International Meeting for the Reconstruction of the Haitian University System

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International Meeting for the Reconstruction of the Haitian University System

Montreal, Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On January 12, 2010, at 4:53 p.m., Haiti was rocked by an earthquake.

The grim toll: some 300,000 dead, according to the Haitian authorities, thousands of injured, communes devastated, a whole capital wiped out by the quake.

The images of that disaster, on the front pages of newspapers or broadcast live around the world, first gave rise to horror, and then to an unprecedented wave of solidarity for the Haitian people, “with no day of rest to ease their pain,” to quote the poet René Depestre.

Those images are now fewer and farther between in the information media, but the disaster itself is very real and is still being lived every day by our Haitian sisters and brothers who survived.

That’s why I feel it is crucial, indeed vital, that that initial wave of international solidarity be followed up by round-the-clock vigilance by those committed to helping one of the most vulnerable countries in the Americas rise from the rubble.

It must have our undivided attention.

So the initiative by Ms. Mireille Mathieu, Vice-Rector, International Relations at the Université de Montréal, and her co-workers, is an excellent way to put vigilance at the heart of our actions to assist Haiti.

On March 8 and 9, Ms. Mathieu, Montreal Mayor Mr. Gérald Tremblay and Ms. Denise Côté, a professor in the department of social work and social sciences at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, accompanied me to Haiti to gauge the extent of the damage, witness the effectiveness of Canadian aid and identify priority areas for action in consultation not only with Haitian authorities and representatives but also with civil society.

It is clear that Haiti will not recover without the full-fledged participation of the country’s women, men and youth, and without taking into account the concerns, perspectives, initiatives, creativity and abilities of Haitians, who must be included in every action, every project like never before. There is an urgent shift required and that is to include the population, to believe in the people, to count on them and to work with them, in Port-au-Prince, and outside Port-au-Prince.

During our discussions and numerous meetings we had with them, it was quickly concluded that education must be one of the key components of all reconstruction efforts, whether it is sending children back to elementary school, as they were calling for and waiting impatiently for, rebuilding higher education or promoting vocational training.

Of course, education is necessary for any growth-oriented country, but also and especially so for any country trying to rise from the ashes.

Yes, I especially like to recall that little girl, whom I will never forget, standing in front of me, surrounded by dust and debris, who wanted to know where and when her classes would resume.

That child’s concern among so many others was a powerful reminder of the importance of re-establishing Haiti’s education system by introducing criteria, standards and quality controls in every school and by strengthening the accessibility and universality of the public sector.

And all the women and men working on the ground in the education sector insisted the same, recounting all the losses to human life, as well as to the infrastructure.

The toll is heavy, it is horrific, it is appalling: over 4,000 students and hundreds of teachers and staff members died, and over 89% of schools and educational institutions, including two universities in Port-au-Prince, were destroyed in the earthquake.

The needs in the coming years will be enormous, and Haiti must be able to count on its youth, who will need to have access to high-quality education to meet the many complex challenges of reconstruction.

I believe that is the most promising opportunity for Haiti to finally rebuild on new, solid and luminous foundations. Like you, I believe that strengthening the education sector—so badly hit by the earthquake—is vital for all REORGANIZATION in the country.

As it says in the Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti, the time has come to “reverse the spiral of vulnerability.”

Haiti cannot continue to be the laboratory for all forms of assistance, all trials and errors of aid, or deficient strategies.

On March 31, at the International Donor’s Conference held at the United Nations—which Canada helped to co-organize—the Haitian government, Haitian civil society and the international community, including governments, associations, institutions and the private sector, agreed on a global approach to make the reconstruction of Haiti a leading case.

Let me explain.

While there is certainly a need for emergency measures to provide food and drinking water, to relocate disaster victims, to erect temporary shelters and to prevent the spread of disease—especially as the next rain and hurricane season approaches—we must also, and perhaps more importantly, ensure that Haiti’s reconstruction is planned and carried out as a test of our ability to put solidarity before personal or specific interests.

When speaking at the United Nations, the President of Haiti, René Préval, was right when he described the disaster that destroyed his country as an opportunity to dream of another kind of humanity. Another kind of humanity, I would say, in which the spirit of sharing triumphs over greed and the “fend for yourself” mentality.

It would be no less than a development framework that places human dignity and the imagination at the heart of all systems, all intervention strategies, every joint effort, one that urgently calls for a new ethic of sharing.

We will need to invent together new ways of doing things and new ways of helping.

Every human experience, even if it stems from a disaster, is an opportunity to rethink learning and our approach to education, as Mr. Jacky Lumarque, the Rector of Université Quisqueya, in Port-au-Prince, reminded us so aptly. 

Speaking in the very ruins of his university, where a camp was being set up for disaster victims, Mr. Lumarque said that the students could put into practice and deepen their knowledge on the ground: learn by helping women, men and children in crisis; learn through action and by rolling up their sleeves; learn by discovering the needs and taking part in the solutions; and become aware of and strengthen the sense of citizenship and civic responsibility.  

It is in that unifying, innovative and, dare I say, profoundly humanist spirit that the international meetings that bring us together today are being held, to develop an action plan for the reconstruction of higher learning in Haiti.

The Agence universitaire de la Francophonie, of which Ms Mathieu is the Vice Rector, Community Life and Development, is spearheading this initiative, which is an absolutely remarkable, tangible and hands-on example, if ever one were needed, of what the Francophonie is doing to help out one of its members in such dire need.

In the coming days, here at the Université de Montréal—my alma mater, I’m proud to point out—Haitian representatives will set out their priorities and representatives of Francophone universities will propose advice and counsel.

I warmly salute this meeting, which is a real harbinger of hope, and you may be assured, dear friends, that I will be following your deliberations with the greatest of interest.

I’d like to leave you with a quotation by the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, who renewed our approach to the imagination, and who said, so appropriately in these days of fierce struggle against disaster, that “the will must imagine too much to be able to achieve enough.”

And so I invite all of you, in these so special circumstances, to give free rein to your imagination, and let your reach exceed your grasp.