Diving in the dollar pushes education out of reach
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – On a sunny Tuesday this winter, the clock towers in Haiti’s capital struck at 8 a.m. swivel skirts and lunch boxes. Some jumped on colorful tap-tap buses, others on motorcycle taxis, their horns and engines sounding as they took the students to school.
Mordecai Dorival wished he could join them. Mordecai, a lean and reserved 15-year-old, is expected to be in ninth grade. He attended a private school, as most Haitian children do, and his godmother on the Caribbean island of Saint-Martin sent money to help with schooling. But in November, when schools reopened after a hiatus, he couldn’t afford to go home. The pandemic had eroded her godmother’s income – and the US dollars she could send were suddenly worth less.
Much of the Haitian economy operates on dollars. This is in part because Haiti depends more than almost any other country on money sent from abroad. Remittances make up about a third of the country’s gross domestic product, and the vast majority comes from the United States.
Over the past year, the value of the local currency, the gourd, has skyrocketed. This had the effect of reducing the value of the dollar – meaning that the poorest Haitians now had even less. Almost overnight it was more difficult to buy rice, peas, milk and cooking oil; their prices have not gone down. And it was more difficult to send children to school.
About 80% of Haitian schools are private. According to a recent report by the Caribbean Development Bank, families typically spend almost half of their income on school fees, uniforms and books. While education advocates say it’s too early to have reliable numbers, they suspect there are many more Mordecai – children whose schooling has been cut off, in part, by the exchange rate .
Jean Lama Eustache runs a private school in Port-au-Prince. When classes resumed, nearly 40% of the 120 students did not show up. “We don’t know if they’ll come back, and we can’t let them come without paying,” he says. He can barely pay his staff as is.
Anne Myriam Bolivar, YPG Haiti
Haiti suffers from years of negative economic growth, says economist Enony Germain. There just aren’t a lot of good paying jobs, so if remittances lose value, parents have little way to get money.
“If we don’t manage to send our children to school, I can already imagine what tomorrow will be like,” says Lëticia Jean Felix, a single mother who has been unemployed for three years. “Who will replace teachers and other public and private officials?”
Jean Felix’s children are 12, 13 and 15 years old. When school resumed, they couldn’t go – she was relying on remittances.
Education officials recognize that many students drop out of school because of financial problems, but say there is little they can do. “We cannot satisfy everyone, and the state has made public schools available,” says Ireland’s Valerie Dorcéus, head of department at the Ministry of Education. “There are parents who have chosen to place their children in private schools, and now, with the economic situation of the country, can no longer meet their obligations to pay school fees.” However, many public schools do not have room for new students.
It was already difficult for Haitian children to graduate. About 10% drop out before grade six and 40% before grade nine, the last year of schooling, according to the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning. Recent crises have not helped. Schools closed in 2019 due to political unrest and in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In recent months, as the legislature collapsed and the president was ruled by decree, Haiti has been convulsed by protests and an alarming increase in kidnappings. Terrified, some parents kept their children at home.
They did not anticipate an exchange rate crisis either. Last year, a number of factors, including the decision of Haiti’s central bank to sell $ 150 million on the foreign exchange market, caused the gourde to skyrocket in value. In August, $ 1 was equivalent to over 110 gourdes. In April, it was closer to 80.
Anne Myriam Bolivar, YPG Haiti
Antonise Ocville, a housekeeper in Port-au-Prince, says her cousin from Saint-Martin sent her $ 200 to $ 300 a year to help her daughters attend school. Now Ocville can barely afford to feed them, let alone educate them. Thus, the eldest, who is 14, stays in class, while her younger sisters stay at home and help with housework. “It’s difficult here,” Ocville says. “There is no education for the poor.”
It is not unusual for Haitian children to start school later or to leave and come back, but these students are at a disadvantage. Some 80% of dropouts are “over-aged” or older – sometimes much older – than their classmates, according to the UNESCO institute.
Out of school, they risk joining gangs or stealing to survive, says Chrisler Thélusma, who heads the Movement Against Domesticity group, which helps children re-enroll. “They are vulnerable and let themselves be guided in the wrong direction,” said Thélusma.
Mordecai misses school. He loved geography because he would imagine visiting the places mentioned by his teacher and playing football with his friends. But his mother’s income is limited to his work, odd jobs, or selling trinkets, and that’s not enough to fire him.
Every morning he collects glue, a pump and other tools; sits on a rusty car door attached to cement blocks; and waits for customers. “To pass the time and also my frustration, I repair my friends’ and other people’s bikes,” he says. Most of what he does he gives to his mother.