MIT-Haiti Initiative: Another Broken Promise?

January 25, 2016

It’s an issue that strikes at the heart of development and progress.

Though some may argue that the country has bigger fish to fry, with paralyzing elections and continued fallout from the 2010 earthquake, most agree that ultimately it is a problem that needs to be solved.

Education in Haiti.

According to the World Bank, only half of Haiti’s children attend school. For those that do, they will encounter a severe shortage of qualified instructors, minimal government support and unaffordable fees. Another barrier, others argue, is language.  Despite an overwhelming majority of students who speak Haitian Creole, French is the order of the day and is used as the national language of instruction. Many instructors relegate Kreyòl, as a second rate language, believing that it has no value, but there are others who stand firm to celebrate it.

Meet Dr. Michel DeGraff.

The tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is dedicated to not only demonstrating its importance, but he insists that naturally, it should also be used to teach in Haiti’s schools. A $1 million grant acquired from the National Science Foundation is helping him to do just that. With the help of his colleagues, DeGraff has been able to spark an initiative with a series of workshops using some of the best minds in Haiti. Their goal is to translate teaching resources created at MIT while producing online materials. The next workshop is scheduled for March in Port-au-Prince.

“This is a project to improve quality and access to education especially in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM),” said DeGraff. One major advantage is that students will use active learning techniques. The current model, he points out, does little to create opportunities for thinking outside the box.

“Haitian children have been wasting their intelligence on rote learning,” he asserts. “In Haiti, they have the same capacity to produce state-of-the-art materials in Kreyòl, that will then give the kids the capacity to become creative in what they are learning, instead of being stuck in this learning paradigm that has plagued Haiti for centuries.”

The importance of using Kreyòl, particularly in an educational setting, he said, cannot be overstated.

Kreyol as a tool for Access and Quality in Education

“…As a linguist, I can make the honest scientific argument that Haitian kids who have strong foundations in their native Kreyòl are in a better position to learn French—as the second language that it is.  When kids start to learn to read and write in a language that they do not speak, they run the risk of becoming poor readers and poor learners for life…”

Professor Flore Zephir, director of the Afro-Romance Institute at the University of Missouri, agrees. She believes that the MIT-Haiti Initiative is a game changer.

“I think that this is the best thing that Haiti has ever done in terms of reform in the educational system…” said Zephir. “The purpose of an education is to [obtain] knowledge. Now if that knowledge from day one is disseminated in a language that not too many children understand, then that is making a mockery of public education in Haiti.”

This is particularly egregious, she said, given the commonality of those who speak it. “Kreyòl is the language spoken by 100 percent of the Haitian population living in Haiti. There is no such thing as a person living in Haiti, born and raised there who can claim that he or she cannot speak Haitian Creole.  If there is such a person…who tells you [so] then that person is very disingenuous. So common sense dictates that the population and its school children be educated in their native language.”

The implications of not learning in one’s native tongue, DeGraff mused, has far reaching implications.

“It’s a no brainer,” he explained. “When you don’t teach them in Kreyòl, what you are doing is psychologically traumatizing [them]. When taught from day one that their language background is worthless, it is corrupt…then these kids start life with a failed identity and with a deeply damaged sense of self.”

He recalls how he was also forbidden to use Kreyòl in school. “In Haiti you are always told that Kreyòl doesn’t have any grammatical rules…that it’s broken French, that it’s not a real language and that it will prevent you from learning so-called proper French.”

His advanced studies and research, however, proved otherwise. “For my PhD research I looked at the history and the structure of Haitian Creole. The more I worked on [it] and the more research I did, the more I realized that in terms of… its capacity to express complex thoughts, that it’s a perfectly normal and full-fledged language…Kreyòl  does have rules and those rules are very clear and very robust.”

Armed with this knowledge, DeGraff eventually joined a movement that not only shows respect but elevates a language that captures the essence of Haitian spirit and culture.

DeGraff’s urgency to create a Kreyòl-based program, however, reached a pinnacle after the 2010 earthquake. Many of his colleagues perished after their building at the State University of Haiti, was completely destroyed. With all their hard work buried underneath a pile of rubble, DeGraff’s mission became all too clear. He would help build a state-of-the-art school system for all, which means using a language that everyone speaks.


Yon Lòt Kalite Lekòl Pou Yon Lòt Kalite Peyi- Haitian Ministry of National Education



To accomplish this, DeGraff and his colleagues knew that one of their most important tasks was to  reach out to the Haitian government. He did so despite being cautioned by various colleagues. The government is known for corruption, they warned, citing its reputation for labyrinthian structures, crippling red tape and stifling bureaucracy. Nevertheless, DeGraff reached out and he found that they were willing to lend him an ear.

In March 2013, during a visit to Haiti by an MIT delegation, then Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe as well as the Minister of National Education, pledged their support. The following month during a visit to MIT, Lamothe signed an agreement between the Haitian government and MIT stipulating that the MIT-Haiti initiative will be implemented at the national level and ultimately be used in all schools.

Since planting those seeds, the initiative has since blossomed and is beginning to bear fruit. With six workshops under its belt, over 200 faculty members have been trained in STEM disciplines and have since implemented the program into their classrooms. Other educators in Haiti are also looking for their slice of the pie with at least 150 high schools and universities comprising the pool of applicants who are scrambling to attend their workshops.

Taking heed to implement Kreyòl in all facets of life, the Haitian government has also shown some headway on the issue. In June 2014, a leadership seminar organized by Professor Deborah Ancona of the MIT Sloan School of Management for the prime minister and his cabinet-a total of about 50 government ministers and other high-level officials, was conducted with all of its accompanying materials in Kreyòl. This was the first in the history of the country.

But while progress for the initiative is taking two steps forward one has to also wonder if it is taking two steps back.

An unstable political climate and a high turnover of government officials, including the resignation of Prime Minister Lamothe, appears to have disrupted previous efforts. And while officials have shown a willingness to listen, a substantial precedent has yet to be set.

To date, it is undetermined whether there is a physical presence for the MENFP/MIT-Haiti Bureau in Haiti. A budget allocated for the endeavor, though promised, has yet to materialize. A cursory glance at the homepage of the Ministry’s website, which, by the way is entirely, in French, offers no prominent links or articles on the initiative.

Haitian government officials from the education sector did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

“Well, so far, this MENFP/MIT-Haiti Bureau exists on paper only, even though we had been told that there was a substantial budget allocated for its functioning, even though there were visits to actual buildings that could host the Bureau,”  said DeGraff.

And make no mistake. One can only imagine that there are those who would prefer that this initiative or others like it would just go away.

“It’s the status quo,” Zephir said. “All those resistant towards the use of Kreyòl as a vehicle of instruction is based more on fear. A fear that perhaps Kreyòl in the long run will eliminate French from Haiti’s landscape. But that fear is unfounded. No one in their right mind would say that they don’t want Haitian kids to have proficiency in French or [in other languages].

DeGraff points to a recent summit as an example of those who would not benefit.

“The political and geopolitical opposition that wants to maintain the linguistic apartheid of the status quo is ferocious and insidious, as you can imagine given Haiti’s history with its élites in cahoots with the international community,” he said.

“The French government, in concert with the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie…, has been pushing a self-serving, anti-scientific and neo-colonial French-based approach to education in Haiti.  In November 2015, the French Embassy and Haiti’s Ministry of Education, sponsored a “National Summit on the Role of Digital Tools in Teacher Training.”

Though the Ministry’s website stated that panelists were the “main actors engaged in digital learning and faculty development” the MIT-Haiti initiative were not invited.  The move makes one wonder in which direction will the government finally turn to when it comes to education in Haiti.

However, DeGraff remains optimistic.

“Haitian history teaches us to be patient,” he said.  “Consider, for example, the Haitian Creole Academy which I am a founding member of.  This… was mandated by the 1987 Haitian Constitution.  Yet it finally came alive in December 2014, at long last.  And thank God and Papa Legba and the State University for that… Hopefully, this MENFP/MIT-Haiti Bureau won’t take that long to become reality—or it may become something else that may be even more effective.”

We can only hope.

Though it is clear that there are steps in the right direction on behalf of both parties let’s make sure that this initiative isn’t lost in the shuffle. Will the next government in place make the MIT-Haiti Initiative or other progressive educational models a priority?

The lives of Haitian children and the future of Haiti as a country depends on it. For the program to succeed continued dialogue is necessary, transparency is key and questions must be answered.

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