Originally published in Jeffrey Puryear’s “Human Capital” column in the Dialogue’s daily Latin America Advisor
WASHINGTON—The recent earthquake has placed Haiti on the world’s radar, sparking an outpouring of aid and commanding the attention of world leaders including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ban Ki-moon. Foreign governments, private institutions and individuals have responded admirably—the only silver lining to appear so far in the terrible cloud that has enveloped the country.
But the severity of the earthquake’s impact on the Haitian people is due in large part to the country’s poverty and its weak government. Countries that are poor, and poorly educated, seldom have the human resources and institutions that can plan for emergencies and respond quickly and effectively when they occur. If Haiti’s friends truly want to avoid a recurrence, they will need, once the dust settles, to shift their attention to Haiti’s longer-term problems, like education, governance and economic growth.
Education is one of the most important challenges. Haiti is not only the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, it is also the least educated. Roughly half the population is illiterate. Only two-thirds of children who begin primary school complete it.
Student learning falls well below acceptable norms. Public spending on education is about 2 percent of GDP—among the lowest in the world. By most measures, Haiti’s school system is closer to the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa than to any country in Latin America or the Caribbean.
Haiti’s schools stand out for another reason: they are almost entirely private. Private schools account for 80 percent of primary and secondary enrollments, compared with just 20 percent for the public sector. (Higher education is largely public.)
No other country in the hemisphere—and few anywhere in the world—educates nearly all of its children in private schools. These include a mix of church, “community” and for-profit institutions. Most of their students are poor. They are sometimes better and sometimes worse than the public schools, which for the most part are severely overcrowded and badly managed. A few private schools, usually supported from overseas and located in the cities, are of good quality.
The private character of Haitian schools is likely to endure. The government would need to more than quadruple its education spending just to enroll the children currently in private schools—and even so would still have the lowest per-pupil expenditure in the hemisphere. Given its history of incompetence and corruption, the government is unlikely to be able to raise that much money or to manage it well any time soon.
The international community needs to recognize that, for the foreseeable future, most poor children in Haiti will attend private schools, and find ways to make those schools better. It should fund any school—public or private—that serves the poor and is willing to adopt improvements that increase quality.
It should work directly with associations of private schools, as well as with the government, to establish policies and institutions that promote quality, assess progress and certify results. This means establishing sound teacher training, modern learning standards and a testing system that can verify whether children are learning.
If Haiti’s longer-term problems, especially education, are not addressed, the country will not develop the resilience needed to respond more successfully to future natural disasters—like earthquakes—that can neither be predicted nor prevented.
Jeffrey Puryear is vice president for social policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and co-director of the Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas (PREAL).
[Editor’s note: PREAL’s September 2008 report “Education in Haiti: The Way Forward” is available here.]