Schools Key to Recovery

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Schools Key to Recovery. Can education lift Haiti out of its mire? By RENE BRUEMMER, The Gazette March 5, 2011

Rea Dol thinks so. Her mother, an uneducated woman of limited resources, raised seven children and sent them all to school. Now Dol runs a school of her own with nearly 500 underprivileged students, many of whom don’t pay tuition, a rarity in Haiti.

She has created a hot lunch program that feeds 700 children daily, a tutoring and housing centre for street kids, and a micro-credit program that gives small loans to dozens of mothers so they can start their own businesses.

“Education, for us, is the basis of all development,” said Dol over the phone from Port-au-Prince, the happy clatter of children reverberating in the background in the learning centre she built nine years ago. The school survived the earthquake when all but three of 300 neighbouring houses collapsed. But they teach outside under tents now, because the children are still scared to go indoors.

“In developed countries, education is a right,” she said. “Here in Haiti, it is a privilege. But not many have the opportunity to have that privilege.”

That education can elevate an individual and a society by improving wages, creating a better understanding of basic health care and imparting a sense of self-worth is well documented.

But in Haiti, a country where 70 per cent of the population live on less than $2 a day, more than 80 per cent of elementary school students must pay to go to class. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere has the second highest rate of private school education in the world. Some parents give up more than half their annual income in the hopes of providing a better life for their children.

Limited access to education ensures the downtrodden majority remains down and the privileged minority retains privilege.

Not surprisingly, Haiti has one of the lowest enrolment rates in the world, with roughly 75 per cent of children attending primary school, a number that falls to 24 per cent in rural areas, and to 22 per cent overall in high school. Of the children who make it in, only one in three will get as far as Grade 6. Only four in 100 will graduate from high school.

Improving Haiti’s education system is seen as crucial to its redevelopment in the wake of last year’s earthquake that killed more than 250,000 and left almost 20 per cent of its population homeless. Michaelle Jean, former governor-general of Canada and now a UN special envoy for Haiti, made a direct plea to the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti two weeks ago to add the overhaul of education to its list of main priorities.

But with a fractured system of roughly 18,000 schools, the vast majority of which operate with no government oversight and provide an abysmal quality of education and one-quarter of which were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake, the question of how to overhaul the system, and how much difference it would actually make to the reconstruction of Haiti, remains deeply problematic.

In both developing and developed countries, better educated workers earn more on average than less well educated ones, notes Princeton economics and public affairs professor Anne Case in her essay The Primacy of Education. Studies have found that each additional year of education can add 10 per cent to a worker’s wages. The increase is even higher in poor countries.

The problem is figuring out whether higher earnings are linked directly to education, or to numerous other factors at work: Do educated children find better employment because they come from wealthier families that can afford to send their children to school, and then have the connections to help them find work? Are children who graduate those who were born with greater ability, and thus would have likely earned more, whether or not they went to school? Regardless of the reasons, “broad-based education of good quality is among the most powerful instruments known to reduce poverty and inequality” and “strengthens nations’ economic wealth by laying the foundation for sustained economic growth,” the World Bank asserts.

The benefits of higher levels of education to health are clear, particularly for women. Reproductive health improves. Child mortality improves because families are better educated about immunization and nutrition. Fertility rates drop, which eases financial strains. Education is “perhaps the single most effective preventive weapon against HIV/AIDS,” the World Bank reports, teaching prevention and because educated women have more options and are less prone to depend on sex or men for their livelihoods. Educated mothers send their kids to school.

Education gives people, especially women, the confidence to let their voices be heard, notes Franque Grimard, associate director of the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University.

“Women who are educated are more likely to become participant in consensual situations, such as showing up at a village meeting and getting their points across,” he said.

Unfortunately, being aware of the benefits does not mean having the ability to partake.

“Education, really, is an investment in the future, but some of these households can’t think five years down the road,” Grimard said. “They have to think of ‘how do I get food on the table today, or next year.’ Most of them understand it’s better in the long run, but they may not be willing to think of the long run because they can’t.”

Children are often needed to work in the fields. If the education offered makes little immediate difference, is of poor quality and is prohibitively expensive or unavailable, the children will not go.

This is the case in Haiti.

Like the farmer who would like to send his children to school but can’t afford it, Haiti has always wanted to educate its offspring but lacked the means or wherewithal to do so. The country’s first constitution, written the year after the world’s first and only successful slave revolt gained its residents independence from France in 1804, stated: “Education shall be free. Primary education shall be compulsory. State education shall be free at every level.”

One hundred years after that proclamation, the state had only built 350 schools that served the children of the political elite, enough for 10 per cent of the eligible population, writes World Bank education specialist Jamil Salmi.

To fill part of the gap, religious organizations built and staffed schools. Later, non-denominational, for-profit schools started to spring up, with the result that today the public system provides free education for only 20 per cent of students, and competition to get into those schools is fierce.

Of the 20 poorest countries in the world, Haiti is the only one with more than 50 per cent of children enrolled in the private sector. In Canada, only about five per cent of elementary schoolchildren go to private schools.

“It should be emphasized that the Haitian private education system has grown by default, one could almost say by despair, rather than by deliberate intention of the state,” Salmi wrote.

The result is a system where the quality of education a child receives is directly linked to the level of tuition its families can afford, which leads to “tragic social and human implications,” Salmi wrote.

For those who don’t have the money for the better private schools, where annual tuitions start at $250 and go much higher in a country with an average annual income of around $750 -the quality of education is poor. Only one-third of teachers in public school are graduates of teacher training colleges, according to Salmi’s report published in 2000. In private schools, the rates were only 20 per cent. The average private school teacher has only a Grade 9 education and makes about $60 a month, making it difficult to attract and retain qualified teachers.

At Rea Dol’s SOPUDEP school (Society of Providence United for the Economic Development of Petionville), which charges only $10 a month in tuition and lets half the students come for free, she can only afford to pay her university-educated teachers $500 a year, which works out to $2.50 a day, half the Haitian minimum wage. The government recently gave the school a $2,600 grant to help pay its 48 teachers and administrators for five months, under a program designed to keep teachers, who hadn’t been paid during the four-month post earthquake shutdown, from fleeing. That works out to $10 per teacher a month. The Sawatzky Family Foundation of Orillia, Ont., had paid for salaries and the school’s meal program for two years, until funds ran out.

The average child in Haiti receives five years of poor education, with the result that more than half the population can’t read. The average Canadian receives 12 years of education that must meet provincial standards.

In the case of Haiti, the key to providing universal education may lie in collaboration and using the international goodwill that grew in the wake of the earthquake to help fund free education.

“An education system requires a system, said international development expert Grimard. “It requires funding, organizations, it requires raising money from individuals to get education up and running.”

As with many of Haiti’s woes, a lack of resources and administration lie at the root of its educational morass.

In Quebec, property owners pay school taxes, whether or not they have children in school, to support the system. Haiti’s lack of formal employment and thus taxation revenue make this impossible. What the country does have is a plethora of non-governmental organizations and private interests filling in where the government can’t. Most are well-intentioned, but the lack of cohesion means nearly 800,000 children out of a total student population of between 3 and 3.5 million are left out of the system.

There has been “a profound failure of collective action in the education sector” between the government of Haiti and international organizations during the last 25 years, said Marcelo Cabrol, chief of education at the International Development Bank (IDB), in an interview with Brendan McNulty, a private-sector development consultant. Grimard refers to the collection of NGOs as an example of “one thousand points of light” that are failing on a national basis because of their inability to come together with a common focus.

Others say the international community and NGOs have not worked because of basic self-centredness.

“I don’t think these organizations really want to co-ordinate with one another,” said Jacky Lamarque, rector of Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince and director of the Presidential Commission on Education, in an interview with McNulty. “There are NGOs more concerned with spending their budgets than producing results. … There is a great mirage here. Lots of people are donating to Haiti, but those resources often don’t reach Haiti. The beneficiary is often the donor (the NGO). They are spending money to elevate themselves.”

Rea Dol started her career as an educator teaching people in their fifties, sixties and seventies to read. She had no intention of opening a primary school, but so many disadvantaged people asked her to educate their children that she started looking around for one of Haiti’s many NGOs to start a school.

None would, she said. She had to start it herself.

Last March, the IDB presented the government with a suggested redesign of the system based on the National Education Plan designed by Haiti’s Ministry of Education in 2007, to bring together several hundred actors in a coalition where “everyone could take ownership of just one part or action, whether that is working on the new curriculum or retraining teachers,” Cabrol said.

In May 2010, the Haitian government gave the IDB a mandate to work with Haiti’s Ministry of Education and National Education Commission to help institute a major reform of the education system.

The five-year, $4.2-billion plan calls for private schools to become publicly funded so children can go to school without paying tuition. The government would cover the salaries of teachers and administrators participating in the new system.

To participate, schools will have to undergo a certification process to verify the number of children and staff at the school, and will receive money to upgrade facilities and buy education materials. To remain certified, schools will have to meet increasingly stringent standards, the IDB noted, including the adoption of a national curriculum, teacher training and facility improvement programs. The plan will also finance building of new schools, and the use of schools to provide services like nutrition and health care.

The plan proposes to have all children enrolled in free education up to Grade 6 by 2015, and Grade 9 by 2020.

The proposal was accepted by the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission in August.

To qualify, schools must be structurally sound, offer free tuition, and must adopt the new national curriculum, which will include annual student testing and two years of mandatory training for teachers, said Sabine Rieble-Aubourg, one of the lead planners for the IDB’s Haitian education plan. The plan is to weed out lesser schools and consolidate many over time, eliminating waste. The average private school has only 100 students.

The plan is admittedly optimistic, Rieble-Aubourg admits, but results have been good thus far, given the short period of time to reconstruct schools and create collaboration among several hundred organizations. Education is held in high regard in Haiti, she notes, which ensures political support.

“The plan gives us objectives, and we should at least try to set the bar as high as we can. … A lot of talent is really being wasted because children are not getting an opportunity, and that should not be. There are so many scientists and doctors and teachers out there that are just waiting to be taught.”

It could take at least five years to see improved buildings and better trained teachers, and 10 years before test scores start rising, IDB officials said.

And Grimard noted that improved education alone is not a guarantee of improved living standards. Sri Lanka completed a successful education overhaul that saw its literacy rate climb to nearly 100 per cent in the early 1980s, but its failure to adapt open-market policies, and its descent into civil war, meant education had little initial effect on wages. Education reforms in Pakistan led to “well-educated housewives” 15 years ago, as social norms prevented women from entering the labour force.

Ultimately, said school owner Dol, it will be up to Haitians to take control and make education their priority for the betterment of all.

“People can help us, but if we don’t work to change the situation, nothing will change,” she said.

The power of schools goes beyond education, she noted. In the wake of the earthquake, with one of the few buildings left standing in her neighbourhood, Dol organized a food centre and health clinic there to feed and heal thousands of Haitians. Her school lost 31 students and two teachers to the earthquake, but it was still able to provide sustenance. Now she gives extra materials to help other fledgling schools, as well as supporting the tutoring services, hot lunch program and micro-finance initiatives at her school.

After dropping to 350 students because many had to move to faraway tent camps, enrolment is back up to 450.

Most importantly, she said, they are changing attitudes.

“One of our recent graduates was planning to go into finance,” she said. “But after seeing all we had done for the people after the earthquake, he said he wanted to study psychology, so he could help his fellow Haitians.

“That’s how it starts.”

[email protected]

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Rebuilding Haiti

Read this story and link to previous articles about Haiti’s reconstruction that examine governance, infrastructure, agriculture and micro-finance in the aftermath the Jan. 12, 2010, quake, at

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