.

Started in 1979, Trickle Up has helped start more than eighty-five thousand businesses, affecting the lives of nearly 500,000 of the poorest people in 117 countries. Nearly two thirds of those helped are women. The founders of the organization believe that people--no matter how poor--have dreams, skills, and the desire to move out of poverty. Often these people lack the opportunity to obtain capital or the training to make a business thrive. The program requires that groups of people work together to start businesses as a way to motivate each other. The conditional grant given in two installments of US$50 is not necessarily meant to cover all the costs of launching a business. It is a catalyst for the start-up, to which the group adds its skills and resources.

Entrepreneurs under this program have bought flour, sugar, and supplies for a baking business. Some have sold homecooked food to laborers in the community. Others buy cloth for clothes, yam for sweaters, and twine for crocheting hats and purses. In some countries, the grant will buy a pig or a goat, rabbits or chicks. Some grants buy seed for farming, or staples to stock a small store or to cover the cost of bicycle repair for the delivery of goods to the market. Vending businesses are the most popular, accounting for more than half of the total businesses started by this program in 1998. Most enterprises are in rural areas. Seventeen percent of the businesses involve some sort of fanning, 11 percent are food processing, 10 percent supply services and products, and 5 percent produce crafts. The program stresses the importance of the businesses to be useful within a community so the entrepreneurs would have a ready market for their goods.

The Haitian program started in 1981. According to the Trickle Up program, retail businesses are the most popular. They include sales of products such as gas and oil, rice, soap, shoes and clothing, cooked food, and peanut butter. An examples of how these small product businesses work include Suzette Amboise of Ferrier who buys used clothing articles in Quanaminthe and cuts them into smaller clothes--one man's shirt can make two women's shirts. Rose Marie Jeune, a widow and mother of five who was living in a one-room hovel in Hatte Bellanger, Verrettes, began a business selling vegetables, and with her aptitude for commerce began to make excellent profits in record time. Now, according to Trickle Up, she has moved to a more comfortable home and can send all four of her children to school.

Altide Durosier lives in Cite Soleil with her daughter, a grandchild, and a niece. She is a widow who lost both legs in an accident. In mid-1999, she began a business selling oil, sugar, and bread. She has paid her debts, grown her business, and has started a savings account. Her daughter has also started a savings account and is studying hairdressing.

Hercile Pierre is sixty years old and has four children. She sells candles, cigarettes, and gas from her front porch. She rarely leaves her house, sending small children on errands for her. Her profits went very well in the beginning. She made about five Haitian dollars per day, but now she's only making two Haitian dollars per day in profits. Profits have gone down because prices have gone up, she says. A downturn in profits has existed for more than six months. Before she started her business she had almost nothing in her house and slept on the floor. With her profits, she was able to buy three beds for her family. She has no savings. She has rented her house now for nearly fourteen years and pays 30 Haitian dollars per month. She is very frail. When asked by Trickle Up as to what she eats, she said she eats sometimes and that she could hardly eat at all before she started her business.

The official Haitian money is the gourde (gde), which has been in existence since independence in 1804. At that time it was pegged to gold. As a result of American occupation from 1915 to 1945, the gourde became pegged to the dollar at the rate of five gourdes for one dollar. Haiti is ranked as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Although the minimum basic needs for a family of five cost $120 per month, 61 percent of Haitians make less than $100 per year. Eighty percent of Haitians fall below the World Bank's poverty level. Haiti has a population of over eight million that is growing at a rate of 2.2 percent annually. Overall life expectancy is fifty-four years; the regional average is seventy years. The total fertility rate is 4.8 births per woman. The mortality rate for children under five is 116 per thousand live births, which is more than twice the regional average. Malnutrition affects half the children under the age of five.

In the public sector, only 20 percent of resources go to rural areas, where approximately two-thirds of the Haitian people live. Peasants make up 70 percent of the population and will have a key role in any recovery strategy for Haiti. The examples of women entrepreneurs may seem small in light of such extreme poverty but by listening to the voices of the women and their experiences we can learn what may be important in the Haitian economy. Traditionally, women have negotiated much of the informal, domestic economy.

Women dominated the market by going to both coastal and interior towns (or to their peripheries) to deliver produce through an intricate and efficient system that, until recently, provided a large share of the urbanites' food. They then take back to the majority who remain in the villages most of the imported items the villagers consumed. Through such daily or seasonal to-and-fro, repeated for generations, the peasants mounted the ramparts of the cities.

The strategic person in the marketing system for agricultural products is the Madam Sara, who is the Haitian counterpart to the West African "market mammy." She is the traveling intermediary who connects the countryside with towns and cities. Madam Sara is a wholesale dealer who follows a regular geographic route and deals with customers with whom she has established close and reliable contacts. Her network of reliable trading partners tends to stick to a given geographic route, moving upwards and downwards in the hierarchy of marketplaces. This usually gives them more opportunities to use the same contacts both as buyers and sellers.

Often Madam Sara carries a limited number of products, where one crop is the main item and the others are sidelines which she can fall back upon, should something exceptional happen to the demand or supply of her regular staple. She usually employs the services of trackers who regularly go back and forth between determined geographic points in the country. Many Madam Sara employees are agents who trace the produce among the peasants before it gets to the market to ensure that their employer is not without stock when leaving the marketplace.

The retail level of the marketing system is represented by another group of women, the revendeuses. These women either obtain their stock from the Madam Sara, from the family farm, or from other peasants. The division between revendeuses and Madam Sara is not a rigid one. Under certain circumstances, the Madam Sara may turn to retailing, but then certain revendeuses go on trips in the countryside, in the same manner as the wholesale dealers do---only on a more infrequent and irregular basis. Often the ambition of the retailers is to become wholesalers (which requires more capital). The name comes from that of a migratory bird that flies from place to place and never fails to find its food wherever it might be. The term also is derogatory, since this bird is known to pillage the peasants' crops.

The Madam Saras and revendeuses have networked the provinces with the urban centers. However, as violence in Haiti escalated, more and more routes to economic improvement for the peasant were closed. National programs did not include reforestation to replace the massive cutting and burning of trees to provide charcoal for cooking. Only 20 percent of the land is arable and the majority of the mountainsides have a slope greater than 20 percent, increasing the difficulty of farming production. Haiti is about the size of the state of Maryland. Its national population density is 250 people per square kilometer.

In the public sector, only 20 percent of resources go to the rural areas, where approximately 70 percent of the Haitian people live. Per capita health spending, both public and private, is about US$21, compared to US$38 in sub-Saharan Africa and US$202 in Latin America. Under investment in human capital and the poor quality of government expenditures are major factors in the lack of basic health care and education programs in the country.

In 1991, the military staged a coup throwing Haiti into another political turmoil. The three years following the coup were marked by import and export embargoes, the suspension of foreign aid which amounted to over US$150 million per year and the freezing of assets abroad. There were huge job losses in the formal sector of fifty thousand and similar losses in the informal sector. Foreign exchange earnings plummeted. Electricity and telephone systems deteriorated. Prices for foodstuffs and other essential items skyrocketed. The only areas that benefited were contraband and drug smuggling.

In 1994, Haiti obtained a constitutional government. There was a concerted effort to improve macro economic management and to initiate reforms aimed at removing constraints to growth and reducing high levels of inflation. The main economic problem was chronic low agricultural productivity. Gross domestic product fell almost 30 percent between 1992 and 1994. Agricultural production and exports also plummeted during this time. Haiti also lost much of its tax revenues that further deteriorated the country's economic situation.

Agriculture makes up 32 percent of GDP and employs over two-thirds of the nation's workforce. Coffee is the main cash crop. Sugarcane production has decreased because of the increase in the country's population, which has pressured farmers to switch to subsistence crops. Almost all agriculture in Haiti is currently subsistence. The average farm size is less than one hectare.

The neglect of the rural world removed a yet uncounted number of workers from both agricultural production and food distribution. The subcontracting industries use a primarily female labor force. No one has yet established any systematic correlation between the use of a largely female labor force by subcontracting bosses, and the decline in the production and distribution of foodstuffs in the course of the last few years. But even if it could be proven that none of the day laborers at the Delmas industrial park, an outlying area of Port-of-Prince, were taken from the food production network, the idea of wages that were more than ten times the income of the average peasant certainly increased the rural exodus.

The World Bank estimates that Haiti would require an annual growth rate of at least 5 percent to achieve significant progress in poverty reduction. However, negative growth has characterized Haiti in the past several years with no improvement in the foreseeable future.

Is there hope that Haitian women can make a difference in the Haitian economy? Yes, especially with economic organizations willing to invest and train. The women who try believe so. There are traditions that indicate that the women are shrewd marketers and can carry the economic flow of the country. Will that difference be enough to grow the Haitian economy? No, probably not. The population numbers are too great, the land is too starved, and the people are too illiterate to solve the problems with some of the traditional economic solutions. Other creative ways of educating and training the poor to do for themselves will make a difference. And, change will never happen if there aren't the Anitas, Suzettes, Rose Maries, and Madam Saras to make those changes. If survival is the catalyst to motivate these women to organize and to participate in the rural co-ops or the urban vending businesses, then build on that spirit. Haitian women have a history of being successful market people. Give them the tools: education and available resources to let them work, and there will be a difference in the Haitian economy.

Leara Rhodes is an Associate Professor at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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Author:Rhodes, Leara
Publication:The International Economy
Geographic Code:5HAIT
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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