Armed Conflicts, Climate Change, Education, Education Cannot Wait. Future of Education is here, Human Rights

Education Cannot Wait Interviews Bruno Maes, UNICEF Representative to Haiti

May 22 2024 -  
Bruno Maes is the UNICEF Representative in Haiti. He officially took office in August 2020. A Belgian national, Mr. Maes previously served as UNICEF Representative in Madagascar from 2007 to 2012, in Chad from 2012 to 2015, and recently in Egypt from September 2015 to 2020.

Mr. Maes joined UNICEF in 2000 and served as Deputy Representative in Burundi and Ethiopia. Before joining UNICEF, he served as Representation of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO) for Angola.

Mr. Maes holds a Master’s Degree in development economics from the University of Louvain, Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium.

ECW: Armed groups reportedly now control 80-90% of Port-au-Prince and over 360,000 people – the majority of them children – have been displaced. The country seems to be mired in a culture of violence. How can Education Cannot Wait, UNICEF and other local partners work together to provide these girls and boys with the safety and protection of quality, holistic learning environments?

Bruno Maes: UNICEF expresses grave concern over the swift deterioration of the security situation countrywide, particularly in multiple neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince and in the Artibonite Department. Recent weeks have seen a disturbing trend of violence targeting public institutions and vital social infrastructures, including schools. The violence has led to the temporary closure of hundreds of schools, depriving children of their right to education.

The instability in Haiti continues to undermine education. Frequent disruptions in educational services have posed significant challenges in accessing schools. Occupation of classrooms by armed groups and by internally displaced persons (IDPs) has further reduced access, leaving children vulnerable to the increased risk of recruitment into armed groups or to being the victim of social exclusion, sexual and physical abuse, and socioeconomic discrimination.

As of the end of January, a total of 900 schools had temporarily closed, depriving approximately 200,000 children of their right to education. In a country facing increasingly complex conflicts and instability, education can never be considered merely an option. It must be acknowledged as a necessity, a matter of survival, and a key to social stability.

In Haiti, UNICEF is ensuring access to inclusive and relevant quality education, in a safe and protective learning environment, for all students in public school, including children living with disabilities, affected by a situation of violence, armed conflict or natural disaster.

Support from Education Cannot Wait (ECW) helps UNICEF in assisting families affected by violence and displacement to reintegrate children into formal education. Where integration into formal schools is not feasible, UNICEF collaborates with partners to establish alternative, safe, and temporary learning environments for children. I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to ECW for its invaluable support in our efforts to sustain education in emergencies (EiE).

Regarding our expectations of ECW, UNICEF, and other local partners on issues of safety and the protection of a holistic, quality learning environment, we believe that the best way to work together will be to ensure capacity building of teachers on key issues. These include protection, mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) for children through protection mechanisms combined with social-emotional learning (SEL) activities in targeted schools. This action must be carried out through a strong partnership with the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP in French).

In connection with ongoing initiatives to strengthen psychosocial support and social cohesion in the response, we need to mobilize for the integration of MHPSS into teaching, the strengthening of the code of conduct recently validated by the MENFP to reinforce social cohesion in the school environment, the implementation of school referral mechanisms to other sectors such as hild protection, health, nutrition, the promotion of the Safe Schools Declaration, and, finally, the adoption of gender-based violence risk mitigation measures and school safety plans in the face of attacks on education.

ECW: The education in emergencies response in Haiti – and indeed across the world – is underfunded. Why should donors scale-up funding through multilateral funds such as Education Cannot Wait to respond to this forgotten crisis and deliver on the promises outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

Bruno Maes: There are many reasons why donors should increase funding through multilateral funds such as ECW. I can mention two:

Firstly, ECW is a structure that has considerable influence at global and even national levels, due to the funds it has already granted to Haiti. These include ECW’s First Emergency Response from 2021 to 2022 in response to the Great South earthquake, and then the Multi-Year Resilience Programme for the period 2022-2025). ECW’s technical expertise, direct relations with UN agencies in Haiti (WFP, UNICEF, the Office of the Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator), transparent fiduciary management and long experience of working with different countries and regions are major assets to support this argument. Like the United Nations, ECW as a multilateral fund plays a very important role in low-income countries, including in emergency situations.

Secondly, the purpose of these funds – financed by multiple countries – is the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4, which is our collective goal, in line with the 2030 agenda. And as the fund’s name suggests, education cannot wait in Haiti. The current situation has led to an increase in the number of internally displaced persons, and has created huge gaps in terms of access to basic social services such as education and health. As I speak, almost 4,000 schools are temporarily unable to function in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area (this situation would affect nearly 1.2 million students). Speaking in Washington DC in April on “Linking Education and National Security, Competitiveness and Global Stability” as part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ “Quality Education for Security and Economic Growth” initiative, Haiti’s Minister of Education, Nesmy Manigat, described the educational response to the current situation as “a race against time, not only to guarantee the right to education for thousands of children affected by the crisis, but also to prevent some of them from unwittingly becoming child bandits or child soldiers.”

ECW: #RightHereRightNow, climate change, environmental degradation, soaring temperatures, natural disasters and extreme weather events create a clear and present risk for the children of Haiti. How can we connect education action with climate action in Haiti and beyond?

Bruno Maes: It’s worth remembering that among island countries, Haiti ranks 3rd in terms of vulnerability to climate change. It is also well known that extreme weather events are becoming increasingly severe, occurring almost five times more frequently than 40 years ago, disrupting the education of nearly 40 million children worldwide every year.

In Haiti, the consequences of the most recent earthquake caused enormous damage to infrastructure, with 1,250 basic schools in the three hardest-hit areas (Cayes, Camp-Perrin and Sant-Louis-du-Sud/South department) damaged or destroyed. This situation has directly or indirectly affected 307,359 pupils, whose educational continuity has been disrupted. Nearly 7,512 teachers and more than 1,000 school principals were affected by the earthquake.

There are several ways of connecting education action with climate action in Haiti and beyond, including the promotion of key related themes in new curricula. These would include: the management of household waste and plastic waste; the fight against deforestation and its main consequences; the fight against the unhealthy school environment and the living environment of the learner; the fight against the consequences of certain human activities harmful to the environment (industrial waste, greenhouse gas emissions); the rational management of water resources in a context of climate change; and the management of energy sources in a context of global warming. The unpredictability of the consequences of climate change is likely to exacerbate the climatic impacts on already sensitive sectors, such as education, and limit the country’s economic growth.

ECW: This is arguably the most pressing humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere; how can education promote peace, stability, and economic resilience in a context like Haiti?

Bruno Maes: In the Haitian context, and in line with the aforementioned speech by Haiti’s Minister of Education, I believe that education can promote peace, stability and economic resilience through curriculum transformation. This is the most important step in meeting the challenges of an unstable world undergoing rapid social, economic, technological and climatic change.

As the Minister of Education suggested in the same statement quoted above this, to achieve this:

    o Efforts must be made to ensure that curriculum transformation is integrated throughout the education system, including curricula and textbooks, teacher preparation and pedagogy, assessment and school climate etc.
    o Education systems must equip young people with the life skills and knowledge they need to make a successful transition from the classroom to the world of work. Indeed, it has been shown that there is a positive link between increased human capital and economic outcomes such as higher wages, increased labor market participation rates and economic growth.
    o The modalities of the offer or its curriculum must lead to inclusion and equity. Otherwise, education could turn out to be a double-edged sword, leading to or exacerbating conflict. At this level, the country needs to develop and implement public policies to ensure that educational services are a public good that is equitably shared and promotes peace and social justice.
    o One of MENFP’s priority advocacy issues for Haiti’s next constitutional revision will be to raise awareness of the need for a consensus to integrate the percentage of minimum public spending per year for the education sector.

ECW: We all know that ‘leaders are readers.’ What are three books that have most influenced you personally and/or professionally, and why would you recommend them to others?

Bruno Maes: The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell. Based on a true story, this book follows a young teacher, Erin Gruwell, who transforms the lives of her at-risk students through the power of education and writing. In the face of adversity and societal expectations, Erin encourages her students to express themselves through writing, helping them find their voices and realize their potential. The book is a compilation of diary entries written by the students themselves, chronicling their personal struggles, triumphs, and growth over the course of their high school years. The Freedom Writers Diary illustrates the profound effect that a dedicated teacher and a supportive educational environment can have on students, especially those facing significant challenges. It’s a testament to the transformative power of education in empowering young people to overcome obstacles and create a better future for themselves.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. This powerful memoir tells the story of Tara’s journey from growing up in a strict and isolated household in rural Idaho, where education was undervalued and often inaccessible, to ultimately pursuing higher education at prestigious universities like Harvard and Cambridge. Through her compelling narrative, Tara highlights the transformative power of education in breaking free from the constraints of her upbringing and shaping her identity.

And finally, The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.” This passage beautifully captures perspective on the unique essence and individuality of children, emphasizing the importance of nurturing their growth and allowing them to pursue their own paths in life. It invites stakeholders to support children’s education not to mold them into replicas of themselves, but to empower them to discover and fulfill their own potential.


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