Did the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission Put Public Education on the Shelf?

February 24, 2012

A new report from Haiti Grassroots Watch examines the State University of Haiti (UEH), more than a year after the university first came to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) with a proposal for rebuilding following the January 2010 earthquake. The report describes how the IHRC’s mandate ended before it ever got around to doing anything for the university – one of Haiti’s most important institutions of public education, concluding:

The fact that the Haitian government and its “friends” have not financed the reconstruction – and a sufficient operating budget – of the oldest and most important institution of higher learning in then country represents more than a “peril” to Haiti’s future.

The university’s 11 “units of teaching and research” are spread throughout Port-au-Prince, a spatial decentralization that, in a city where traffic is as notoriously difficult as it is in Haiti’s capital presents a significant logistical challenge to communication and organization by students and faculty across schools. Following the earthquake, in which many university buildings were destroyed and others damaged, and 50 faculty and 380 students killed or disappeared, centralization became a key component of the University’s reconstruction plan, which it brought to the IHRC.

The report details how

Over one year ago, the Rectorate submitted a proposal to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), the institution charged with approving and coordinating all reconstruction projects.

“Right in its first extraordinary meeting, on Feb. 5, 2010, the University Council decided to face the reconstruction problem… and we voted a resolution asking the Executive Council to take all measures deemed necessary to assure all the University faculties could be rehoused together,” according to the project, which HGW obtained.

“When considered as part of the challenge of reconstruction and of the re-founding of this nation, this project can be seen as a crucial asset of primary importance which will assure a better tomorrow for our population,” the same document continues.

The Rectorate proposed a provisional student and preliminary budget of US$200 million for the construction of the main campus with classroom buildings, libraries, laboratories, restaurants, and university residents to lodge 15,000 students and 1,000 professors on part of the old Habitation Damien land in Croix-des-Bouquets, north of Port-au-Prince.

(UEH Rector Jean-Vernet Henry discussed some of these ideas, and the university’s post-quake needs, in this July 2010 video interview.)

Commenting on the decentralization, Fritz Deshommes, Vice Rector for Research,
told HGW, “It’s really an aberration… despite the importance of UEH in the higher education system in Haiti, this prestigious institution has never had a campus.”

So what did the IHRC do about the University’s proposal? An insider gives HGW a glimpse into the process:

“The project was never discussed at any IHRC assembly, but every member knew about it,” [Rose Anne] Auguste [Founder of the Association for the Promotion of Integral Family Health and a former IHRC member] told HGW. “I tried to pressure the administrative council to get the project considered and discussed.”

UEH faculty and students that HRRW have met with have expressed views that the decentralization of the university has political motives. These are echoed in HGW’s interviews. “The reason that the university campus has never built is political,” Deshommes said:

“Because, if all the students were permanently together in one place, they would have the necessary material conditions to better organize themselves and make their demands heard. Then, they would be able to turn everything upside down. The political authorities understood the importance of this. A single campus is not in their interests.”

HGW presents some of the history behind this:

Ever since a 1960 strike of students at the University of Haiti, Francois Duvalier established his control over the various faculties. He issued a decree on Dec. 16, 1960, creating the “University of the State” in the place of the University of Haiti. The decree’s fascist character was apparent in the various lines. One reads in the decree that Duvalier was “considering the necessity to organize the
University on new foundations in order to prevent it from transforming into a bastion where subversive ideas would develop…”

Article 9 was even clearer. It noted that any student wanting to enroll in the university had to get a certificate from the police that he or she did not belong to any communist group or any association
under suspicion by the State.

The HGW report notes that the IHRC’s neglect of the university was despite the high priority that development experts place on public education, citing a World Bank study:

But the World Bank’s “Peril and Promise” study is also clear on the necessity to invest in public sector higher education.

“Markets require profit and this can crowd out important educational duties and opportunities,” the study says. “The disturbing truth is that these enormous disparities are poised to grow even more extreme, impelled in large part by the progress of the knowledge revolution and the continuing brain drain… For this reason the Task Force urges policymakers and donors – public and private, national and international – to waste no time. They must work with educational leaders and other key stakeholders to reposition higher education in developing countries.”

Read the full HGW report here.

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