Recovery and Education in Haiti

  • Posted on: 31 July 2010
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

In the weeks to come, I’ll provide updates on recovery efforts in Haiti sector by sector.  Why start with education?  After an emergency or a natural disaster, schools provide an opportunity to protect children physically and psychologically.  It re-establishes a sense of routine, stability, and above all, hope for a better future.  Technical and vocational education will be critical for developing a new generation of skilled workers and leaders. Without educational reform, Haiti’s recovery and long term development will be held back.


When it comes to leadership, Haiti may be on life support but it is still a sovereign country.  That means that the Haitian government, through the Ministry of Education (MoE) is ultimately responsible for the education of its citizens.  However, most would agree that the Ministry of Education has not had the capacity and resources to be a good steward of services.  According to the Haitian Constitution, children have a right to an education.  The reality is that there is not a strong network of public schools throughout the country.  Enrolling in those that exist requires purchase of uniforms and books.  Private organizations and countless faith based groups have tried to fill the gap one school at a time.  Approximately ninety percent of all schools in Haiti today are non public and fee-paying.  Many earthquake affected families who have lost homes and livelihoods are not able to pay these fees anymore.


According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the majority of Haitians live in and around cities, of which Port au Prince is by far the largest.  Although opportunities exist for primary and secondary education throughout Haiti, a university education largely depends on moving to Port au Prince.  The only rural university in Haiti is Fondwa, an innovative (but perpetually cash-strapped) institution devoted to service learning in rural areas.  Given the number of schools in and around Port au Prince, it is not surprising that 4,992 schools were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake.  According to MINUSTAH, this represents 23% of all schools in Haiti.  1,527 educational personnel are documented as having died during and after the earthquake.  This is not an easy context within which to reform a fragmented education system.  If you are interested in learning more about education in emergencies, take a look at the Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) Guidelines.


Haiti had one of the worst educational systems in the Americas prior the earthquake.  The lack of a human resources strategy remains a fundamental issue.  Teachers often go several months without being paid.  Many of the best and the brightest seek opportunities outside of the education sector if not out of the country entirely.  Pedagogy is another complication.  Education for many Haitian students means rote memorization, for the most part in a language that they (and their teachers) do not fully understand.  Social problems are not discussed and critical thinking is not encouraged.  The Socratic Method, with few exceptions, is not applied.  For better or worse, Haiti inherited a French model of education.  While education in France has changed a great deal over the past 200 years, in Haiti it has not.  Observing a class in a Haitian school sometimes feels like travelling back in time.


A strong educational system requires a strong (read: effective and accountable) MoE.   It needs to provide leadership not just in Port au Prince but throughout the country.  This requires setting priorities, developing plans, and articulating them to the Haitian civil society and to donors.  Traditionally, many donors have contributed money for schools but comparatively few have focused on building the capacity of the MoE.  This may change. UNICEF notes that several donors recently visited Haiti and agreed on the importance of: (1) Strengthening the regulatory role of the Government in the Education sector; (2) Developing public-private partnerships to expand access to education for all children; and (3) reform of governance systems within the education sector to ensure quality services.


Building the capacity of the MoE is going to be a long-term process.  It could be sped up to a certain extent by bringing in talent from the Diaspora and consultants from countries with a strong track record in education.  In the meantime, UNICEF notes schools that were not affected by the earthquake recently held end of year exams.  Classes are continuing in affected areas and end of year exams will take place in early August.  A special curriculum was developed for the many students who had their education interrupted to ensure they would not have to repeat their studies.  UNICEF is also providing children and teachers with supplies and learning materials.  These distributions will take place throughout the county until October when the next school year begins.  UNICEF is setting in place a summer school program targeting adolescents and children above primary-school age in sixty schools.  Pending approval by the MoE,  UNICEF’s strategy is to expand semi-permanent schools in order to ensure there are enough classrooms to enable attendance in school in October.  The first semi-permanent school was inaugurated on the site of the Ecole Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours in Bel-Air. Next, UNICEF would then transform temporary structures into more durable semi-permanent schools.  Finally, the structues would be upgraded to permanent schools.


Until the MoE can assume a leadership role, the heavy lifting falls upon the members of the Education Cluster in Haiti.  Essentially, the Cluster Approach is a model for responding to natural disasters and conflicts that is intended to be more transparent, accountable and predictable.  When in place, different UN organizations assume responsibility (ideally with or under the affected government) to coordinate actors in key sectors.  The World Health Organization (WHO) usually coordinate health actors, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) coordinators early recovery activities, the World Food Program (WFP) coordinates food assistance and so on.  UNICEF and Save the Children co-chair the education cluster globally and in Haiti.


There are 100 education cluster partners operating in Port au Prince, Leogane, Jacmel, and Ti Goave.  Examples include World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, the Digicel Foundation, and local actors.  Partners have also established working groups focused on the development of teacher training, psycho-social support, curriculum, early childhood development, disaster risk reduction, contingency planning and reconstruction.


According to UNICEF, Education Cluster partners have provided to support to 80% of the remaining schools in earthquake affected areas.  Over 200,000 learners have been provided with basic education materials and 1,664 school tents have been installed to provide temporary learning spaces for 200,000 students.  Over 2,300 teachers and 3,000 education personnel have been trained, including on psychosocial support and 53,000 pre-schoolers have been provided with learning and recreation materials.  Cluster partners are supporting the MoE to develop norms and standards for school reconstruction, a framework for teacher training on psychosocial support and training on contingency planning.  They are also working with the MoE to help it assume management of the Education Cluster database (Education Management Information System) on affected schools so that it can monitor response activities and outstanding needs.


Significant challenges remain.  Rubble will need to be removed from schools that were damaged or destroyed.  Schools being established at relocation sites need to be accredited by the Haitian government.  Shelter solutions are needed for the displaced who are living on school property because they have nowhere else to go.  UNICEF notes the MoE will need to work with Civil Protection units on school safety and contingency planning as schools are often the only emergency shelters available to vulnerable communities.  Provinces need Universities so that talented youth do not feel they need to come to Port au Prince for higher education. The Dominican Republic has said they will build one university and perhaps other countries will follow suit.   Rebuilding the MoE outside of Port au Prince would demonstrate a commitment to decentralization.  Perhaps the Ministry of Education could be placed in the Grande Anse, the Ministry of Culture in Jacmel, the Ministry of Tourism in Cap Haitian, the Ministry of Agriculture in the Aritbonite Valley and so on.


There are a few stand out organizations and schools in Haiti.  FOKAL establishes libraries throughout Haiti and teaches students the art of debating.  The Digicel Foundation has been constructing schools throughout the country.  Another good organization is the Haitian Education and Leadership Project (HELP), which makes available scholarships for high performing students who would not otherwise have had a chance at a higher education.  The Louverture Cleary School in Carrefour is a respected institution that accept students based on their performance and not on their ability to pay.  The alumni from both organizations, often from some of the worst parts of Port au Prince, have gone on to become doctors, nurses, engineers, and lawyers.  These programs clearly demonstrate that if given the opportunity, Haitian youth can become the new generation of leaders that communities, the private sector, and the government sorely need.


I have a long wish list for improving the educational system in Haiti.  One would be expensive, the other would not cost a dime.  The costly wish is for a scaling up of private/public partnerships so that talented youth can have access to higher education provided that they work for two years in under-served communities upon the completion of their studies.  The cost-free wish is for the formation of parent teacher associations.  Haitian parents make great sacrifices to put their children into school, yet individually they lack input into how schools are managed and their children are tought.  Collectively, they could have a voice in shaping the education of their children.


On a side note, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is based in Paris, has created a program through which French students can send books to the informal settlements (tent cities) in Port au Prince. Libraries are few and far between and books (outside of a few texts that many schools use) can be hard to come by.  There is a proverb that says that a person’s first language is the language of the heart, and the second is the language of the mind.  It makes me wish that Haitians had access to more literature in Kreyol, and that students could be educated in the language that they really know.  Even today, there are so many sensitivities about French.  “Do you speak French?” is often interpreted as “Are you an intelligent person?”  Very few people will admit to not speaking French.  A young Haitian student, perhaps five years old, once asked if I knew French.  When I said that I did not, he grinned and replied, “That means I’m smarter than you!!”  I’m not suggesting Haitians shouldn’t learn other languages, just that the primary language of instruction should be the language that they know.  As second languages, English or Spanish will open up many more opportunities than French.  Haiti is not a European country.  It is a Caribbean country in the Americas whose neighbors speak Spanish and English.  The French speaking countries in the Caribbean have minimal ties with Haiti.  France's relationship with Haiti has improved as of late but is often strained.


Normally, a good place to follow education efforts in Haiti would be the One Response Site.  When I tried to access it today, it was down for maintenance.  Short of that, UNICEF and Reliefweb are the best sources of information.  If you have thoughts on how the Haitian educational system might be strengthened, please feel free to post your ideas in the comments section.




*Photo Courtesy of Panorama


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