Creole and French are the official languages of Haiti; however French is written, spoken, and understood by only approximately 20% of the population, mainly by elite and middle class urban residents. Nearly everyone speaks Haitian Creole (Kreyol) as their first language. The lexicon of Kreyol is primarily French-based, but also includes terms originating in African and Arawakan languages, Spanish, and increasingly, English.
Haiti is marked by a powerful class hierarchy based on education, language, economic background and culture (Desrosiers & Fleurose, 2002). Valdman (1984) argues that French language has acted primarily as a “social “filter” in Haiti, restricting access to spaces of political, economic and social power. Like many other Caribbean countries, as part of the legacy of colonization and slavery, Haiti also has significant social stratification (and discrimination) based on gradations of skin tone (Trouillot, 1990). Lighter skinned people are more likely to be members of the elite and of higher socio- economic status. Contrariwise, darker skinned people are more likely to be members of lower socio-economic groups and to experience more marginalization.
In terms of education, 72% of the population has only a primary school education. Only 1% of the population has a university level education. There is a low level of literacy; about 80% of people in rural areas and 47% in urban centers are unable to read French. The state plays a very minor role in education. Fully, 92% of schools are non-state schools. About 82% of primary and secondary school age students attend private schools. The top schools are elite private schools, which are affordable only to a tiny segment of the population (Caribbean Country Management Unit, 2006).
Economic Context and Social Structure
Haiti is ranked 154 out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index, and is the lowest in the Western hemisphere. In 2008, the estimated per capita GDP was $717 (United Nations Statistics Division 2009). Income inequality is extremely high. For example, in 2001, the Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality) for Haiti was 0.66, one of the highest in the world. Almost half of the population live in extreme poverty. The unemployment rate is also very high, reaching 49% in metropolitan areas, 37% in semi-urban areas, and 36% in rural areas.
The rural population depends on farming and agricultural production. Most houses have no indoor plumbing. Rural residents are often cut off from basic facilities and services. For instance, only 10% of the rural population has access to electricity compared to about 91% in metropolitan areas (Verner & Edset, 2007). The few state-supported hospitals are located in cities and larger villages. In terms of security, rural areas remain peaceful and are characterized by high levels of social cohesion. People living in rural areas may feel safer in their daily lives than their urban counterparts who are confronted with much higher levels of crime and violence (Caribbean Country Management Unit, 2006).