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The Problem With Schools in Haiti

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At their rural Haitian school, Chery Lemeck and her two fellow teachers have 150 students, half of them girls, and many of them attending school for the very first time.

That's the good part.

However the three teachers haven't been paid in a year, the children have no books or pencils, and the classroom is just a tarp-covered enclosure.

"I would say that the school has worked pretty well with respect to the amount of children who come. But we lack most things that a school needs," Lemeck recently told our team in Haiti, who visited the school 30 minutes outside the town of Hinche.

It is one of the many set up under a program to deliver cost-free education to all Haiti, launched in September 2011 by Haitian President Michel Martelly.

Last year we wrote about this program and the hope it held for Haitian families. Lemeck's comments reflect the feelings of Haitians who recognize progress has been made, but are frustrated with an initiative not living up to its promises.

This is the tale of two projects -- an answer to those who question how aid can make any difference in Haiti.

Before the earthquake struck in 2010, Haiti had classroom space for barely half of its schoolchildren, and much of that was in private schools -- unaffordable for many impoverished Haitians. Public schools charged a modest $1.50 per term, but were few and far between, especially in rural areas.

By providing free education, the Haitian government claims to have brought one million new students in to school, especially girls.

Although classes like Lemeck's are bursting at the seams, it's not necessarily all with "new" students. At least some, if not many, switched from fee-based schools to take advantage of the lack of fees. Poor infrastructure makes it impossible to know exactly how many young Haitians are now being schooled.
But bigger problems plague the Martelly schools.

The program was to be funded through government taxes levied on international monetary transfers and international phone calls. The funding has proven unreliable.

As a result, the schools have no stable operating budget and so many, like Lemeck's, lack basic classroom materials. Worse, many teachers have gone unpaid for the year, causing high absenteeism.

Many of the free schools are not housed in their own permanent structures but in spaces loaned by churches or community groups. Some of these groups now refuse to host the schools because of poor upkeep -- for example vandalism by students, a side-effect of the often-absent teachers.

With no long-term plan or commitment from the Haitian government or international donors, teachers and students alike don't know if the schools will even exist next year.

"Every government has a different agenda, and there is no continuity," laments Belony Eunive, who teaches alongside Lemeck.

But less than 12 kilometres away, in the village of Marialapa -- a completely different picture of what is possible for students.

"Here there is progress. Look at this beautiful school. It is very important. I am very satisfied," parent Pierre Louis told our team, as he pointed at his village's new schoolhouse.

The Marialapa school is also free. It was founded by a local community group and built with funding from the Michael "Pinball" Clemons Foundation, established by the legendary former Argos player. The school boasts four large permanent classrooms with another four slated for construction next year, along with a well accessible to the entire community. Eight government-employed teachers are on staff. Next year the school will begin student nutrition and preventative health programs.

In a rural area with traditionally low school enrolment, 310 children are now registered. The students have books, pencils and other materials. Although the teachers have not yet been paid, funding is certain.

Where Martelly schools are struggling, Marialapa National School is progressing, thanks to accountability; long-term planning and commitments of support; and full cooperation and coordination between the community, NGOs and the Haitian government.

Before even breaking ground for the school, a long-term plan was devised for the school and an agreement was struck with the Haitian government to ensure that they can provide stable and on-going funding for teachers and materials. The Education Superintendent for the district is supporting and monitoring the school.

President Martelly's school project is exactly that -- a short-term project. It doesn't have long-term planning, sustainable and stable long-term funding, and it part of a larger cooperative effort with other players. Marialapa incorporated these approaches, and has seen greater success.

In the past few weeks there has been much conversation in the press about the failures of aid. The key is engaging local people with local ownership and local empowerment, supported by long-term and stable national and international funding.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com or follow Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger