PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Most of us in Nikenson Romage’s situation would have given up.
His dad died when he was 3, and his mom – a food vendor – often couldn’t afford his school fees. So he got kicked out of school occasionally for nonpayment, a humiliating ordeal that leads some kids to drop out forever.
But Nikenson would sneak back onto the school grounds and stand outside the open classroom windows to eavesdrop, day after day. He studied on his own, keeping pace so that when his mom scraped together a few dollars he could re-enter class – until the next time school fees were due.
Against all odds, Nikenson graduated from high school this year, first in his class, with straight A’s, and was elected class president by his peers.
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Nikenson is a reminder of the basic aphorism of life today: Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.
Fortunately, with the help of American donors, Nikenson is now receiving a university education that will propel him into Haiti’s elite.
He’s a beneficiary of a program started by Conor Bohan, a young American who was teaching in a Haitian high school and distressed that a top student in the school couldn’t afford $30 to register for college. He sacrificed his savings to send her to college (she’s now a doctor). Then he hit up family and friends to help other Haitians go to college. The program grew and became the Haitian Education and Leadership Program, or HELP, sending hundreds of young men and women to Haitian universities.
“Education works,” Bohan said simply. “Good education works for everybody, everywhere. It worked for you, for me, and it works for Haitians.”
Tackling global poverty is harder than it seems, and Haiti is a case in point. Its streets are full of white SUVs ferrying around aid workers, yet it remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Over time, I’ve concluded that education may be the single best way to help people help themselves – whether in America or abroad. Yet as a nation, we underinvest in education, both domestically and overseas. So in this holiday season, I’d suggest a moment to raise a glass and celebrate those who spread the transformative gift of education.
A few days ago, we saw the news of the horrific Pakistani Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar. The Taliban attack schools because they understand that education corrodes extremism; I wish we would absorb that lesson as well. In his first presidential campaign, President Obama spoke of starting a global education fund, but he seems to have forgotten the idea. I wish he would revive it.
I’m particularly impressed by the HELP model in part because of a nifty way to make the program sustainable: Winners commit to giving back 15 percent of their incomes for their first nine years in their jobs. That’s a hefty sum: HELP graduates earn an average of $15,000 a year, compared with per capita income in Haiti of a bit more than $800, and university tuition is very cheap by American standards.
A HELP scholarship is transforming the trajectory of Anne Martine Augustin, an orphan who is studying electrical engineering. She designed an app for disaster readiness in Haiti that won a World Bank programming competition.
The greatest unexploited resource in poor countries isn’t oil or gold; it’s people like her.
Nicholas Kristof writes for the New York Times.