»» 80 percent of higher education institutions were destroyed in the January 12th earthquake, it also estimates that nearly half of the country’s schools have been completely destroyed
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As reconstruction begins on the recently devastated Caribbean island of Haiti education appears a secondary concern to those shattered by the loss of loved ones, homes and livelihoods.
With search and rescue operations officially over, a mere 132 people were pulled alive from the rubble, attention is turning to the distribution of aid and the rebuilding of infrastructure. Measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, the earthquake all but destroyed Haiti’s means of effective coordination; the presidential palace and many government ministries were among the collapsed buildings. With no central point of management, the country and ensuing efforts to aid it remain in chaos.
With more than 1.5million left homeless and the country all but destroyed, looking beyond the immediate effects of devastation is a difficult task. The future of Haiti, however, is a pressing concern. “Haiti can’t have a future without educated children”, Pierre Michel Laguerre, director general of Haiti’s Education Ministry states, “But there has been so much destruction, it’s a big and unprecedented challenge for us”.
The recently bulldozed Education Ministry stands as an ominous symbol for the state of education in Haiti. More than half the country’s schools and all its biggest universities have been damaged or destroyed.
In 45 seconds, the dreams of many of Haiti’s privileged undergraduates shattered. Astride Auguste was late for an examination on the fateful morning of the 12th January. The International Affairs and Management student felt the ground beneath her shake violently. A few miles away Port-au-Prince’s Quiskeya University collapsed. Many of her fellow students and academics lost their lives.
“I can’t believe it” she told The University World News. “This is a nightmare. The year has been lost. I don’t know what I’m going to do now”.
Decades of poverty, environmental disasters, violence, instability and dictatorship left Haiti a failed state: the poorest nation in the Americas.
Haiti has only recently been increasingly successful in the struggle against lack of education and illiteracy. Though only 1% of Haitian’s aged 18-34 enter tertiary education – the lowest rate in the hemisphere – the system was considered one of the best in the Caribbean.
Graduates went on to become lawyers, doctors, accountants and engineers, forging strong international links and working towards an improvement of the 53% literacy rate.
The State University of Haiti recently finished a US$2 million upgrade. It offered services to 13,000 students and employed 700 teachers. The University became an autonomous institution in 1987, severing ties with the government and uncovering itself from the blanket of dictatorial rule.
Universite d’Etat d’Haiti stood at the epicentre of important struggles for Human Rights against dictatorship in the years 1986, 1991-4 and 2002. The University’s website outlines its objective: “freedom of expression, academic freedom, freedom of management, financial freedom and inviolability of the university areas.”
80% of higher education institutions were destroyed in the quake, posing a massive impediment to such progress.
The University of Port-au-Prince, a private institution, situated in the middle class district of the Island’s capital came crashing down. “I was there on the third floor, but I escaped,” said one student, Michelet Saint-Preux, his arm bandaged and a deep gash in his chin. “I lost many friends there.”
The papers and notebooks scattered amongst the rubble and the crowd of students and relatives of the missing are the only remainders of what was once a great centre of hope and opportunity to rise out of Haiti’s poverty trap.
Many of Haiti’s future leaders and thinkers would have perished in the quake. Academia was also hard hit with the death of three of Haiti’s major feminist thinkers, Myriam Merlet, the lawyer Magalie Marcelin and Anne Marie Coriolan.
Conor Bohan, executive director of the Haitian Education and Leadership Programme (HELP) highlights the importance of re-establishing the education system: “Haiti needs to rebuild its educated class, the anchor of every stable economy and society.”
Bohan goes on to comment on the intellectual void left by emigrating graduates: “85% of Haitian’s with a degree have emigrated, the result of Duvalierist anti intellectual repression and 20 years of political instability.” “In short Haiti’s educated class has left and is not being replaced”.
With the country in such disarray the probability of retaining future graduates looks increasingly slim. The government held a meeting to plan a reconstruction strategy. The Haitian Education and Leadership Programme (HELP) is trying to use this opportunity to create a partnership between accredited Haitian universities and those abroad.
“Universities, long the neglected stepchild of international aid for education, need massive investment to prepare tens of thousands of Haitian students to become productive and prosperous members in the global economy,” Bohan said.
Government officials and aid groups said they hoped to overcome the rift created by the independently administered state and private education systems. Recovery appears to provide the opportunity to establish a harmonized system for the country, with a single curriculum, under the lead of the Education Ministry.
With children under 18 making up nearly half of Haiti’s population of 9 million, thousands have been orphaned. The government estimates that half of the country’s schools have been destroyed by the quake. Such a void has destroyed not only the chance of a stable education in the foreseeable future but also a place of protection and continuity for Haiti’s children. Because the public school system is considered poor by many Haitians, 85% of Haiti’s schools are private. But now many of those schools lack the financial and human resources to function properly, if at all.
The state of education in Haiti remains dire. All that remains is to start from the beginning again and rebuild the system that once looked so progressive and promising.