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Craig and Marc Kielburger

Craig and Marc Kielburger

Posted: March 22, 2011 02:48 PM

How Do You Spell Democracy?


I'll never forget the wrinkled face of a frustrated voter in a schoolyard in the town of Hinche, Haiti.

Each line told a different story of the hardship he faced -- corrupt governments, poverty, an earthquake, the painfully slow dispersal of aid and now a cholera epidemic. Yet, at noon-hour on that hot, tension-filled November day, he still turned up to cast a ballot for a new president and a new future.

Sadly, I never learned his name -- I'm not sure he did either.

"I can't read this," he said, uncomfortably handing his voter's card to an election official.

The official sounded frustrated as he said, "J--your name begins with J." Then, he waved the man off towards one of the handwritten lists tacked to classroom doors around the schoolyard indicating who could vote at what booth.

As the nameless man disappeared into the crowd around the paper, I could almost see another line etch his face. I lost him before determining if he ever exercised his democratic right.

Illiteracy -- a problem affecting approximately 50 percent of Haitians -- is an invisible epidemic. It's doesn't produce dramatic photos. But, it's inextricably linked to the violence, fraud and disorder plaguing Haiti's electoral process.

This Sunday, two candidates went head-to-head in the second round of voting for the majority win needed to become president. Even though new measures were taken to produce a fair election, a democracy can't be built in a day.

In November, it was evident the election official who directed the nameless man had fielded the same request dozens of times. Throughout the schoolyard the illiterate sought help finding their names. At one door, a woman anxiously watched a young man hold her identification card while runing his fingertips up and down a list scanning for her name.

When he couldn't find it, the pair moved on to another door, another list, another exercise in humiliation.

The girl's frustration was obvious in her sunken shoulders. But, about 100 kilometres south in Port-au-Prince, it boiled over in the streets, and protesters immobilized the city. Fraud was reported at numerous voting stations. It was ballot stuffing and vote buying -- more so, it was intimidation and deception.

Among the thousands of illiterate citizens unable to locate their names or polling stations, many were misled by partisan supporters of opposing candidates who sent them away, telling them they weren't on the list.

This problem was so widespread the Provisional Electoral Council took measures to combat it in the second round.

The Council reviewed and ramped up security with the United Nations to prevent ballot stuffing. Then, it set up a 24-hour calling station where citizens could call for the location of their polling booth in advance. As well, Boy Scouts were enlisted for Election Day to help people with reading difficulties.

Given the circumstances, these are huge steps towards creating as fair an election as possible -- but, not enough for a fully-functioning democracy.

Currently, Haitian school fees (starting at $250 annually) are out of reach for most families. As well, a lack of educational standards and properly trained teachers mean children receive on average five years of poor-quality education.

The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission is working towards providing universal education up to Grade 6 by 2015. Haiti's new government will be essential in implementing this plan-- and ensuring the next generation's democratic participation.

Take Meloed's newborn.

Meloed survived last year's earthquake in Port-au-Prince a pregnant widow. With little money, she moved to Hinche hoping to rebuild her life. Six months later on a mattress in the pouring rain, she gave birth to a baby girl she named "Natch-en-ly."

"How do you spell that?" I asked.

Meloed shrugged her shoulders, indicating she didn't know. I wondered how then the baby girl would learn.

Future electoral commissions might be able to add her to a voter's list. But, only education will teach her the alphabet, enable her to cast an informed ballot and empower her to fight for change.

No matter the results of the election, the new president and the international community must work to strengthen Haitian society through its schools.

Peacekeepers and observers may produce fairer elections -- but education is the first step towards democracy.

 

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