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A girl on her way to school on a rocky road. (Source: Jakob Studnar)

The rocky road to effective education

The devastating earthquake in Haiti five years ago killed 250,000 people, left 1.5 million people homeless and destroyed 80 percent of all school buildings. Years after the disaster struck, Kindernothilfe continues to work with its local partners to alleviate the educational crisis in this poverty-stricken country. Jürgen Schübelin, Head of the Latin America and Caribbean Desk, gives an update on progress made along this rocky road.

Haiti: It was a bitter journey ten days after the earthquake when they climbed up four hours on steep roads and dirt tracks on our way to Coupeau, a tiny village perched on one of the mountain ridges southwest of Port-au-Prince. We passed countless collapsed small houses and hovels. Survivors crouched on the ground in the shade of the trees, many with serious injuries that had received scarcely any attention. During the last bend in the path, which traversed banana trees groves and manioc fields the travellers caught a first glimpse of the ruins of what used to be the school in Coupeau. The force of the quake had caused most of the walls to collapse, leaving the corrugated sheet metal roof barely still attached to the damaged corner pillars.

The school collapsed in front of the children's eyes

Many families had lost their homes but it was the destruction of their school that caused the greatest pain: “The school collapsed in front of the children's eyes”, said the teacher Armand. At around 4:30 pm, he sent the girls and boys out to play so he could prepare a lesson plan for the next day. This meant that no one in Coupeau died in the earthquake that struck on 12 January 2010. In fact, neighbours were able to pull Armand out of the ruins. The teacher was fortunate to escape with only a few scrapes and bruises.

Children and adults staying in front of a blue school building. (Source: Jürgen Schübelin)
Inauguration of the new school in Daveau.

Nevertheless, the natural disaster had hit an extremely sensitive nerve with the families of Coupeau. It seemed to question the conviction that community members who help each other and pool resources can make a difference and change things for the better. This principle is called combit in Haitian Creole. The concept is simple. People feel a strong sense of commitment to work together. Three years before the earthquake struck, the parents of Coupeau had used the combit system to build this tiny school, the first one that had ever existed in the village. Kindernothilfe had merely contributed the building materials. Everything else was organised by the local community – just as their neighbours from Daveau and other small villages in the mountains had done before them. None of the adults had ever experienced even a single day of schooling, “but they were determined to build the school for their children at any price”, recalls Alinx Jean-Baptiste, who heads the Kindernothilfe office in Port-au-Prince, “and it was a project for which people were prepared to make great sacrifices.” Some of the the ground had to be levelled first for the school’s construction and to be dug out of the mountainside. The parents used the excavated soil to create small school gardens.

This project worked according to the principle of strict reciprocity: The communities organised the construction of the school and provided food for the children; some have to travel long and extremely hazardous routes to attend classes. Kindernothilfe contributed educational materials and paid the teachers’ salaries. In the years before the earthquake, this Kindernothilfe-supported “mountain school programme” was testament to the resilience and community spirit in the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere.

“Since the very beginning of Kindernothilfe's involvement in Haiti”, says Jean-Baptiste, “which was three and a half decades ago, children's right to education has been the focal point of Kindernothilfe´s work.” Education was the key focus for the collaboration with the Salvation Army and their Collège Verena, the Fort National school in the slums of Delmas Deux and Impasse Terrasse, as well as for the support of an agro-ecological model school in the rural area near Carice in later years. The goal has always been to help children realise their fundamental human right to education in a country where half of all girls and boys never see the inside of a classroom.

The earthquake in 2010 killed 250,000 people and left 1.5 million people homeless – 15 percent of all Haitians. The destruction of 80 percent of all school buildings in the areas affected by the earthquake was a special tragedy. It had a devastating impact on Haitian schools, destroying nine of the ten learning institutions that Kindernothilfe had supported in the country. Buildings collapsed or were irreparably damaged, including all of the schools that had been built by the parents themselves in the mountains south of Rivière Froide. “We had no choice”, says Jean-Baptiste as he thinks back to those dramatic days in the wake of this cataclysmic disaster, “we had to focus all of our energy on helping to resurrect this infrastructure.”

Girls sit on the ground and paint. (Source: Jakob Studnar)
One of the many children's centres that Kindernothilfe built after the earthquake.

Following the tsunami disaster on the edges of the Indian Ocean in 2004 and the earthquake in Peru on 15 August 2007, Kindernothilfe’s initial reaction was to establish children’s centres as safe havens for girls and boys who were traumatised and exposed to extreme dangers in the struggle of the adults to survive. The first children's centres in Haiti were launched eight days after the quake on the premises of the severely damaged Collège Verena. This ultimately led to 16 similar projects, which were spread all over the disaster area. The centres provided a structure and a focal point for the work that was conducted with thousands of children.

Children's centres as safe havens in the midst of chaos

A second phase involved organising emergency school programmes. Once again, it was thanks to our partner, the Salvation Army, that the first students were able to start attending classes amidst the ruins of the Collège Verena in mid-February 2010, precisely one month after the earthquake.

In the following months, many lessons in Haiti were taught under plastic tarps or in the shade of a mango tree. The extremely precarious conditions that reigned during this period – the lack of teaching materials and the improvised infrastructure – gave rise to an astounding creativity and wealth of educational inventiveness that the children will never forget. “We learned arithmetic with pebbles and mango seeds, and we drew and wrote with chalk on a dark tarp”, recalls Celine, today age twelve, who used to come every day to eat, play and learn in the children's centre at Léogâne, run by Kindernothilfe partner Acrederp.

Sadly, some of this wealth of improvisational talent and creative education got lost when rebuilding the infrastructural conditions that would allow a return to regular school instruction. In this case as in all of our programs, Kindernothilfe closely collaborates with the Haitian Ministry of Education and makes sure that programs are in line with state regulations.

Schools without screaming teachers or beatings

A girls is playing with a colourful ribbon. (Source: Jakob Studnar)
Learning by playing.

Two worlds collided here: On the one hand, there was the state, which had consistently failed for decades to uphold children's right to education, as enshrined in the country's constitution and in diverse international conventions that Haiti had ratified. Instead, it mainly relied on private groups and initiatives to meet the country's educational needs. To make matters worse, an extremely rigid curriculum and a teaching structure that was modelled after the French educational system imposed a framework that left little room for creativity, strengthening children’s social abilities and developing life skills. In view of this, Kindernothilfe and its partners decided to seize the opportunity to make a fresh start after the disaster. By introducing other forms of teaching and dealing with new issues, such as ecological sustainability, these organisations intended to impart far more practical skills and, above all, strengthen the rights of children, so that girls and boys are better prepared for the realities of life after they graduate from school.

Kindernothilfe partner Amurt has made the greatest progress along this rocky road over the past five years with its model school project in the Delmás urban district. This is an initiative that emerged from two large children's centres. No traditional, lecture-style teaching methods are used here. Teachers do not yell or beat students. The pupils acquire knowledge and gain self-confidence based on a wide range of playful approaches. One of the two project sites saw the creation of an impressive school garden, including compost toilets. Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Haitian minister of education reaped applause for this model school, which Kindernothilfe realised in part with funding from the German Federal Ministry of Development and Cooperation (BMZ). The minister proclaimed that in less than two decades the pedagogical quality of the Amurt project would be standard throughout Haiti.

The Sineas-school in Delmàs before the devastation. (Source: Jürgen Schübelin)
The model school in Delmàs.
The destroyed school building. (Source: Jürgen Schübelin)
The destroyed school in September 2014.

All of these laurels could not save the project, however. In the early morning hours of 5 September 2014, parents and children watched in horror as bulldozers and other heavy machinery destroyed precisely this model school. The landowners – one of the richest and most powerful Haitian families – had won a court case against other former owners. Months of negotiations with the Amurt school sponsors to purchase the plot of land where the small school stood had apparently been merely a diversion tactic by this family. Ultimately, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe signed a decree to remove by force this school built with lightweight construction techniques.

Admittedly, such setbacks are extremely bitter, but they will not put a stop to the process of gradual change in the education and school system of this small Caribbean country – a process that has been set in motion over the past five years with the help of Kindernothilfe's partners. At a second project location, three kilometres from the destroyed school, the Amurt work with children continues. Organisers are feverishly searching for intelligent construction solutions that will allow girls and boys to continue to receive instruction.

“We desperately need sufficient funds for investments in education”

Ruins and benches of the school in Carrefour. (Source: Benjamin Weinkauf/ BILD)
The school in Carrefour after the earthquake in January 2010.
Children walking up the steps of an orange-colored school building. (Source: Jürgen Schübelin)
The new school at the beginning of 2014.

Alinx Jean-Baptiste clearly has positive things to say about what has been accomplished since the earthquake disaster: “We managed to reconstruct nine destroyed schools, in some cases under fairly difficult conditions. The first phase of one of these big projects, the reconstruction of the Collège Verena, will be completed by the end of the year, with the second phase following in 2015. We are also on the home stretch with the last small mountain schools.” Children, parents and neighbours are intensively involved in all projects. “As always, our strategy has been to make a sustainable contribution”, says Jean-Baptiste with confidence. “These schools will continue to exist in 20, 30 years. And thanks to the generations of children who will collectively learn here and gain a sense of self-confidence, these schools will help change the face of entire urban districts and villages.” But that's not enough, as Jean-Baptiste has learned over the past five years: “We desperately need committed state authorities, good public hospitals, far more state schools – and sufficient funds for investments in education. This is the only way that we can overcome extreme poverty in Haiti.”

Meanwhile, in the small village of Coupeau in the mountains south of Rivière Froide, the local population has regained confidence in the age-old combit tradition and rebuilt the collapsed school in just six months. This time, however, they received technical support from an architect and specialists for earthquake proof construction.

Jürgen Schübelin talking with a Haitian girl. (Source: Jakob Studnar)

Jürgen Schübelin, Head of the Department Latin America and the Caribean.

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How we provide disaster relief

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How we promote education

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