Haiti Conference Focuses on Children, Families, and Long-Term Responses to Catastrophe

Convening a group of experts on Haiti from a variety of academic backgrounds, NYU’s Institute of Human Development and Social Change (IHDSC) organized a day-long conference to advance knowledge on rebuilding Haiti and on how to protect vulnerable populations in post-disaster contexts.

The conference brought together mental health experts, educators, psychologists, anthropologists, legal experts, and more to share their knowledge of the challenges Haiti faces following the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010. The speakers generated dialogue around issues of protecting women and children following the disaster, rebuilding Haiti’s educational system, conducting ethically sound research in post-disaster contexts, and using research to inform sustainable reform in Haiti and elsewhere.

“As Haiti looks down the long and arduous road to recovery from the earthquake, rigorous research can make important contributions to the difficult choices that will need to be made by the many stakeholders invested in its potential,” said Fabienne Doucet, assistant professor of teaching and learning at NYU Steinhardt and chair of the Haiti Working Group at IHDSC. “This conference, unique in its transdisciplinarity, represents the promise that thoughtful, passionate scholars can contribute to Haiti’s journey toward a vibrant, prosperous, and socially just future for the most vulnerable of her citizens.”

“This meeting reflects a key premise that drives much of our work at IHDSC,” said Cybele Raver, professor of applied psychology at Steinhardt and director of IHDSC. “Much of our work is anchored the perspective that interdisciplinary approaches are centrally important if we are going to be able to find effective policy solutions to complex problems such as meeting the needs of children and families in the face of natural disaster. This meeting reflects that tremendous intellectual diversity and we’re so happy to have sponsored it.” 

A panel on education included Michele Pierre-Louis, former Prime Minister of Haiti and executive director of FOKAL, Fondation Connaissance et Liberté, an NGO operating in Haiti that seeks to promote democracy by offering programs and services for youth, women, and the poor. Pierre-Louis provided an overview of the educational system in Haiti, which is dominated by nonpublic schools. More than 90 percent of Haiti’s youth attend nonpublic schools, making education financially out of reach for most of the country’s poor. Education in Haiti is marked by physical and economic inequities with wide gaps in attendance between urban and rural students and wealthy and poor students.

The earthquake further aggravated these gross inequalities. Sixty-five percent of schools were destroyed in the earthquake and more than 4,000 students, teachers, and administrators were killed in the disaster. In Pierre-Louis’ view, there can be no reconstruction of Haiti without an integrated focus on education. She noted a paradox in Haitian culture, in which gross inequities exist alongside a huge appetite for learning, a determination among parents for their children to receive educations, and the awareness that education provides a way out of poverty.

She cited the success of FOKAL in changing attitudes and helping reform education among the rural poor. Her organization established pre-schools in rural areas, helped create child-centered classrooms, trained teachers, engaged parents and communities, built libraries, and worked with the public sector to bring about change.

Next, Doucet offered context into the challenges that face Haiti in terms of reforming its educational system. She noted that although humanitarian aid following a crisis often positions education as a protector, providing normalcy and routine to children during a time of crisis, education can also present a huge challenge. She referenced the attacks on schools that have occurred in other regions following disaster or conflict, such as in Afghanistan.

She argued that, in Haiti, violence against education is more symbolic in nature, noting that there exists a lack of political will to change the system. During an interview with a progressive Haitian intellectual, she was told that to educate the masses would be to democratize them, and this poses too deep a threat to the economic elite of the country.

According to Doucet, exacerbating the problem, efforts to reform the system suffer from a lack of coordination among the stakeholders and a lack of integration with other social services, such as those focused on health and nutrition. Doucet argues for a strong central Haitian government that empowers its local authorities to bring about change and for building a solid base of evidence to help direct and coordinate reform efforts.

Presenting another perspective of the challenges in Haiti, Diane Hoffman, an educational anthropologist from the University of Virginia, described her research concerning informal learning among Haiti’s many children who do not attend school. Despite being characterized by the media and various NGOs as vulnerable and victimized, this youth population, Hoffman finds, is not without agency of its own. Out-of-school children, she finds, still seek opportunities for social mobility and independence. Hoffman, who plans to return to Haiti to conduct in-depth ethnographic research on the subject, argues for expanding the notion of education in Haiti to include informal contexts, since 100 percent participation in formal schooling is unlikely in the near future. For instance, she sees the promise of linking informal learning to skills development such as literacy.

Moderating the panel and offering final thoughts was Dana Burde, assistant professor of international education at Steinhardt whose own research has focused on community-based schools in Afghanistan. Burde provided some historical background to the international interest in education in post-disaster regions, noting that interest from NGOs and others developed following the end of the Cold War, after the expansion of humanitarian aid. Also, interest in international education increased following 9/11, since education came to be seen as a security concern.

Burde ended with optimism, noting that the crop of freshly minted PhDs who have joined the ranks of international NGOs is resulting in a more evidence-based practice.