For Laënnec Hurbon, setting up a quality education system for all is a prerequisite for development. He reviews the situation in Haiti and the education reform which according to him is indispensable for the island’s development.

Photo Credit: Susan Warner / CC Flickr

Haiti stands out as an exceptional case for two reasons: an anti-slavery revolution (1791-1804), which had major repercussions on independence in Latin America and still today calls for reflection in the field of political philosophy, and a country which would appear to have been resting on the laurels of its creation for two centuries and which is sinking steadily into poverty. When we look at data from the Human Development Index, Haiti finds itself alongside war-torn countries, such as Afghanistan or Somalia. It is as if the country was finding it particularly difficult to keep its head above water. It is as if it was unable to survive without being permanently propped up by international aid. Many sectors are left unattended, despite this aid. This is the case for education in Haiti.


Get out of two-speed education

In Port-au-Prince, there are only two bookshops for over three million inhabitants. The illiteracy rate in Haiti still stands at around 50%. There can be no possible doubt: the level of formal education in Haiti is so low that it is extremely difficult to set the country on the road to development.

My comments do not intend to draw attention to the causes of underdevelopment, which a number of Haitian and foreign researchers are constantly looking at. I would simply like, and very rapidly without in any way denying the complexity of the case of Haiti, to maintain that there is a path for Haiti’s development: the same formal basic education for all Haitians, during 5 or 6 school years, using the two national languages (Creole and French) recognized by the Constitution of 1987.

Of course, I can already hear people saying that I am stating the obvious. But that is not so sure. What we see from the two centuries of Haiti’s independence is an inequality in land between urban schools and rural schools. During the American occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934, the authorities gave priority to technical and vocational schools, leaving the vast majority of the population in illiteracy. Later on, in order to firmly establish his dictatorship, President Duvalier (President of the Republic of Haiti from 1957 to 1971) did his utmost to organize the departure of teachers, doctors and technicians abroad, especially to Congo, a country which was encouraged by the UNESCO to bring in teachers from abroad to provide public education. It was not until 1979 et 1980, and what we call the “Bernard Reform”, that Haiti got out of a two-speed school system and that the project was launched for a single school for all Haitians, with the possibility of using the two languages – Creole, the mother tongue of all Haitians, and French, understood by a tiny minority in cities thanks to access to urban schools.

Since then, there have constantly been political barriers, preventing the deployment of education for all in Haiti. Various research activities and experiments have been made: a national educational and vocational training plan was proposed in 1998, based on the mobilization of all the sectors directly concerned by education. But this plan was shelved a few months later, meaning that each new Minister of National Education every time finds himself under an avalanche of demands and doesn’t know where to start.

The failure of education in Haiti is a reality, and is congruent with the failure of development. Yet the population has high expectations: the anarchic proliferation of private schools and universities all over the capital and in provincial cities shows that the demand exists. But the State does not follow. Only 10% of schools are public. This is a sad record for a State that has been independent for over two centuries. At the same time, the education sector is ridden by corruption: diplomas can be bought, mediocrity reigns, and the recovery of the school and university system under State control remains a challenge.


Towards a national mobilization of all sectors for education

The education problem in Haiti is rooted in the Haitian social system and a weak political will of the State. It will be necessary to call on a national mobilization of all the country’s sociocultural actors: universities, trade unions, women’s movements, cultural associations, writers, artists, political parties. All in order to once again demand a national education and training plan from the State, based on the use of the two languages and on a compulsory schooling for all Haitians, and which curriculum would be the same for private and public schools.

What is the interest of this type of mobilization? What benefit does it hold for development? You could quite well tell me that putting everything into agriculture – which is too neglected in the national budget – or into the creation of industrial jobs and the construction of infrastructure to attract investments would be enough for the country to experience an economic take-off. My reply to this is: this type of project is all I have heard about since the concept of development has been well established, at least since the end of the Second World War. The truth is that we are inclined to forget that development in Western societies is partly related to the development of formal education, which sets in motion a rational organization of all sectors of economic, cultural and political life.

It is not a question of making school a panacea which takes the individual away from an enchanted world where divinities have control over the destiny of the individual and the community. That would implicitly suppose that I perceive Haitian society as a still primitive society, bogged down in magical-religious representations of the world and careless about development: this is not the perspective which prevails here in my remarks.

Yet formal education open to all Haitians in an equal manner would offer several dynamic effects, at both individual and collective level. Firstly, it would give all a chance to build their future. Secondly, formal education would create a critical mass of Haitians feeling that they belong to the same nation. It is indeed education that can produce the nation as such, that can make an individual sensitive to an acceptance of common rules and that can convey an understanding of the need for collective interest. How would the democratization of society be possible without a coordination of its individual interests with collective interests?

In Haiti, presidential and legislative elections have until now been opportunities to manipulate and exploit masses of poor and illiterate people who have no critical information about power, the country’s economy and developments in the world. Up until now, a ministry was given responsibility for national education. All government bodies should rather participate in the aim of universal education and set the objective of increasing the number of Haitians integrated into the education system.


The example of the quiet revolution in Quebec

Incidentally, the example of the Quebec of yesterday have some similarities with the Haiti of today. From 1875 to 1960, education in Quebec was in the hands of Catholic religious staff. 50% of young people left school at 15 and 93% did not have access to university. Various commissions were set up in the early 1960s on the initiative of the country’s first Minister of Education, Paul Gérin-Lajoie, promoter of non-denominational education for all. A few reforms later, a “quiet revolution” had taken place in Quebec.

Mutatis mutandis, it is necessary to take the bull by the horns to radically change the orientation of the education system in Haiti. This is a need and a real possibility, because everywhere where development happened, whether in Western Europe, in Scandinavian countries, in Canada, but also in the Dominican Republic, formal education has been the first step. There is no reason why Haiti should be an exception.

The State must gradually take back control of all private schools. Not by banning them, which would be inappropriate for the time being, but, for the time it takes to increase the percentage of public schools, by imposing a curriculum and a number of basic years for all Haitians. A curriculum of education in civic values is also the responsibility of the State. Is all this possible? Yes, it is, and if there is any difficulty, it does not stem from a lack of financial resources, but indeed from a lack of political will.

However, we must not fall into wastage, anarchy and improvisation, meaning we do not start again or rather carry on making education a source of money and speculation. Permanent evaluation practices must be established. Implementing this new orientation for education in Haiti also requires creating the conditions for quality education, increasing the number of education offers in rural areas and facilitating access for all to the various branches of education (from secondary to university). These conditions include in-service training for teachers and a continuous initiation in new technological tools.

The central State cannot handle everything, and municipalities need to be stakeholders in responsibility for education, as is the case in countries where school is compulsory. It is at the municipal level that the question, for example, of transport allowing students to attend schools will be raised.

The relationship between education and development cannot be verified in the short term. Education opens up a new relationship with the world and the environment, also a new relationship with others, as individuals equally aware that they are socially tied. If development is conceived as a process of humanization, education certainly contributes to it. Because education is supposed to promote civic values, and therefore distill the idea of the dignity of every human being and of the right to have rights. All this ultimately promotes the demand for development and the capacity of being an active member of development.


The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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