PORT-AU-PRINCE // Only a full-scale overhaul of Haiti's education system will provide the universal access to schools that is needed to kick-start the Caribbean nation's post-earthquake recovery, the new UN envoy says.
In one of her first interviews since becoming a special envoy for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), Michaëlle Jean said rebuilding schools and colleges was a top priority for reconstruction. Yesterday, Ms Jean attended services marking the 250,000 Haitians who died on January 12 last year, including a memorial at University Quisqueya, where teachers and students perished in a shower of falling concrete.
Canada's former governor general said it was time to "pull ourselves together" and called for big changes to an education system that only provided schooling to less than half the country's children even before last year's earthquake hit 5,000 schools and levelled the education ministry.
"It's a huge task awaiting me - I will have to move mountains and convince people to invest in Haiti's future," said Ms Jean. "I use the word 'invest' appropriately because it is about ending the logic of the old system and shifting to a new logic, the logic of investment in people, institutions and government."
Haiti has deep-rooted education ills, with 55 per cent of children kept out of classrooms and state-run schools accounting for only 8 per cent of the 22,000 institutes found throughout the country before last year's disaster.
The earthquake damaged or destroyed 3,978 schools, killed more than 1,500 employees and stalled schooling for 2.5 million children. According to the UN's agency for children, Unicef, most rubble-strewn schoolyards have yet to see a bulldozer.
Ms Jean, a native of Haiti and whose family fled the dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier for Canada when she was 11, said it is time for Haiti to abandon a "lottery-like" system in which poor parents struggled to find classroom spaces.
"Many people exploit the desire of Haitian families to send their children to school, and the poorest families will put everything they have into getting their children a proper education. Now what Haiti really needs is ... a public system of quality.
"We want to see a change in Haiti within 10 or 20 years, but we need to start now creating the conditions to make that change happen. I truly believe there will be no hope for Haiti if we don't invest in capacity-building and education."
Unicef's latest report, Children in Haiti One Year After - The Long Road from Relief to Recovery, paints a bleak portrait of a country with "bottlenecks" stalling reconstruction efforts and little progress towards overcoming education inequality.
The 30-page document urges Haitian officials to show leadership by training teachers, abolishing school fees and "unifying a fragmented system divided between private and public actors, marred by inequity and where more than half of all children remain out of school".
Ms Jean, who began her four-year term with Unesco in November, said reconstruction was taking too long and called for a portion of the US$11billion (Dh40bn) pledged by the international community to fund education reforms.
"I want to give the energy in myself to everything that can create hope in Haiti," she said. "One day we will not speak about the Haitian resilience any more, but of their capacity to create, think, innovate and produce. I know this is what Haitians are capable of."
Ms Jean was joined by other international figures at church services, wreath-laying ceremonies and an observance of one minute's silence at 4.53pm - the time the quake struck - at Port-au-Prince's wrecked cathedral and other locations.
The former US president Bill Clinton, another UN envoy to Haiti, and the actor Sean Penn, who provides aid to Haitian camp-dwellers, also visited the quake-struck Caribbean nation, where more than 800,000 still live in tents and reconstruction has yet to begin in earnest.