By Ericq Pierre
Submitted to AlterPresse on January 27, 2006
Of the hundreds of public schools in Haiti, a dozen or so bear names of the region’s countries, mainly in Port-au-Prince. There are schools named after Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States of America, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
In 2003 I approached some of my fellow members of the IDB’s Board of Executive Directors to explore whether their governments could contribute to these schools. They all welcomed the initiative. I was thinking along the lines of school supplies, computers, copiers, prizes for outstanding students, and study tours in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some even suggested the idea of sister schools.
A few weeks later, a fellow Executive Director told me his country was prepared to provide any equipment and materials its namesake school might need. We thought that would be the first school to benefit from the initiative.
That August I visited the school in the heart of Port-au-Prince, accompanied by a cameraman to film the building and classrooms, in order to have a video to give my colleague. I knew the building was old, since the school had opened in 1930. But I was stunned by what I saw that day. To start with, just to reach the school I had to elbow my way through thousands of street sellers sitting, standing, crouching, and even lying down around it with their carts and wares spread out on the ground.
Once inside, I actually wondered whether I was in the wrong building: Cracked and crumbling walls, rainwater pouring through rotting classroom ceilings, broken benches, students bitten by rats during class, no toilet or drinking fountain. Some classrooms did not even have a blackboard. Some of this I saw for myself, the rest I heard from the school principals, who were enrolling new pupils that day for the next school year. They told me the school had 1,750 students in K thru 6: 1,000 girls and 750 boys in separate classes. I also learned that the school housed the primary years of one of Port-au-Prince’s larger secondary schools, with 38 teachers for the girls and 26 for the boys.
I am sorry to say that I never could bring myself to give my colleague the video. Instead, I told him that the school building was over 70 years old, and the Ministry of Education was making major renovations. I would contact him again when the work was finished. Nothing was being done, of course, but I could not tell him about the state that school was in. In short, I felt ashamed. I later learned that, while not all our public schools are so run down, they are not far from it. I decided to put the initiative on hold, since even the newer schools have many problems.
Yet the poorest Haitian parents spend much more proportionately on their children’s education than anywhere else in Latin America or the Caribbean: over 15% of their meager income. Despite this, service quality in both the public and private sector is far below that of other countries in the hemisphere.
Haitian parents make huge sacrificies for their children to be better off. They generally expect little from the government, and even less from candidates who want their vote, except perhaps safer streets and job opportunities. But I am certain it would be a great relief to them if the government paid more attention to education. And the only reason why parents in Haiti have to send their children to private schools too expensive for their small income is that already overcrowded public schools are virtually inaccessible. This is true at all levels.
Private schools are springing up like mushrooms as a result, but are often worse than the public schools. A former minister of education even told me that the sign of one such private school in Port-au-Prince proudly proclaimed: “Primary School, Secondary School, Adultary School” (sic).
Haiti’s needs are so vast that it is tempting to do a little of everything at the risk of making no real impact on anything. But should we always take the same approach? We will never have the resources to solve all our problems at once, so we must decide which ones are true priorities. And what priority is higher or yields more in the long run than education?
Albert Camus famously said: If I have to choose between justice and my mother, I choose my mother. Let us think of education as our mother: Between justice and education, let us choose education. Between the environment and education, let us choose education. Between roads and education, let us choose education. Between domestic industry and education, let us choose education. Between law enforcement and education, let us choose education. The list could go on and on. While I may exaggerate slightly, I do it to emphasize the importance of education. Choices are never easy, but there are always choices to be made. By choosing education, one need not ask whether the choice is good or bad; it can only be a great choice.
I have a specific proposal for the schools whose names I gave at the top of this essay. The task of renovating them could be given to the engineers of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). I believe that arrangements similar to those made for MINUSTAH to help repair roads in parts of northern Haiti could also be found to repair these schools. MINUSTAH’s mandate will not have to be modified, nor the Security Council consulted. The decision can be made on the ground, especially as all the countries for which these schools are named are directly or indirectly involved in MINUSTAH.
It should not cost too much to renovate these schools. There would be benefits both for Haitian students and for the namesake countries. It might also convince Haitians that MINUSTAH can do very good things. Let us therefore agree to give MINUSTAH the task of repairing some of our decaying public schools.
14 December 2005