Haitian President Martelly's Scholarship Program

By Justin Podur
Published on Killing Train, October 5, 2011, http://killingtrain.com/node/813

The centerpiece of Haitian President Martelly's policies so far is his scholarship program. It is an ambitious plan to provide free education to every primary school-aged child, between 6-12 years old or from grades 1-6. President Martelly's press office provided some of the plan's details.

The government estimates that there are approximately 1.5 million children of primary (grade 1-6) age. This year, the government is subsidizing school fees for 772,000 children, or half the total, 63% of which are in public school and 37% in private schools. Private schools get $90/student, while public schools, already subsidized, receive an additional $3/student. The government estimates that a total subsidy of $90/student is required, whether in private or public school, for a total of $135 million per year.

Now the government will be trying to find the money. The government has added two new taxes: one on wire transfers from abroad and the other on telecom. These new taxes are to bring in $42 million in revenue this year, and the project cost for this year's 772,000 students is around $27 million. With 879 private schools and 1,392 schools participating, some students will be getting uniforms, kits, books, and one meal a day as well: private school students will receive all of these, whereas what public school students receive varies.

How to evaluate this program? There appear to be several benefits.

Universal primary education, required by the Haitian Constitution, is a worthwhile centerpiece for a government's policy. Having the program financed by tax revenues rather than donors or IMF-organized loans gives it the possibility of stability – and runs contrary to the pro-privatization logic that controls most economies. The fact that Martelly, who announced a desire to bring back the Haitian Army and various other regressive ideas, is focusing on education as his first policy, is also a positive sign.

The first and most important concern is that we can only evaluate the announcement, not how it is actually working, because it is too soon. But evaluating the plan, a few concerns suggest themselves. The new taxes were announced by the President before having a Prime Minister in place and without going through the usual due process channels (the new Prime Minister, Garry Conille, was ratified yesterday by the Senate). While the government seems to recognize that universal education cannot be achieved except through the government, much of the budget is going to subsidize students in private schools. Given the size and importance of the private school sector in Haiti, there would seem to be no other way to do it in the short term. But unless the government is going to take over the schools and have universal public education, the way many wealthy countries have, the plan creates a strange situation of publicly-funded private schools. If they are publicly funded, why aren't they public?

Finally, the sustainability of the program is actually unclear. The program, moving forward, is to cost some $135 million per year (based on the figure of $90 per student per year – which itself requires a lot of assumptions). This year, with subsidies for half the students, the new taxes will, in theory, bring in enough money (Clinton-Bush provided $1.25 million). But the press kit notes a gap of $80 million per year (60% of the budget) in the long-term projection, whose premise is that foreign participation in the program will be gradually reduced over time.

Other potential problems, noted by a Radio France International story, include shortages of teachers and inspectors, leading to huge class sizes and other problems, which are in some ways harder to address than finding 60% of the program's money.

It seems that neither the plan nor the new taxes can change the current reality that Haiti's tax revenues are small, that most of its economy is under foreign control, and that as a consequence, its ability to embark on big new public programs runs into all of the shortages that result – of infrastructure, of trained teachers, and of money.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer, in Haiti from Oct 3-10, 2011. He publishes on his blog, Killing Train.