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Haiti's Heartbeat: Engaging Haiti's Youth In The Reconstruction Process

Jill Van den Brule and Cristiana Falcone   First Posted: 01/18/11 04:49 PM ET   Updated: 05/26/11 07:34 PM ET

In Haiti, they say "Tanbou prete pa janm fè bon dans" -- a Creole expression which means "a borrowed drum never makes for good dancing." This phrase ripples from the Caribbean Sea to Thoreau's Walden Pond of wisdom:

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

After being in Haiti for two months, I am acutely aware that children's voices may be too far away, at risk of being drowned out by the crescendo from a well-intentioned humanitarian orchestra.

Against the odds -- ranging from the worst poverty levels in the western hemisphere to alarmingly low health indicators -- Haiti's children are some of the most resilient human beings I have ever met. I am deeply humbled by the wide-eyed 15-year-old I met named Judith, who walks two hours a day to school, often on an empty stomach, because education is at the core of her existence after her mother died in the earthquake.

"When I was not in school, I would be home thinking about my mother and I felt like my head would explode. It is tiring and sometimes I want to give up but a little voice tells me to keep going on for my mother, for my family. It's my reason for living."

That little voice carries more weight that Judith may imagine. In Haiti, education is the social service that parents demand most -- and they are willing to pay up to one quarter of their meager wages to ensure this right for their children.

Yet in 2008, only half of children were enrolled in school. Why? Because there are too many barriers to making it accessible -- school fees are among the greatest obstacles, but transportation and the physical safety of those schools that survived the quake have also risen to the top of the list since January 12, 2010.

Public primary schools accounted for only 8 percent of all facilities before the disaster, and hosted only 20 percent of the total students. Non-public schools have been largely unregulated and operating below minimum standards. Following the quake, temporary schools in tents and transitional learning spaces have been set up by UNICEF and its partners, but it will take some time before the school system, as well as many other related institutions, returns to normalcy.

Haiti's heartbeat may appear faint, but its children are brimming with hope even while their country is hurting. We must take note that there is a flip side to their resilience. What happens when the elastic breaks, when the safety nets are gone, when the international spotlight has swung to shine on another crisis somewhere around the globe?

Just last week, 1,000 protesters took to the streets outside the toppled palace in Port-au-Prince, voicing frustrations. In the post-emergency scenario the critical question is how to strike a balance between the international community's determination to support the people, and ensuring the voice of those people resonates through the rebuilding process. Haiti's historical memory remembers past times when the nation's fate lay in the hands of foreigners, and not all those memories are happy ones.

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The current discussion echoes a pervasive reality: young people in Haiti have become increasingly disenfranchised in recent years and the earthquake has widened the chasm between young and old, haves and have-nots. The problems facing Haiti's youth did not emerge from the rubble on the morning of January 13 -- the two-year period preceding the earthquake was characterized by a series of events that have worn away at the social fabric for children and young people.

These years were particularly difficult as they included food strikes, back-to-back natural disasters, rampant kidnappings and the death of several members of Barikad, a legendary Haitian rap ban -- a loss that shook a generation of youth. Together, these factors have compounded an already fragile situation for young people in Haiti. On the positive side, they also revealed an essential truth -- Haiti's young people matter.

The devastating earthquake exacerbated the situation for Haiti's most vulnerable, who account for more than half the population. Failing to meet their expectations will accelerate a collective loss of faith among young people, echoed by a sentiment in Creole "Granmoun yo echwe" ("the elders have failed us.") The adults' response is "jenes la dejwe" ("the youth are deviating"). Such an exchange underlines how two generations stand on the brink of a relationship breakdown, while emphasizing that there is a critical space for dialogue in the reconstruction of Haiti.

While this disconnect is very real, it has also created a unique opportunity for both Haiti and the international community working to get the country back on its feet. There is a fertile space for promoting life-skills, social entrepreneurship and volunteer networks which can empower youth to help build a better, more resilient Haiti.

Mobilizing this important half of Haitian society will ensure that children and young people are not left directionless, translating unrest and disenfranchisement into violent and illicit activities that will further weaken the social fabric. There is real thirst for learning in Haiti. The time is ripe for a long-term vision of the education system that lays the political, social and financial foundations for a new Movement for Learning that is being launched throughout the country.

According to Facebook, if it was a country, the social network would be the third most populous nation after China and India. With many of Haiti's young people excited about new media, we must find ways to exploit that potential, and cultivate these virtual communities in exponential ways. If we do, youth can access markets, political leadership, and partners interested in their projects. Social networks reinforce solidarity but also allow young people to be effective agents of change. By channeling this important source of energy and potential positively, Haiti's youth can be heard in real time, while there is still time.

This is a moment for transformation. The world must rally a variety of partners to invest in the spirit of youth -- partners that must include young Haitians themselves. It must find innovative ways of financing education, promoting social innovation and encouraging investment by the
private sector so that everyone has a real stake in Haiti.

In March, international donors pledged $10 billion over ten years to help Haiti rebuild. That aid must continue to flow and it needs to tap into Haiti's greatest resource -- it's children. Haitian children don't need borrowed drums. Let them create their own and help them to play. They will march to their own beat and their dance will be inspirational.

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Filed by Victoria Fine  |