Martelly at Howard University: A Concerning View on Poverty and Education?

President Martelly Speaks at Howard University
President Martelly Speaks at Howard University

Martelly’s speech last Wednesday at Howard University drew attention to his administration’s focus on free and universal education.  But while promoting both his education agenda and a nascent collaboration with Howard University, the President of Haiti also portrayed a disturbing depiction of the Haitian people.

Both Martelly and the Howard University administration discussed planned educational exchanges, promising an educational partnership that draws on solidarity between the prominent historically black University and the first black Republic. “African Americans and Haitians are connected by history,” Martelly said. “But we can also be connected by choice — united in partnership.”

For the majority of the talk Martelly lauded his administration’s program of free education: “Education frees us of ignorance,” President Martelly said. “It allows human beings to reach their full potential.” While skirting its controversial implementation, he did discuss honestly many of the shortcomings of the country’s education system, namely ineffective and untrained teachers, and high rates of illiteracy.

But within this conversation on the importance of education, his speech contained a troubling moment. At first, the President made acclamatory comments regarding Haitians’ cultural dedication to education: “Education is highly valued in Haitian culture,” said Martelly. “Some people consider having a college degree more important than having many material possessions.”
But soon after, Martelly spoke about how the goal of education was to “change the mentality” of Haitians. Met with murmurs of approval by members of the audience, such goals were showcased as a key aim of his education policy. At first, I thought such language might be the result of a translation error in the speech, but again, he used the term “change the mentality” to discuss how Haitians’ perspective needed to be changed to bring them out of poverty. He first introduced the term referring to how he had seen children carrying water on their heads in the countryside- evidence that rural Haitians needed to ‘change their mentality’ to get children off of the street. He later used the phrase a second time to discuss children not being sent to school.

While Martelly and his administration may be unaware of the history of such language, ‘changing the mentality’ of Haitians indicates an assumption of cultural and psychological traits related to poverty. Such assumptions posit a sort of ‘culture of poverty’ that keeps Haitians from advancing. In drawing attention to cultural deficit in the countryside, Martelly’s language frames poor Haitians as ‘traditional’ or ‘undeveloped’ people who have yet to be brought into the realm of civilization and development.

Such ideas are well tread in Haiti, which has seen the foreign and domestic elite portraying Haitians (especially rural Haitians) as ‘backwards’ (See Renda for justifications of US occupation). Far from empty rhetoric, these words have very real consequences. Framing Haiti’s problems in terms of a particular ‘mentality’ allows us to focus on nebulous ‘culture’ over the material realities of inequality. To use the President’s first example, children carrying water on their heads becomes less an issue of poor infrastructure and years of government negligence of rural areas, and becomes far more about a lack of ‘values’ and the ‘backwards’ state of the masses. In the end, such an argument blames the victim rather than looking towards the historical context of inequality.

Should Haiti’s current President be drawing on such a framing of poverty?

Scott Freeman, Visiting Scholar