PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — On a sun-drenched Tuesday this winter, the clock towers of Haiti’s capital city rang out at 8 a.m. In the Mariani neighborhood, kids streamed out of small sheet-metal homes, clad in white blouses and pressed skirts and swinging lunch boxes. Some hopped on colorful tap-tap buses, others on motorcycle taxis, their horns and engines blaring as they whisked the students to school.
Mardochée Dorival wished he could join them. A lanky, reserved 15-year-old, Mardochée should be in ninth grade. He used to attend a private school, like most Haitian children do, and his godmother on the Caribbean island of St. Martin sent money to help with tuition. But in November, when schools reopened after a hiatus, he couldn’t afford to go back. The pandemic had eroded his godmother’s income – and the United States dollars she could send were suddenly worth less.
Much of the Haitian economy runs on dollars. That’s partly because Haiti depends more than almost any other nation on money sent from overseas. Remittances constitute about one-third of the country’s gross domestic product, and the vast majority come from the U.S.
Last year, the value of the local currency, the gourde, shot up. This had the effect of slashing the dollar’s value – meaning the poorest Haitians now had even less. Almost overnight, it was harder to buy rice, peas, milk and cooking oil; their prices didn’t drop. And it was harder to send kids to school.
About 80% of Haitian schools are private. Families typically spend close to half their income on the likes of tuition, uniforms and books, according to a recent Caribbean Development Bank report. While education advocates say it’s too early to have reliable numbers, they suspect there are many more Mardochées – kids whose schooling was interrupted, in part, by the exchange rate.
Jean Lama Eustache runs a private school in Port-au-Prince. When classes restarted, almost 40% of 120 students didn’t show up. “We don’t know if they will come back, and we can’t let them come without paying,” he says. He can barely pay his staff as is.
Anne Myriam Bolivar, GPJ Haiti
Haiti is suffering from years of negative economic growth, says economist Enony Germain. There just aren’t many good-paying jobs, so if remittances drop in value, parents have few ways of obtaining cash.
“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 the teachers, and other public and private civil servants?”
Jean Felix’s children are 12, 13 and 15. When school restarted, they couldn’t go – she relied on remittances.
Education officials acknowledge that many students quit school because of financial woes, but they say there’s little they can do. “We cannot satisfy everyone, and the state has made public schools available,” says Irlande Valerie Dorcéus, a department head in the Ministry of Education. “There are parents who have chosen to put their children in private schools, and now, with the economic situation of the country, cannot meet their obligations to pay school fees.” However, many public schools don’t have room for new students.
It was already tough for Haitian kids to graduate. About 10% drop out before sixth grade and 40% before ninth grade, the final year of schooling, according to UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning. Recent crises haven’t helped. Schools shut down in 2019 because of political unrest, and in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. In recent months, as the legislature collapsed and the president ruled by decree, Haiti has convulsed with protests and an alarming surge in kidnappings. Terrified, some parents kept their kids at home.
They didn’t anticipate an exchange-rate crisis as well. Last year, a number of factors, including a decision by Haiti’s central bank to sell $150 million on the foreign-exchange market, sent the gourde’s value soaring. In August, $1 equaled more than 110 gourdes. In April, it equaled closer to 80.
Anne Myriam Bolivar, GPJ Haiti
Antonise Ocville, a housekeeper in Port-au-Prince, says her cousin in St. Martin sent her $200 to $300 a year to help her daughters attend school. Now Ocville can barely afford to feed, let alone educate, them. So the oldest, who is 14, remains in class, while her younger sisters stay home and help with housework. “It’s hard here,” Ocville says. “There is no education for the poor.”
It’s not unusual for Haitian kids to either start school at a later age, or leave and come back, but those students are at a disadvantage. Some 80% who drop out 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 runs the group Movement Against Domesticity, which helps children reenroll. “They are vulnerable and let themselves be guided in the wrong direction,” Thélusma says.
Mardochée misses school. He enjoyed geography, because he would imagine visiting the places his teacher mentioned, and playing soccer with his friends. But his mother’s income is limited to her work doing odd jobs or selling knickknacks, and it’s not enough to send him back.
Each morning, he gathers glue, a pump and other tools; sits on a rusted car door steadied on cement blocks; and waits for customers. “To pass time and also my frustration, I repair my friends’ and other people’s bikes,” he says. Most of what he makes, he gives to his mother.