A Necessary Fresh Start for Haiti
Updated: Jan 7
The kidnapping of American and Canadian missionaries and their family members is just the latest indication that Haiti is hurtling towards failed state status.
Bludgeoned on all sides -- from August’s catastrophic earthquake, chronic political instability, a brutal presidential assassination, monumental corruption, gang violence, a ravaged environment, and massive food insecurity -- 40 percent of Haitians go to bed hungry -- the country teeters on the edge of collapse.
The harrowing images of U.S. Border Patrol agents in September of this year on horseback whipping their reins at fleeing Haitians were another indignity to afflict the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. That brutality, with its racially charged flashbacks to the Jim Crow South, coupled with existing humanitarian intervention guidelines and common sense, should prompt the U.S. to immediately stop deporting exhausted, homeless migrants back to Haiti, a dystopian state that clearly lacks the capacity to handle the influx.
It‘s in our national security interest for the U.S. to stop Haiti’s unraveling and intervene, especially since it is only 700 miles off the Florida coast. This bleak situation offers a long-overdue opportunity to reset the complex U.S.-Haiti relationship, giving the U.S. a chance to highlight a centuries-long, enduring commitment to its near neighbor and significantly change the narrative.
It’s an opportunity that the U.S. should urgently seize as a teachable moment since we are going to be intertwined with Haiti in perpetuity, and because lifting up this nation is in keeping with fundamental U.S. values.
The U.S. has a tangled history of intervention and occupation in Haiti -- earnest efforts to strengthen the country alternating with periods of total exasperation and benign neglect.
Statecraft Under Duress
Haiti has faced daunting challenges since its founding in 1804. France -- smarting from the humiliation of Black slaves defeating a world power -- refused to recognize Haiti for 21 years, until the upstart nation agreed to pay France 150 million francs to compensate French former slave owners, although the payment was later reduced.
The usurious payment, $21 billion in today’s dollars -- ten times the cost of the Louisiana Purchase -- handicapped Haiti from its outset to poverty and chronic instability. Saddled with egregious loan payments until 1947, the free Black Republic was unable to establish strong foundational institutions with regularly scheduled elections, an independent judiciary and a functioning legislature.
Haiti continues to pay the price to this day. Haiti limped through the last two centuries with a mixture of coups -- more than 13 -- and failed presidencies, punctuated by periods of stability.
In just four years, 1911-1915, Haiti had seven presidents and four assassinations, prompting President Wilson to send troops to Haiti, and beginning the pattern of U.S. interventions as the U.S. occupied the country from 1915 to 1934.
The U.S. returned to benign neglect coupled with substantial foreign aid during the ruthless dictatorship of the Duvalier regime. But in 1986, after the 29-year Duvalier dictatorship collapsed, the U.S. was active again. The National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center started a robust democracy-strengthening program, buoyed by President Carter’s personal involvement.
I stood next to President Carter at a reception in Port-au-Prince when guest after guest grabbed his hand in both of theirs to thank him for his interventions that saved their lives. In the following year he met personally with dozens of aspiring leaders in preparation for yet another election, yet another attempt to enmesh democratic values and the rule of law.
However, despite Haitian partners and our best efforts, failed elections led to more coups and military regimes, eventually prompting two more U.S. interventions, both caught up in the conflicting political priorities of individual U.S. presidents.
In 1994, in Operation Uphold Democracy, 25,000 U.S. troops were deployed to reinstate Haitian President Aristide, who had been ousted in a 1991 coup. Ten years later, in 2004, when the country was in turmoil, the U.S. exiled Aristide to South Africa and the Marines intervened in Operation Secure Tomorrow to stabilize the country.
So when Haiti’s Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph asked for U.S. troops after the bold assassination of President Moïse, given our interwoven, fits-and-starts relationship, it was not an outlandish request. The U.S. won’t send troops, but massive aid is inevitable because in times of huge humanitarian need and/or political calamity, the U.S. has always come through with robust recovery and stabilization programs.
In Crisis There is Opportunity: Time for a Reset
The problem is that generous aid to Haiti often hasn’t yielded good long-term results. Haiti received approximately $13 billion in the past decade to rebuild after the 2010 earthquake. USAID organized a comprehensive program focused on infrastructure, energy, health, education, governance, food and economic security.
Yet -- long-term results are consistently disappointing. Programs in health, education, agriculture and economic growth haven’t resulted in significantly improved lives for average Haitians. Haitian GDP per capita (current US$) was $1,150 in 2009, the year before the 2010 massive earthquake. But even after a massive infusion of donor and private funds, GDP per capita (current US$) in 2020 was only $1,177 according to World Bank statistics. Corruption and political greed snared well-intentioned relief funds with elites growing richer, while average Haitians remain mired in poverty.
The latest set of catastrophes presents an opportunity to reset the entire U.S.-Haitian relationship. The next Special Envoy, after soothing understandably irate Haitian officials, outraged human rights activists and large swaths of the American public, should begin his/her work meeting with Haitian officials and other major donors to examine the root causes of the Caribbean country’s enduring afflictions of failed governance, endemic corruption and a moribund economy. Why, after billions in assistance, is Haiti bordering on state collapse?
The U.S. Envoy will find that the major culprit is corruption -- grand and small. Corruption undermines sustainable development, impedes good government, and fundamentally erodes trust. The costs of endemic corruption are reflected in decreased GDP and citizens’ lack of faith in the basic institutions of government.
Haitian elites win major contracts, siphon off funds and top up their Swiss bank accounts. Donors fume, but cannot cut off humanitarian assistance and let vulnerable citizens starve. The question becomes how to build local capacity to get out of the endless cycle of humanitarian relief without sustainable growth?
A New Beginning: The Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP)
Luckily, planners can adapt a program developed for Liberia to implement after its 2005 election that successfully dealt with corruption and brought other benefits as well. The Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP), a World Bank, International Monetary Fund, U.S. treasury and USAID-sponsored initiative, reduced corruption and improved capability in financial management and governance in the post-conflict African democracy.
GEMAP was specifically designed to provide an intricate web of procedures, checks and balances, that minimized opportunities for corruption.
It brought together major development donors and paired international technocrats with Liberian professionals to develop local capacities to restore basic functions of government, rebuild financial procedures and introduce corruption-reducing mechanisms and controls.
Teams restructured key ministries including finance and commerce, and strengthened institutions of governance. Technocrats and professional experts, working without social pressure and fear of retribution, served as impartial safeguards to curb corruption.
GEMAP had its share of skeptics, but concerns were minimized in the face of strong relationships built between Liberians and international counterparts. Regional organizations, such as the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union, supported the program and understood its potential contribution to stability in the region.
In this hemisphere CARICOM and the Organization of American States, as well as the core group of interested ambassadors and UN representatives, would see similar benefits, resulting in a politically stable, economically functioning Haiti.
The Liberian private sector also supported GEMAP, respecting new rules on contracts and concessions. Business leaders’ active participation was a critical success factor, which suggests that the Haitian business community would have to embrace the program and commit to following GEMAP procedures in financial transactions.
But ultimately GEMAP succeeded because Liberian civil society supported it and had a stake in its achievements. Professional groups, civic associations and women’s groups served as a watchdog function, carefully monitoring benchmarks and milestones and zealously following the money.
Haiti’s resilient civil society could serve a similar function. Though battered by a host of current problems, citizen groups might see value in a comprehensive plan that they help develop, monitor and own.
Haiti needs a break. Its fabled victory in 1804 has inspired quests for freedom for Black people across the globe. The latest string of disasters, from President Moïse’s assassination to the brutish U.S. Border Patrol agents’ actions to the American and Canadian missionaries’ kidnapping, can become an opportunity for the nation’s interim leadership and civil society to sit with U.S. and regional partners and other stakeholders to hammer out a Haitian GEMAP -- with milestones and benchmarks and public accounting -- to put Haiti on the path toward transparent financial management, good governance and democracy.
In a final lagniappe for Haiti, all parties can work in the certain knowledge that the U.S. is committed across administrations to a long-term, continuous partnership with Haiti. The relationship endures. Haiti is not Afghanistan.
Haiti could have and must have a bright future. As a wise Haitian once told me, “Etap par étap.” Step-by-step.
Originally published in the Harvard ALI Social Impact Review