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.
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.”
Mervilus says the teaching is critical for some Haitians who have valued aid from outside groups but “never believe they have their own potential. That they can do many things.”
Benita Bien-aime aims to do many things in Belladere. The 30-year-old pastor’s daughter lives with her parents in a modest home next to the church she attends with her family.
On a warm afternoon on her front porch, Bien-aime arranges a collection of items on a small table with a blue cloth to sell to passers-by: Small bags of pasta sit next to tiny stacks of canned foods, while a handful of magazines and packaged salami hang from a line across the porch.
Like many in town, Bien-aime is a self-employed merchant, but she’s also the president of a savings group for young people at her church. She says she joined the group because “I knew I needed accountability and discipline.”
The group offers both. Members say they find that meeting and praying with people they know—especially fellow church members—encourages them to continue to participate and motivates them to pay back loans. (Most members do pay back loans, and groups work with those who need more time.)
Though most members have little money, Bien-aime says she’s saved about $75 in six months. She’s used some of her savings to buy a goat and a pig to sell in the market—a common practice among members who use savings to increase inventory to earn more profits.
Bien-aime has used her savings to help her family, and she’d also like to save money to help start a family of her own. But when she talks about personal goals, Bien-aime mostly talks about other people. “They say young people are the future of the church,” she says. “So if the church has a need, we should have the maturity and the economic ability to meet it.” She says her group has learned: “Once you have faith and you apply biblical principles to goals, you can achieve them.”
Pastor Delmond Rondo says his congregation has learned the same lesson. Rondo serves a church nearby and grows animated when he talks about how savings groups have helped members learn to trust and support each other. “Everybody has a little something in their hands, and we’re doing something,” he says. “We’re moving.”
Like most pastors in Belladere, Rondo works outside jobs to support his family. He sells beans and builds steel doors and bed frames. He smiles widely when I ask if he’s in a savings group: “Of course. … If I’m telling people to move forward, I have to be in front.”
The next morning, Dieula Arince is near the front of Belladere’s packed local market. As the hot sun rises, streets fill with merchants selling pigs, goats, soap, toothbrushes, T-shirts, and flip-flops.
Arince is just arriving at 9 a.m., but she’s been awake since 4:30. A member of the Tuesday night savings group, she’s joined her husband in the dark morning hours to harvest bananas from a tree at their home. She strapped the sacks of ripening fruit to a mule and made the hour-long walk into town down the winding, rocky roads.
The mother of three also sells clothes, and she’s used the money she’s saved to purchase more merchandise, allowing her to earn more profit. She says she uses the extra earnings to buy food for her family and pay school fees for her children. (Mervilus—the Haitian overseer—says many Haitian families say their savings enable their families to eat more than one meal a day.)
Arince says she’s learned more about prayer and trusting God during the meetings, and she’s also learned to trust her fellow church members. “We learn how to put our heads together,” she says. “When I am weak, they help me to be stronger.”
Marie Pierre—a member of another savings group in town—sells cold drinks a few stalls away. It’s a smart business in a crowded outdoor market with high temperatures and little shade. Pierre has used her savings to increase her inventory as well, and her son now runs a second stand on the other end of the market.
“I’ve learned about the importance of transparency and doing things honestly,” she says. “And I’ve grown deeper in understanding the Bible even more.”
Though the savings projects operate in a collection of small groups in Haiti, HOPE maintains a big budget to run other savings group and microfinancing projects all over the world.
From his office in Pennsylvania, HOPE president Peter Greer says he realizes the group’s rapid growth demands close oversight to maintain quality on local levels. (The organization posts audited financial statements online and Charity Navigator has given the group a four-star rating.)
HOPE also partners with ministries in other countries to tap into well-established networks of local churches. (In Haiti, HOPE works with the Dominican Republic–based Esperanza.)
Still, Greer says it’s sometimes challenging to help U.S. churches understand the group’s work, especially when it doesn’t involve popular forms of outside involvement like short-term mission trips. “This model has the local church and the local community in the center stage,” says Greer. “We’re the stagehands helping them to do it.”
He says focusing on local leadership and local churches allows the group to maintain a focus on both physical and spiritual needs: “If you’re not having the opportunity to change worldviews and hearts, you’re never going to see lasting change.”
As the sun sets back in Belladere, a few homes and buildings use generators for electricity, but most grow dark. Osene Exumat—another local pastor—leans forward in a plastic chair on a dirt patch in the darkening twilight outside his home.
As chickens peck nearby and baby goats wander into the house, Exumat ignores the darkness and talks about how he hopes savings groups will help his church serve the whole town.
The pastor of 30 years says he’s glad the groups’ good results draw outside interest, and he hopes the material gains will point to spiritual realities: “All those different people have souls that need to be reconciled and to know that Jesus exists and that He has a plan for their lives.”
Exumat also hopes his church eventually can help meet material needs for others in town. He knows their modest savings will only address “a small part of the problems,” but he adds: “It’s still a part.”
Listen to Jamie Dean's report on HOPE International from The World and Everything in It:
• 2012 support and revenue: $13,752,432
• 2012 expenses and program investments: $12,009,072
• Net assets at the end of 2012: $14,363,938
• Executive director’s salary: $139,050
• Staff: 75 in the United States, nearly 250 worldwide
• Website: hopeinternational.org
Microfinance projects designed to help the poor aren’t new: Bangladeshi economics professor Muhammad Yunus launched the microfinance movement in 1976 to help poor populations in India. Since then, the professor’s Grameen Bank has lent more than $7 billion to millions of borrowers in poverty-stricken regions worldwide.
But microfinance differs from savings groups: In microfinance institutions, an outside bank, organization, or charity loans money to poor borrowers to invest in their work as merchants, farmers, or other labor.
In a savings group, local residents accumulate their own savings and lend money to each other. The group members decide how much to save, how much to lend, and the terms for repayment. (And group members may use the funds for purposes other than business—like school fees, medical expenses, and emergencies.)
Both models are popular, but savings groups often work best among the poorest populations unable to repay larger sums. (In some groups, members save money and simply rotate turns taking home the lump sum.) The groups tend to be easier to replicate in other places because they require less outside oversight than microfinance projects.
Aid workers at other Christian organizations, such as World Relief and World Vision, include savings groups in their work among the poor. The Chalmers Center at Covenant College has developed a new savings project in West Africa that includes Bible-based teaching. Individual churches and mission groups also sometimes adapt the idea on a local level.
The indigenous groups offer indigenous opportunities: Christian workers say savings groups in churches provide local congregations a platform for evangelism and spiritual ministry to those outside the church.
Haitian Pastor Widmy Mervilus (see the above story on HOPE International) calls the savings groups “a visible testimony” to the gospel message. And he says some local residents outside the church have begun to “come close” to Christian teaching since the groups began. “Many of these people have given their lives to Christ,” he says. “It’s glorious.” —J.D.