Haiti: progress in education

For my last blog from Haiti I want to focus on something positive since by the time this entry gets published a lot of media reports, no doubt, will have directed a good deal of criticism at aid agencies and the international community for the slow pace of progress here.

Some of the criticism levelled at us will of course be quite reasonable and take into account the dreadful levels of poverty that existed in Haiti before the earthquake.

As many of you will know, Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.  Before the quake half of Haiti’s children did not go to school, and one-third of Haitians did not have access to clean drinking water.  There is hardly any Haitian industry to speak of apart from the export of mangos and coffee.  Food here is also in short supply – up to 40% of food supplies have to be imported – making even basic foods expensive.  The government of Haiti is not strong and was even less able to cope following the quake since many civil servants were killed.  For a fuller account of Haiti’s woe, read Jon Henley’s “Haiti: a long descent to Hell” published in The Guardian this week.

Clearly mounting a well-coordinated disaster relief effort was always going to be an enormous challenge.  I’m not making excuses though. Twelve months since the quake it is not acceptable to aid agencies like Save the Children that nearly one million people are forced to live in squalid camps – including 380,000 children who we fear are at risk of exploitation and abuse.

But I’m in danger of veering away from what I wanted to share in this blog.  If you’d like to read more on Haiti’s slow pace of post-earthquake recovery, read my opinion piece in Australia’s The Age newspaper.

Now, I want to draw your attention to the Institut Abellard, a pilot school construction project we opened last October on the outskirts of Leogane – the epicentre of the earthquake where 90% of the buildings were destroyed.

Built to better withstand hurricanes and earthquakes, the Institut Abellard schools 364 children five days a week.  Here in two smart timber framed buildings – concrete is not used for reasons I’m sure you can fathom – primary school children receive lessons in elementary French and mathematics – at least, these were the two subjects taught on the day of my visit.

I must say this feels and looks like progress.  It’s great to see children enthusiastically embrace their classroom studies.  There is a cacophony of noise from one classroom as a group of children break into song.

Over on the sports field a session of physical education is taking place. Meanwhile orderly queues of children are waiting to wash their hands in soapy water following a visit to the toilet.

Before I start to paint too rosy a picture, it’s important to point out that these school children are the lucky few.  Before the earthquake, less than half of Haiti’s children attended school – goodness knows how many children miss school now. The problem is, in Haiti the authorities do not provide free education for all.  In fact before the earthquake, 80% of Haiti’s schools were privately owned – that is to say they were run by individuals, or as small business enterprises within the community.

Today few parents can afford to pay the few hundred dollars it costs to send a child to school each year – they have more pressing needs such as finding a place to live, or finding sufficient food for their families. But here at Institut Abellard, hundreds of children actually have the opportunity to attend school because we built them one.  Over the next year we will build at least another 50 schools like this one so that even more children can have a chance to learn in a nurturing and caring environment.

So, despite the criticism meted out to aid agencies and the international community this week, I will leave knowing that – one child at a time – we are helping to build a better future for Haiti’s children.

Find out more about our work in Haiti

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