Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo Credit: Vania Andre

By Dr. Reynald Altema

One vexing paradigm of the Haitian narrative is that we have done well individually but struggled as a nation. After more than two centuries as a republic, our failures are stark, especially in the area of education.

By contrast, in the United States, a tradition took hold and creation of technical schools, colleges and universities by individuals has mushroomed. From magnates to ex-slaves, for example Andrew Carnegie built Carnegie-Mellon University, Bethune McLeod created Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School in Daytona Beach, Florida. Henri Christophe started a medical school, unfortunately it was left to oblivion after his death. Somehow the idea of creating institutions of higher learning have always taken a low priority historically. We have the reputation of producing brilliant minds evolving in a sea of functional illiterates.

Suppose for an instant that such luminaries like Anténor Firmin, Louis-Joseph Janvier in the 19th century became involved in education instead of politics. Or much closer to us now, Leslie Manigat, who was a professor at the Sorbonne, instead of forming a political party, helped to create a university or establish a solid department at an existing one. What the above examples illustrate is the fact that sharing of knowledge and information in a formal setting for liberal as well technical professions benefits society a whole lot.

This helps to form a middle class, the underpinning of any society. Because of the failure to build a sustainable middle class, governmental institutions have played an outsized role in the nation and have become the main source of industrial development and investment in infrastructure, stifling private innovation.

Certainly, questioning historical figures’ decisions can be interpreted as revisionist and therefore suspect. Such argument would miss the point. Taking history as reference helps to avoid past mistakes to the extent we use it as a learning tool, otherwise it becomes a sterile exercise of reciting events. Comparisons are pertinent and appropriate. Why would an ex-slave in one society find it necessary to start a school and descendants of slaves in another eschew the idea? Building school means elimination of illiteracy. We are solid proof of the reverse proposition.
Questioning historical acts and prevailing trends will help to change anomalies.

The question is, how can this trend be reversed? Can citizens of good faith become involved in constructive changes without the polarization of partisan politics? As utopian as it sounds, the answer is a resounding yes. Out of the earthquake’s rubbles, a group of concerned citizens, from the diaspora and the motherland, banded together under the belief that institutions need to prevail over personalities, the common good, ought to prevail and be prioritized.

This simple concept, adopted by most other societies, for all practical purposes has been alien to ours because everything seems to be seen through jaundiced eyes if not outright suspicion of a person’s or group’s ulterior political motives.

Out of those of those meetings, a think-tank was created ostensibly to identify the problems and offer solutions both short but primarily long term.

The think-tank, Groupe de Réflexion et d’Action pour une Haïti Nouvelle, grahn-monde.org or GRAHN was created shortly after the earthquake. It doubles as non-profit social institution that distinguishes itself as not interested in supplanting state institutions but willing and ready to help them work more efficiently. It aims to help create a professional cadre rather than permanent charity efforts. It therefore has become a unique and hybrid entity, functioning as a laboratory of new ideas in the traditional think-tank mode but also a startup implementing novel ideas and along the way help in jobs generation. It has accomplished quite a few extraordinary tasks as trailblazer:

  • ISTEAH, (L’Institut des Sciences, des Technologies et des Études Avancées d’Haïti, isteah.org). This is the country’s first and so far, only, graduate school offering master’s and doctorate degrees in many disciplines.
  • Haitian Academy of Sciences.
  • Haïti Perspectives, peer-reviewed, thematic quarterly publication.
  • SYNTHÈSE (Système National de THÈSE). A digital library serving as repository of scholarly published theses or papers on Haiti.
  • PIGRAN (Pôle d’Innovation du Grand Nord, pigran.org). A most ambitious project taking Silicon Valley as model. This would be college town, entrepreneurial outpost, research center, agricultural experimental station, smart city with the underpinning of economic development.
  • GRAHN’s Prix d’Excellence. This is a most democratic way toward meritocracy. People from different walks of life – from a madan sara, to aschool teacher, to administrator, to an artist- who do outstanding work, get recognized, honored and made to feel like worthy members of society.

It suffices not to find fault with a paradigm. Devising innovative solutions, testing them, implementing them and proving they work go a long way toward making cogent argument for an alternative approach. The time of think-tank is on us. The need for think-tank was present the day Dessalines chose to break free from bondage because we have always faced a mountain of problems from the beginning, both internal and external. The challenge of concern to all of us is the following: how do we move forward from our eternal position of last in every statistical category?

Dr. Altema is Vice President of GRAHN-USA.

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