By Richard André, WES Research Assistant
The poverty of education
Two months have passed since the Caribbean nation of Haiti was ravaged by a massive earthquake. The disaster took the lives of more than 250,000 Haitians and caused an estimated $8-$14 billion in physical damage, according to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) . The IDB has deemed the earthquake and its aftermath the “most destructive natural disaster in modern times.” The chaos that descended upon Haiti gripped the attention of international news media and the international community, helping to mount an unprecedented fundraising effort that garnered hundreds of millions of dollars for the relief effort. And yet, in the wake of the short-term rescue efforts, and as Haiti begins to fade from the media spotlight, the most important issue tied to the country’s long-term reconstruction remains largely untouched: Haiti’s education system.
According to a 2006 World Bank report , “Education is the single most important determinant of an individual’s potential to escape poverty in Haiti.” In a country where 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and two-thirds are unemployed or underemployed, social mobility is clearly not easy.1  In fact, the small elite who can afford a quality education often seek it beyond Haiti’s borders. The rest of the country has long been subject to under-funded, under-supplied schools as well as strong socio-economic pressures that make an investment in education more of an obstacle than an opportunity.
Before one can assess the damage done to Haiti’s education system on January 12th, one must first understand the condition of that same system the day before the earthquake struck.
Understanding the past
Prior to the earthquake, Haiti’s education system was characterized by decentralization and a severe lack of resources and qualified teachers. While many students have of course succeeded, Haiti’s sheer poverty and its vulnerability to political unrest and natural disaster have made sustained and directed investment in education very difficult.
The Haitian government spent approximately two percent of the nation’s gross domestic product on education, compared to an average of five percent in the broader Latin America and Caribbean region.2  Of the 15,000 primary schools, 1,500 secondary schools and 12 universities, 92 percent were private, non-subsidized institutions.3  This figure is a stark manifestation of the government’s lack of presence in Haitian society and its historical failure to provide basic social services.
One half of the population (4.5 million) is of school age, and just 50 percent of those of primary-school age were enrolled or attending a school prior to the earthquake, according to UNICEF statistics . There are many reasons for the incredibly poor enrollment rates in Haiti, however the lack of socio-economic incentives and high unemployment rates among high school graduates are often cited. In addition, many families are simply unable to afford tuition for private schools or the uniforms and supplies required for public schools.
The state of education in Haiti is both a symptom of, and contributor to, the socio-economic inequality that has plagued the country since its colonial founding. This fact is best exemplified by the phenomenon referred to commonly as ‘brain drain.’ Given the poor quality of education and cyclical political unrest in Haiti, students from the elite class in addition to well-qualified instructors have typically travelled to Europe or the United States to attend or teach at better institutions. Coupled with a dysfunctional domestic school system, the brain drain serves to diminish educational opportunity and widen the gap between rich and poor. While the majority of Haiti’s poor were never able to afford such opportunity, access among Haiti’s minority middle and upper classes to such education has also plummeted since the earthquake.
When the dust settles
In addition to the Presidential Palace, the Parliament and the Église Sacre Coeur – all major symbols of Haiti’s government and religious institutions – roughly half of the country’s institutions of education also lay in rubble after the earthquake struck in January. Today, one million Haitian children are left without schools and 45,000 educators are left jobless.4  The budding higher education system developed only after the Duvalier regime ended in 1986 was particularly hard hit. Of the dozen universities in Haiti, the three that were located in the capital were severely damaged, including the main nursing school, the state medical college and parts of the state-run Université d’État d’Haïti  (UEH).
With Port-au-Prince paralyzed but for the aid effort, the capital’s residents have had to choose between migrating to the rural interior of the country or retreating to the many tent camps that have sprouted up across the city. According to a recent article by the New York Times,  as many as 600,000 have chosen to migrate from the capital in search of elusive opportunity elsewhere. In the coming months and years, this mass migration will place significant stress on poor, rural schools that will have to absorb the influx of migrant children.
Still more Haitians have opted to stay in Port-au-Prince in what are effectively refugee camps.With few schools and fewer jobs, the youth of Port-au-Prince have largely taken to the streets. For these children and their families, education has taken a distant back seat to securing basic needs such as nutrition and shelter.
Rebuilding Haiti, one school at a time
And yet, as we have witnessed time and time again during the nascent recovery, among the chaos and devastation there remains a glimmer of hope. The destitute and often unsanitary tent camps that litter the capital are also home to a grassroots education effort that has been orchestrated and executed almost entirely by the Haitian people. With supplies being donated by NGOs and relief organizations on the ground, makeshift classrooms are beginning to fill the gap left by the devastated school system.
The New York Times describes the efforts of Alize Rocourt to get kids back into schools. A former headmaster of a collapsed private school, Ms. Rocourt opened a school last month under tents donated by the Israeli Army in the sprawling Pétionville Club camp. She teaches reading, mathematics and geography, and the students play volleyball on the dirt outside during recess. Though only 260 students attend the school, out of the 25,000 living in the Pétionville camp, her efforts show a successful model that can and will be emulated elsewhere.
On a macro level, international organizations like UNESCO and the IDB are currently mounting programs specifically targeted at reconstructing Haiti’s education system. UNESCO has submitted three education projects totaling US$1.9 million through the UN emergency earthquake appeal.5  The programs will focus on the immediate reopening of schools, training educators in emergency education and disaster awareness, and providing psychological support to victims. The IDB plan  will work with the government to find education solutions for displaced children and help schools outside of the capital absorb these children. In the long term, the Bank aims to develop better, more enforceable standards for teacher certification and curriculum development. With $20 million in undisbursed funds, the IDB could prove crucial to the reconstruction process.
Ultimately, Alize Rocourt’s tent school and organizations like UNESCO and the IDB all recognize the importance of education in building a better Haiti than existed before the earthquake. Without a functioning network of educators and institutions in the rural and urban sectors, Haiti will remain dependent on foreign financial and intellectual capital as it struggles forward. It is key that schools and universities are prioritized throughout the reconstruction effort so that the Haitian people may emerge from this disaster in an independent manner, enabling them to become masters of their own destiny.
UNESCO’s International Association of Universities prepared a document in March, ‘Support for Higher Education in Haiti following 2010 Earthquake,’ that provides links to media coverage of the aid for higher education in Haiti; the work of international and regional organizations; and the work of governments, national organizations and universities.
1  “The World Factbook: Haiti.” Central Intelligence Agency. CIA, 04 Mar 2010. Web. 9 Mar 2010. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ha.html 
2  Romero, Simon. “With Haitian Schools in Ruins, Children in Limbo.” New York Times 07 Mar 2010: A6. Print.
3  Hoyt, Brian. “Haiti’s Private Schools.” Private Sector Development Blog. World Bank, 22 Jan 2010. Web. 9 Mar 2010.
4  “Blog from EDU’s Mission to Haiti.” On the Ground in Haiti. Inter-American Development Bank, 24 Feb 2010. Web. 9 Mar 2010.
5  “UNESCO’s education priorities in Haiti.” UNESCO: Education. UNESCO, 22 Jan 2010. Web. 16 Mar 2010.