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GROUP MEMBERS: Marie Pierre, Jezula Jaques, and Benita Bien-aime (from left) outside the church they attend.
Photo by Jamie Dean
GROUP MEMBERS: Marie Pierre, Jezula Jaques, and Benita Bien-aime (from left) outside the church they attend.

Bearing fruit

Hope Award | International winner: HOPE International’s effort to help Haitians learn to save money looks beyond financial returns

Issue: "Bright or rotten idea?," Oct. 5, 2013

BELLADERE, Haiti—In a remote town in central Haiti, a set of concrete steps leads off a dirt road, down a steep hillside, and into a one-room church furnished with low, wooden benches and a single light bulb.

Descend the church’s broken steps on a Tuesday evening and you’ll find 21 residents of Belladere sitting in a semicircle and talking about money—a limited resource in the impoverished border town.

The group members meet once a week to save money and occasionally lend their pooled resources to fellow members. It’s a simple process, but it offers profound results: Haitians with scant resources learn biblical principles about meeting their own needs—and helping others—apart from foreign handouts.

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As a heavy downpour pounds on the tin roofs of small homes outside the church, group members discuss what they’ve learned from a Bible-based curriculum. “Discipline means you have to respect your commitment before God and man,” says a local bean farmer. “It might be hard to have discipline, but by the grace of God we are not alone.”

That’s a core message of HOPE International, the U.S.-based organization coordinating savings groups in churches in Belladere. The Christian organization serves thousands of clients in a network of savings groups and microfinance institutions in 16 countries around the world. (The organization began its work in Ukraine, and participating countries now include Russia, China, India, Peru, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Burundi.)

In northern Haiti, the group helps coordinate microfinance projects, making small loans to help Haitians with small businesses. In southern Haiti—and here in central Haiti—the group focuses on programs that help Haitians save money they’ve already earned and lend to each other.

For more impoverished communities like this one, the savings model is a more realistic option than the burden of repaying a loan from an outside source, and it reduces the danger of dependency on outside aid.

Charities around the world promote savings groups among millions of clients. But HOPE’s approach is distinct: The group emphasizes saving money in a Christian context to bolster local churches and address the spiritual roots of poverty.

In the Tuesday night savings group, as rain still poured from a dark sky, a Haitian facilitator prayed and read a passage from Ecclesiastes 4: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.”

Though WORLD usually chooses small, indigenous organizations as international finalists in our annual Hope Awards contest, this year we recognize a large organization helping Haitians and others implement biblical teaching for themselves.

Gaining a good reward for toil eludes most Haitians. With more than 80 percent of Haitians living below the poverty line—and 54 percent living in abject poverty—Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Between 1998 and 2008, donor countries sent Haiti nearly $5 billion in aid—more than double the world average, per capita. Many aid groups have done admirable work in a country plagued by a complicated history, government corruption, and natural disasters. But even the country’s former president René Préval acknowledged a perplexing reality before the earthquake: “Charity has never helped any country escape underdevelopment.”

Underdevelopment extends to areas outside the capital city of Port-au-Prince. A hundred miles north in Belladere—one of three main border towns with the Dominican Republic—poverty is high and services are few.

In this context, it’s difficult for many Haitians to imagine saving any of the little money they earn. That’s why Widmy Mervilus climbs into a black Nissan Pathfinder and rumbles across the rutted roads of central Haiti at least twice a week.

Mervilus—a Haitian-born pastor of a Reformed Baptist church in the Dominican Republic—lives less than an hour away from the Haitian border. He works for HOPE International as an overseer of 167 savings groups in Belladere and the nearby town of Mirebalais. (HOPE coordinates 293 savings groups across Haiti, with more than 6,000 members.)

After HOPE identifies local churches interested in savings groups, Haitian pastors recommend church members to work as local facilitators. Four facilitators in central Haiti have attended HOPE-led training and worked with local churches to develop savings groups of 18 to 25 members.

Each group elects officers and meets once a week to track the money they save. Some groups simply save money. Other groups accumulate savings and make small loans to members.

The groups pray and sing hymns, and they study a Bible-based curriculum developed by the Chalmers Center at Covenant College. The material emphasizes physical poverty has spiritual roots, and it encourages Haitians to pursue healthy relationships with God and others. “We don’t only focus on saving money,” says Mervilus. “We focus on glorifying God through the process.”

Follow this year’s Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition and vote for the ministry you believe deserves the 2013 award .

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