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Haiti - is building back good enough?

© UNICEF Haiti/Chris Tidey
Ecole primaire in ruins.

By: Chris Tidey, UNICEF Canada


Port-au-Prince, Haiti  February 4, 2010 – It is now more than three weeks since the January 12 earthquake, and international relief efforts have moved decidedly into a new phase. Immediate emergency response, rescue and recovery operations have wound down. Humanitarian organizations are now focusing on the needs and longer term survival of hundreds of thousands of homeless people who will be living in temporary shelters for the foreseeable future.

The question now is what next? The obvious answer and the one often mentioned in the media is that Haiti must be rebuilt. But rebuilt to what exactly?

The crippling poverty, sprawling shantytowns and rampant unemployment were all here before the earthquake. The nearly half a million orphans, highest infant and under-five mortality rates in the western hemisphere and low levels of primary school enrollment all existed prior to January 12. Is this what Haiti should build back to?

Haiti must not simply rebuild, it must transform and transformation requires a long-term commitment from the international community in partnership with the Haitian government and people.

Transformation must also start with the country’s children. That is why UNICEF is in this for the long-haul, knowing that recovery starts with children and their communities. Only with children at the centre of the reconstruction effort can a new Haiti be built.

As the centerpiece of recovery and reconstruction, children’s survival and wellbeing must be ensured through the provision of lifesaving supplies, medical care and protection from exploitation and abuse. Children must also be given the tools they need to become the future leaders of Haiti’s transformation – something which can only be achieved through education.

Before the earthquake, about half of all primary school age children were actually in school, with only about 20 percent moving on to secondary school. The disaster will have made a bad situation worse by adding yet more obstacles to the delivery of effective childhood education.

Much of the education infrastructure in Port-au-Prince and other affected areas is destroyed. Dozens, if not hundreds, of schools are ruined and Haiti’s Ministry of Education itself has been reduced to a heap of rubble. All schools across the country were closed immediately after the earthquake, with only those in unaffected areas reopening on February 2.

Again, we ask what next? What next for the hundreds of thousands children who remain out of school?

Children have the right and need to education and getting them back in the classroom must be a top priority. UNICEF is working with the Government of Haiti to broadcast ‘back-to-school’ messages for families in areas unaffected by the earthquake to ensure parents know those schools have reopened. UNICEF has also begun distribution of school supplies to areas in Port-au-Prince where schools remain destroyed or closed to ensure that children can continue their education at home or in the temporary settlements.

But the schools of Port-au-Prince, Leogane, Jacmel and other affected areas must eventually be reconstructed. It is in the best interests of the children and the country’s transformation that schools are once again open for learning and soon. Given the severe damage done to education infrastructure though, this will be a very difficult task, but an essential one nonetheless.   

For more information

Tamar Hahn, thahn@unicef.org, UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean + (507) 301 7485


UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments


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