Background

  • The tent city of Canaan, located just north of Port-au-Prince, is home to more than 30,000 refugees.

    The earthquake in January was a declaration to the world that showed how chronically mismanaged Haiti was.

    The sheer death toll and destruction wrought by the 2010 disaster was undoubtedly shocking. Estimates put the total monetary damage at more than $13 billion USD, to say nothing of the toll taken on human lives — the Haitian government believes that more than 300,000 perished in the disaster.

    Providing for the humanitarian needs of the Haitian people should be a top-priority for aid organizations. However, providing basic aid will only achieve so much in this impoverished country.

    At best, food and medical aid acts as a stop-gap measure to alleviate short-term suffering, said Patrick Moynihan, director of the Haitian Project, a Catholic mission that operates non-profit schools in the Caribbean nation.

    If Haiti is to escape its poverty-conflict trap, it must make serious investments in its education sector for the 21st century — namely, the creation of a free, public and universal school system, a 2006 World Bank analysis reported.

    If the country can’t achieve a universal public education system in 75 years, Haiti will cease to exist as a nation.                                                       — Alzire Rocourt, educational consultant for ProDev Haiti

    “If we can’t achieve this in 75 years, we will disappear as a nation,” said Alzire Rocourt, a teacher and educational consultant for ProDev Haiti, a Haitian NGO based in downtown Port-au-Prince.

    Many observers and international organizations agree: education is the single most important determinant of an individual’s potential to escape poverty in Haiti.

    It’s not just experts who agree.

    “Education reform is the top-priority issue for all Haitians,” said Yves Colon, a Haitian-born journalist and lecturer at the University of Miami.

    A long road

    THERE ARE MANY CHALLENGES AHEAD. THE CURRENT STATISTICS ON school attendance and public investment are not assuring.

    Haiti is ranked 177th out of 186 countries in the world for education spending.

    The Haitian Education and Leadership organization reports that only 60 percent of Haitian children will have a chance to attend primary school. Of that 60 percent, only 20 percent of those go on to secondary school. Worse still, only a mere one percent of those secondary school students will go on to the university level.

    Those privileged few who manage to reach the collegiate level generally flee Haiti to find better opportunities abroad.

    Charles Tardieu, Haiti’s former national education minister from 1990 to 1991, says that Haiti’s poor state of education can be traced to two problems.

    “Education is costly,” he said. “For a very long time, the Haitian government never took financing education seriously.”

    Haiti is ranked 177th out of 186 countries in the world for its total education spending. The World Bank estimates that the country spends about 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product on education.

    Even still, the neighboring Dominican Republic spends a comparably small fraction of its GDP on education, yet it produces a population that is far more educated than an average Haitian.

    Currently, a little more than half of all Haitians over the age of 15 can read or write. Compared to other Caribbean countries, the figure is abnormally low. In the Dominican Republic, there is an overall literacy rate of about 90 percent.

    Barely half of Haitians more than 15 years old possess basic literacy skills. Almost the same number of people live with less than $1.25 USD a day.

    Haiti has no longstanding tradition of public education. Of the 15,000 schools there, more than 90 percent of them are run privately. The few public, government-funded schools are located in highly urbanized areas such as the country’s capital of Port-au-Prince. Tardieu estimates that families will spend about a quarter of their income to send their children to school. “And most of the time, it’s not a very good education,” Tardieu said.

    charles_tardieu

    Charles Tardieu, who publishes textbooks in Creole for Haitian schools, was the country's former national education minister from 1990 to 1991.

    Only the wealthiest in Haiti can afford private schools that offer a European-style education. The majority of private schools in Haiti are not accredited by any national standard.

    Many teachers, Tardieu said, lack basic qualifications to be teaching. Of the estimated 70,000 school teachers in Haiti, less than half are actually qualified.In many cases, these teachers have about nine years of formal education.

    The country’s rural poor are the most affected by the government’s inability to provide a public education.

    Jean-Philippe André, a father of eight, fears that his children are growing up knowing only how to do field work. André lives in the tent city of Canaan, a refugee camp located near the Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport outside of Port-au-Prince.

    A few months ago, Canaan had just one tent school to teach younger children.

    “But it’s gone now,” André said. “All we do now is use our machetes and cut plants in the fields.”

    Observers have gone so far as to give Haiti’s capital the sobriquet of “La Republique de Port-au-Prince.” Indeed, the highest rates of extreme poverty and illiteracy are to be found outside Port-au-Prince. In Haiti’s many rural areas and tent camps, there is hardly any infrastructure or human resources to address problems. A constant stream of migration out of rural areas to the nation’s capital leaves those communities behind in disarray and continues to overcrowd Port-au-Prince, which is now home to almost half the country’s total population.

    AUDIO: Charles Tardieu explains the importance of developing rural Haiti

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    HOWEVER, MOST OBSERVERS OF HAITI AGREE ON ONE THING: It matters not how much money or donations come into the country internationally — it won’t solve the country’s deep-seated problems by itself.

    “We Haitians have to decide that we’re going to rebuild our country, and then we can look for help from other countries,” Charles Tardieu said.

    The Inter-American Development Bank estimates that Haiti will need about $3 billion to achieve the goal of a universal and public education system. The need for reform becomes all too pressing when Haitian demographics are considered, said Maryse Kedar, the director of ProDev Haiti.

    “Sixty-five percent of Haitians are under the age of 30,” she said. “We are in danger of losing an entire generation.”

© 2013 Paul Franz