Little By Little
When’s the last time you threw a party to commemorate a withdrawal from your savings account? Composed a song to celebrate your banking system? Invited the whole community for drinks and dancing to flaunt the miracle that is your credit card?
Never? Me, neither. But here in Haiti, I got to go to a party this week that had all of those things. For the 29 women and 1 man in the Nan Iakou Village Savings and Loan Association, their first withdrawal from their own credit and savings system was a momentous occasion. As we came in, they were singing a song they had written themselves to commemorate the big day. They sang:
Little by little, we’ll get there.
With our own strength, we’ll get there.
Little by little, even if our lives change, we’ll get there—with our own strength.
Little by little, we’ve made miracles—with our own strength.
Nobody gave this to us. We’ll get there with our own strength.
We can count on ourselves—with our own strength.
Little by little, we'll get there.
Little by little (TipaTipa in Haitian Creole), is also the name for a VSLA—a system that helps communities set up to manage their own savings and loan programs. So they were really singing, “With the VSLA, we’ll get there.” I have never felt so strongly about my bank that I wanted to sing about it. I don’t remember the first withdrawal I ever made from my own bank account, either. Putting savings into a bank and being able to get them back out is something I have always taken for granted. But for Nan Iakou, they have never been able to take savings for granted.
Gislene Louis stood up in front of the whole group to testify her appreciation.
“I wasn’t going to invest in the Village Savings and Loan Association. I have tried other kinds of microcredit before, and I always ended up losing my money. I’ve never been able to get anything back. So when they announced a VSLA training, I wasn’t going to come. I didn’t believe it could work. My son said, “Mama, you should go try it.’ So I came. Now, I never want it to end.”
For most of the people there, it was the first time they have ever had their own savings. The first time they had ever put money into something and gotten a return on their investment. I can hardly imagine how momentous that must be, but looking around the faces of the group, I began to get an inkling.
A lot of women had huge smiles on their faces as they signed the slip to show they had gotten their money out. Many were singing and dancing. And one woman sat down quietly, clutching her envelope of money, with tears streaming silently down her face. After a minute or two, she took a deep breath, wiped her eyes, put her money firmly in her purse, and stood up to testify.
“I don’t owe anyone for this. I did this myself—we did it together. I don’t have to pay interest to a loan shark, and I don’t have to buy food on credit anymore. I don’t have any debts. This is my money, and I’m going to use it to start a business selling peanuts.”
This fierce pride in doing it themselves, on seeing change that they created, goes against everything every pundit has ever said about Haiti and development in general. These women aren’t waiting for someone else to bring them something. Instead, they can’t wait to keep the changes happening. They’re determined to save even more next year.
I checked to see how much money people had earned this year. Each woman received about $100, after saving about 40 cents every week. It may not sound like much, but $100 is the average annual income in rural Haiti. Adjusted for US income, it’s as if I had suddenly earned $42,000 all at once, just by putting my mind to it and putting away a little every week. As Blanc Milie—another VSLA member—told us “It might as well be a million dollars.”
I might start writing a song, too.
About the Program: In August 2013, the USAID FFP funded Kore Lavi program was launched to support a Government of Haiti led social safety net to improve access to food and nutrition for the most vulnerable households in Haiti. In addition to food vouchers for a social safety net, the program conducts nutrition training, helps communities start microcredit associations, and provides food supplements to pregnant women and chidren under 2. The program works through the partners CARE, World Food Programme, Action Contre la Faim, World Vision, and the Ministere des Affairs Sociaux et du Travail (MAST) to accomplish its goals. This program is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of CARE – Haiti and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.