Haiti: Education keeps hope alive amidst the chaos

published 26 April 2024 updated 2 May 2024

Whilst the country goes through a deep, multifaceted crisis, teachers continue their fight to ensure education once again becomes a priority; a prerequisite for reestablishing lasting peace and prosperity in Haiti.

Schools as battlegrounds in political fights

“From the teachers’ perspective, the situation is disastrous” says Magalie Georges, General Secretary of the Confédération Nationale des Educateurs d'Haïti (CNEH) [National Educators’ Confederation of Haiti]. “Schools have been closed for three months in Port-au-Prince and in parts of Artibonite”, she continues. Kenson Délice, coordinator of the Union Nationale des Normaliens/Normaliennes et Educateurs/Educatrices d’Haïti (UNNOEH) [National Union of ENS Graduates and Educators of Haiti], explains: “Unfortunately, in Haiti schools are used as battlegrounds for political fights. Currently schools are falling victim to this situation. Some schools are burned down by armed groups. Others are sometimes used by armed groups as their bases. Fleeing from gang violence, citizens are also using schools as camps to take refuge, living in extremely unsanitary conditions. Therefore the situation schools are in is particularly complicated”.

However, how can one ask the State to fulfil its sovereign role of providing education and safety in public spaces when the President of the Republic himself has stepped down, when there hasn’t been a parliament in years, and when the police and army are overwhelmed because of gangs that are better equipped than they are?

"Unfortunately, in Haiti schools are used as battlegrounds for political fights. Currently schools are falling victim to this situation."

Kenson Délice, Coordinator of the UNNOEH

Disillusioned, Magalie Georges asks: “It’s as if people didn’t want Haitians going to school. The people who were taken to schools for refuge were taken there by politicians. There were other places available and they chose schools, why? The Saint Martial college library, which housed priceless documents about the history of Haiti, was deliberately burned down”.

The economic impact of school closures

Hubermane Clermont, General Secretary of the Fédération Nationale des Travailleurs en Education et en Culture (FENATEC) [National Federation of Education and Culture Workers], explains why the current security situation is affecting schooling: “A lot of the Haitian economy depends on the informal sector. This means that many citizens develop an informal trading activity to meet their family’s subsistence needs. For months, many have been pillaged by armed gangs and this is a major barrier to paying their children’s school fees”.

In turn, extended school closures have a serious impact on economic activity in the country, as explained by Magalie Georges: “Schools are a quintessential economic activity. A whole series of jobs are connected to schools: transport, shoe shining, vendors selling snacks”. The extended closure of hundreds of schools has thus put an end to this array of economic activities in the country.

Far reaching societal impacts

In the long run, Kenson Délice is concerned: “The consequences, academically-speaking, will be disastrous. In fact, we cannot guarantee there will be enough school days. Pupils and students will be less well qualified and then risk finding it difficult to fully play their role as citizens in society”.

The situation and concerns in higher education are the same. Hubermane Clermont notes that: “At the level of universities, some departments have had to close their doors because of a lack of security. For example, the Human Sciences Faculty in Port-au-Prince was being used as a shelter for students and professors, chased from the at-risk neighbourhoods where they lived. Armed gangs are growing and are now spreading terror in the area where the university is, forcing these people to move again. We risk seeing a shortage of lecturers in the years ahead. It is worrying and sad because the people of Haiti really believe in education, many people hope it will provide social and economic mobility. When this mobility is blocked, it is the country’s future that is jeopardised”.

Students and teachers at the mercy of gangs

In Haiti, public education represents a mere 20% of the education sector. Fortunately, even when schools are closed, state teachers continue to receive their salary. However, for all those teaching in private schools, school closures mean they are very suddenly left without any wages. Around 100,000 teachers are currently in this situation.

In this context, some teachers are trying to leave the country. Those who can are finding refuge in Canada, the United States, Mexico and other Latin American countries. As for those who stay in the country, they have become agricultural labourers, medical assistants. Despite the lack of motivation, some teachers have maintained an unwavering commitment to their mission.

Magalie Georges gives us an emotional account about the school where she is headteacher: “I will never forget the teachers who, on the last day the school was open, had come with a few clothes telling themselves they could stay in the school in case they weren’t able to go home in the evening because of gang shootings”.

"School closures are speeding up the gangsterisation of Haiti. Children are often recruited by armed gangs, for example, to act as scouts. Children are very vulnerable."

Hubermane Clermont, General Secretary, FENATEC

This protracted crisis is also having a serious impact on children, as described by Magalie Georges: “Many children are now being deprived of the only meal they had, the one they had at school. It was a basic meal but it helped stave off hunger. Families and children live in constant fear. When they hear a noise, children now have the reflex to lie on the ground and hide. What is hard is that we don’t know when we will be back in the classroom”.

“School closures are speeding up the gangsterisation of Haiti. Children are often recruited by armed gangs, for example, to act as scouts. Children are very vulnerable” notes Hubermane Clermont. There is therefore an urgent need to reestablish the security conditions to allow schools to reopen.

The role of the international community

Haitian unionists are all asking about the international community’s role in the country’s political, economic and social situation. “We would like our colleagues in France, Brazil, Canada, the United States, Chile, to know Haitians are not leaving their country with a sense of happiness. We are being forced to”, explains Magalie Georges. “Haiti needs the international community but so far all we see is superficial aid and hypocrisy. How can we expect those who created and then worsened the problems to then be able to solve them?” asks Kenson Délice.

Hubermane Clermont is even more explicit when it comes to the issue of weapons: “It has been established that 85% of weapons flowing into Haiti come from the United States. The best way to combat insecurity is to block the flow of arms. It is difficult to grasp how there can be an arms embargo for Haiti’s legal forces of law and order when arms flow into the country by the thousands through smuggling.”

For Magalie Georges, this situation is far from being new: “For a long time now Haitians have had their right to choose taken away from them. The United States imposed Martelly in the second round of the 2010 presidential elections, despite him only coming 5th in the first round. Then, it was the United Nations that demanded the gangs be federated. The international community imposed Ariel Henry’s government on us after the assassination of Jovenel Moïse on July 7th 2021, and now it is forcing him to leave. We no longer know who is currently running the country”. “Why does the international community prefer investing 600 million dollars in a multinational police force, refusing to invest in the Haitian police and army?”, adds Kenson Délice.

Unionists also note the complexity of the causes that have led to the current chaos. Kenson Délice believes that “everything the international community does, it does so in collusion with Haitians. We ourselves have a role to play, we must become stronger, working with civil society organisations, we must organise ourselves more so that we are able to carry out a larger battle”.

"Despite all the problems in the system, there are always children who make it, who go to university abroad, who continue to shine; this gives us hope."

Magalie Georges, General Secretary CNEH

Against all odds, hope lives on

Despite the extent of the problems and the magnitude of the work to be done, unionists have shown fierce resistance and commitment. The teaching vocation is strong: “Despite all the problems in the system, there are always children who make it, who go to university abroad, who continue to shine; this gives us hope” says Magalie Georges. She adds “we want to show an image of a Haiti that wants to live”.

Hubermane Clermont echoes the same sense of hope, stressing that “Haiti didn’t always have chaos, our country experienced great moments in history by being the first Republic to free itself from colonialism of course but also because of its links to Latin America”. He adds: “We have a strong will to continue working in the system, to fight for access to education. In fact, education is very important to the people of Haiti. Even illiterate parents make huge efforts for their children to have access to education. As unionists, we have an historic responsibility”.

Kenson Délice highlights the support from students and their parents: “Some students are aware of the political situation and they want to defeat it. Some parents are aware of our sacrifices. All of this gives us hope”.

Unwavering solidarity

Union solidarity offers both protection and encouragement. “These last few years, the union movement has managed to survive thanks to EI’s solidarity. We haven’t faced any attacks head-on because we had international solidarity behind us. Thanks to this, our lives were spared”, says Magalie Georges.

"We know that we can count on Education International and partner unions to support us, and this matters a lot."

Hubermane Clermont, General Secretary, FENATEC

“Knowing that we have international solidarity gives us a lot of courage to fight”, states Kenson Délice. “We know that we can count on EI and partner unions to support us, and this matters a lot”, says Hubermane Clermont. “We are in touch with colleagues from the Caribbean, to show another side to Haiti”, says Magalie Georges. “And speaking to you already means a lot, we are so trapped at home”, concludes Magalie Georges.