Education in Shambles: How Students Suffer when Natural Disasters Hit

Hurricane Matthew’s effects on Haiti have been disastrous since it hit the country on October 4. Buildings have collapsed and an estimated 500 (but likely many more) people have died, exacerbating the hardship already faced by the affected region, which has a poverty level of almost 70%. However, one part of the aftermath that has not received much attention is the effect that the hurricane has had on Haiti’s education system.

October 10 should have been the start of the school year for many children in Haiti, but the devastation of the hurricane has prevented over 100,000 students from returning to school. More than 300 schools were “severely affected,” meaning there was heavy damage done to school infrastructure, and in some areas as much as 70% of schools are damaged. Additionally, several schools are being used as shelters for displaced families, preventing them from operating as usual.

The education system in Haiti had bounced back somewhat following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country, with access to primary education increasing, but that progress is now being threatened by the number of schools that have been destroyed or shut down. Prior to Hurricane Matthew, 90% of children were in school (up from 78% before the 2010 earthquake), but educational quality was still lacking, with many students not performing at grade level. Now, Haiti is requesting $4,375,000 in their flash appeal for education restoration, but it is unclear if those funds will come.

This issue, while problematic in and of itself, reflects a larger problem within international education aid overall. Though schools are frequently affected in the aftermath of natural disasters, less than 2% of humanitarian aid in emergency or disaster situations currently goes to education. Such challenges are not restricted to developing countries. Education in New Orleans, for example, suffered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and ten years later there is still debate over whether the school system has adequately recovered. Around 11,000 schools were similarly affected in Pakistan after flooding in 2010. Schools in Pakistan were used as shelters, preventing the re-opening of the schools, as is happening now in Haiti.

At the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, a new fund called “Education Cannot Wait” was established to address this issue. It cites poor coordination, lack of real-time data, and failure to prioritize as some of the many reasons why education is often not aided in emergency situations. Though disheartening, this makes sense considering the disproportionate coverage on the effects of disasters––how often is education even mentioned? However, the fund’s website seems to provide no clear information on exactly how money, and how much money, is being distributed to Haiti. Gordon Brown, of the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, recently penned a piece on the topic, saying that the Fund will call on donor countries and the private sector to help with relief efforts. However, there is no transparency on how that effort is going. As the Fund is so new, those engaging in relief efforts may not yet know how to effectively implement it in response to these disasters. However, for the children of Haiti, we must hope that they figure it out soon.

Moreover, even if the emergency aid does come, there are questions on how educational resources will be allocated. It is not nearly enough to just restore the infrastructure; Haiti has been in need of increased resources and funding, as well as improved teacher training, long before Hurricane Matthew or the 2010 earthquake. Government oversight is also weak, and most schools are privately managed, which has caused much controversy.

The Education Cannot Wait Fund is a great start and a noble endeavor. However, countries that have already-struggling education systems cannot simply be restored to their pre-disaster state then left alone; education infrastructure must strengthened to mitigate the negative effects of future disasters. The international community should be actively working, both within and outside of disaster situations, to improve educational systems worldwide. The Brookings Institution argues that education can actually help in preparing for natural disasters, such as in Japan, where disaster education is taught in schools and government institutions in order to lessen the impact of these events. There are innumerable benefits to a strong education system, and it should always be prioritized in the face of disaster.


Author: Mackenzie Fusco

Mackenzie is a sophomore in the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, studying Anthropology with minors in Psychology and Cross-Cultural Communication. She is a fierce advocate for education, human rights, and promoting cultural understanding. Mackenzie is an editor for The Globe and a sister of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Sorority.