Bishop Launay Saturne of Jacmel has a simple vision that he believes could change the future of Haiti.
He wants to build partnerships between Catholic parishes in other countries and Catholic schools in his diocese, modelled on the medical missions that many parishes in developed nations already have established in Haiti.
The bishop told the US Catholic News Service that only by strengthening the educational system would Haiti begin to overcome the stranglehold poverty has on the vast majority of the country’s 10 million inhabitants.
“We need direct help. We’re not asking for money. But we want people to come and get involved because the children cannot learn. The teachers are not being paid. The schools are in bad shape,” he said.
“We need the type of help that builds our capacity,” he continued. “Without education we will remain in the current situation until the end of time.”
Haiti’s schools are a far cry from those of neighbouring Dominican Republic, let alone those of more developed countries. Textbooks and basic supplies are hard to come by. Few teachers have more than a secondary school education. Buildings are in need of repair. Equipment is virtually nil.
Bishop Saturne sees education as a way to strengthen the Catholic Church as well.
“To evangelise I have to do it through reinforcement of the human spirit. For me to do so, I have to do it through education. It’s the only way,” he told CNS.
The need to improve education is recognised by other bishops as well, especially when UN Development Programme surveys indicate that Haitians 25 years and older have, on average, 4.9 years of education, and only 29 per cent attend secondary school.
“We have a population where the majority of people are unemployed,” explained Archbishop Guire Poulard of Port-au-Prince. “We have a population where people are trying to leave the country and go elsewhere. So they accept all the promises made to them, including the good and the false.”
Haiti’s earthquake in 2010 exacted a major toll on educational facilities. In some communities as many as 90 per cent of students lost their schools, many of which have yet to be rebuilt. Others, such as Christ the King School in the capital, conduct some classes under corrugated metal awnings inside the shell of the destroyed parish church.
Help for the schools must come from outside sources because the government provides little funding for education. Ninety per cent of primary schools are private, operated by religious organisations, non-governmental organizations and community groups, according to the US Agency for International Development.
Other development challenges remain as well. Although Haiti’s economy is among the fastest-growing in the Caribbean, much commerce occurs among curbside buy-and-sell merchants who offer a variety of goods, mobile phone service and food. The World Bank reports that 24 per cent of Haitians live in abject poverty.
After the initial earthquake emergency response, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) refocused its efforts on human development.
Jeff McIntosh, deputy country representative for programming in Haiti for the US bishops’ overseas relief and development agency, told CNS that a lack of basic services – such as disposal of waste, including human waste – hinders advancement.
“These problems we’re addressing now, they predate the earthquake,” he explained. “They’re tied in with the earthquake in that the earthquake exacerbated the problems that were already there. Many of the problems that were already there were some of the key contributing factors as to why the earthquake was so devastating. Many people say it wasn’t the earthquake that caused all the damage, it was poverty that caused all the damage,” he said.
“The earthquake definitely changed things, and it provoked us to ask a lot of questions about what we’ve been doing in Haiti for the last 50, 60 years,” Mr McIntosh added. “But those problems were always there, and it’s really important that we start addressing those problems in a way that, for the longer term if another earthquake were to happen, it isn’t as devastating as it was five years ago.”
CRS has turned to the agricultural sector to help boost livelihoods. Coffee and cocoa are two crops that have the potential to bring much-needed income to growers, Mr McIntosh said.
In the background of Haiti’s education and development challenges lies a simmering political crisis, the likes of which the country has not seen since 2004 when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a coup.
Opposition leaders cite President Michel Martelly’s inability to live up to campaign promises to remake Haiti’s image in the wake of the earthquake. He also has alienated many former supporters because of his brashness and go-it-alone attitude.
A long disagreement over election rules between the president and a group of opposition senators led parliament to dissolve in January and prime minister Laurent Lamothe to resign, leaving Mr Martelly to rule by decree. Currently, Martelly is one of only 11 nationally elected officials in Haiti.
The announcement on March 13 by Haiti’s electoral council that long-overdue elections for parliament and president would be held this year may quell protests that have been occurring since October. Elections for two thirds of the senate and the chamber of deputies will be on August 9. The presidential and municipal vote will follow on October 25, Haiti’s electoral council said.
Mr Martelly is prohibited from seeking another term under the Haitian constitution.
Archbishop Poulard said he viewed the opposition as shaping actions for their own benefit.
“Unfortunately, they don’t care so much about the possible catastrophic consequences that could be the result of their action,” he said.