A Smarter U.S. Assistance Strategy for Haiti
Preventive Action Insight #3
Implementing the Global Fragility Act in Haiti necessitates a change in U.S. assumptions and actions, writes Susan D. Page. The United States should work alongside Haitians desirous of charting their own transition to democracy and support Haitian-chosen policies and leadership.
September 8, 2022
Haiti remains a source of concern for U.S. national security policymakers. The inclusion of Haiti as a priority country under the Global Fragility Act (GFA) reflects a growing recognition by the U.S. government that a new strategy needs to be applied in partnership with the people of Haiti. Past efforts by the U.S. government focused on a wide range of activities that individually may have been well intentioned but ultimately failed to improve the security and welfare of Haitians, let alone prove a sound investment of U.S. taxpayer resources. Efforts did not sufficiently involve collaboration with the Haitian government, the population, and other actors on the prioritization of strategies to address the root causes of Haiti’s problems. Lastly, the U.S. government neglected the voices of ordinary Haitians and failed to require Haitian officials to make a measurable commitment to substantive reforms. Going forward, the U.S. government should be more inclusive of Haitians’ needs and aspirations and supportive of their continued demand for accountability and justice.
The GFA legislation directs and funds the Department of State’s establishment of an interagency initiative to “stabilize conflict-affected areas and prevent violence globally.” The GFA provides a ten-year framework in which all agencies of the U.S. government work “in a more strategic, unified, and locally-led fashion to address the underlying causes of conflict and insecurity while working with partners to prevent or mitigate the impact of future crises.” Under the GFA in Haiti, the United States should focus on enhancing partnerships and leveraging actions and mandates of regional and international organizations such as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organization of American States (OAS) on such matters as improving economic integration and cooperation, development planning, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and enhancing the rule of law. In particular, donor partnerships and involvement should focus on areas that have broad public support: public security and safety; citizen participation in the electoral process and government decentralization; justice and human rights, including strengthening anticorruption and accountability measures; and economic revitalization of the growth sectors, namely, agriculture, labor-intensive exports, and tourism.
Sources of Instability in Haiti
A chronically weak state for decades with successive governments failing to provide essential services, Haiti represents the definition of fragility. Events over the last few years exacerbated what was already a dire situation:
- Haiti’s geographic location in the path of Atlantic hurricanes, combined with the steep topography of its western region from which all major river systems flow to the coast, makes the country particularly vulnerable to disasters such as floods, droughts, and landslides.
- Increasing temperatures during dry months, strengthening tropical storms, and unpredictable rainfall patterns due to climate change will likely exacerbate climatic events.
- COVID-19 and spiking fuel prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have further strained Haiti’s already battered economy.
- Haiti has been governed by a highly centralized political authority in Port-au-Prince that benefits an affluent urban constituency.
- To varying degrees, former presidents Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Michel Martelly, and Jovenel Moïse allegedly enlisted, sponsored, tolerated, and ignored armed groups and drug traffickers operating primarily in Port-au-Prince’s poorest neighborhoods. Haiti now faces one of its worst outbreaks of violence since 1986.
- President Moïse’s tenure was marked by corruption, mismanagement of the country’s economic resources, and the further dismantlement of democratic institutions of governance, including the erosion of electoral processes, disputes over tenure of office, attempts to amend the constitution via illegitimate means, and the forcible replacement of Supreme Court justices. Failure to hold elections for vacant seats in the two chambers of the Haitian Parliament in October 2019 has resulted in a political and constitutional crisis and a steady slide into one-man rule by decree.
- The brazen assassination of Moïse at his residence in July 2021, followed by a devastating hurricane one month later, plunged Haiti into further chaos and unconstitutional rule.
Challenges and Strategy
While the United States has not consistently promoted the growth of democratic institutions or equitable development in Haiti, it has provided vast sums of funding and support for wide-ranging governance, humanitarian, and philanthropic “vanity projects” over the years. Much of that development assistance was not coordinated with other large international or bilateral donors (e.g., the European Union, World Bank, United Nations, and Canada) and failed to consider the Haitian government’s or citizens’ input in planning, programming, or funding. Successive Haitian leaders and governments failed to provide the infrastructure or institutions of governance necessary to deliver security and public services to the population, often with little to no accountability. In turn, U.S. funding has not been predicated on a demonstrated commitment by Haitian authorities to enact substantive reforms; promote, protect, and enforce human rights and fundamental freedoms; behave democratically; or account for their actions.
Current (and past) U.S. support for Haiti has focused on a wide-ranging portfolio of programs. As of January 2022, nine U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) offices carried out seventy-two programs with a planned investment of $568 million. The programs covered areas such as democracy, governance, and human rights; energy and infrastructure; and environment, food security, and agriculture.
In addition to USAID programs, the State Department and other agencies fund numerous programs in Haiti—particularly security-sector reform programs—through the department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) and investigative support through the Department of Justice. Those and other programs financed by the U.S. government support and collaborate with some UN agencies, as well as international and local development organizations and a few Haitian state entities.
In the areas of electoral support and political party development, the U.S. Congress and successive presidential administrations placed too much emphasis on the holding of elections, with the assumption that democracy and good governance would flow therefrom. But holding elections, even at regular intervals, has not guaranteed stability or strengthened democracy in Haiti. In fact, voter participation in elections dropped from close to 70 percent of the electorate in Haiti’s first democratic elections in 1991 to approximately 18 percent during the 2016 elections that brought President Moïse to power, with many Haitians believing that their votes and voices did not matter because the United States would simply choose the winner.
The numerous crises in Haiti gave rise to several broad coalitions of civil society and political actors trying to cobble together a transitional framework (notably the Marriott Agreement and the Passerelle Committee). The PetroCaribe scandal—involving the embezzlement of at least $2 billion in aid from Venezuela between 2008 and 2016—led to the formation of Nou Pap Domi, an active coalition of Haitian youth and women who mobilized massive street protests calling for greater accountability and transparency in expenditures. Although these groupings alone did not result in satisfactory electoral, political, economic, or governance outcomes, their work led, in part, to a thirteen-member civil society–led commission to find a Haitian solution to the security, economic, governance, and constitutional crises through a wide-ranging consultative process known as the Montana Accord. The Montana Accord garnered the backing of over six hundred fifty Haitian organizations and individual signatories from a diverse array of actors, including most of the major political parties, Catholic and Protestant churches, women’s and youth organizations, labor unions, chambers of commerce, human rights groups, the media, and even many of Haitian businesses and social elites.
The Montana Accord is not perfect, but the parties that have appended their signature to it represent a broad coalition of Haitians from multiple sectors. They have agreed on a timeline and structure for the development of transparent, democratic processes that will lead to a democratically elected government and a new social contract between the eventual authorities and the Haitian population. Although the existing Haitian Constitution has no provision for a Montana Accord–like transitional framework, nor does the Constitutional line of succession flow to a non-sitting interim prime minister (Ariel Henry)—even in the absence of a president of the high court or given the dissolution of the National Assembly, the conditions in place at the time of President Moïse’s murder.
Unlike current acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s transition plans, the Montana Accord has received widespread accolades both within Haiti and in the diaspora. In fact, its biggest asset is its broad national and local representation. The civil society platform behind the Montana Accord built on the work of dedicated Haitian individuals, organizations, and entities; the establishment and reinforcement of relationships; and a thorough examination of Haiti’s past, including its culture and traditions, looking for solutions to the continuing and overlapping crises that impede full development, democratic reforms, good governance, and the rule of law.
The agreement is not an international treaty and the U.S. government is neither a signatory to it nor its guarantor. A lack of robust support for the most credible Haitian plan on the table promotes the belief that foreign actors support an interim and future government only with Ariel Henry in the lead, rather than one led by civil society through its transition plan.
While not necessarily agreeing with all of the terms, timeline, and approach of the Montana Accord, the United States should still help Haitians initiate its implementation. As the U.S. government does not routinely provide funding in UN-type “basket funds” to ensure accountability and consistency with U.S. initiatives, the same approach could be taken with the Montana Accord’s activities. Withholding support to the Montana Accord allows individuals to hijack the necessary resolution of outstanding constitutional issues for the return to legal order in Haiti.
The United States should view the Montana Accord as the natural starting point for its new strategic approach for Haiti precisely because it is a Haitian-formulated agreement. The principal drivers of the Montana Accord should also be viewed as the primary—but not sole—interlocutors, to ensure that Haitian voices outside of the Montana Accord are heard as well. If the United States continues to sideline those involved in the Montana Accord (or any subsequent Haitian group that gains widespread popular support), trust in the U.S. government will be harder to rebuild, with Haitians ever more likely to view their country’s fragile state of affairs as fully in the hands of foreigners.
By supporting substantive elements contained within the Montana Accord, the United States could rally other bilateral and international partners, many of whom are part of the Core Group that wield enormous power and influence in the country, to work directly with Haitian civil society actors in charting their own future and ushering in a new political and economic dispensation in Haiti.
The beauty of the GFA lies in its unique approach to forming partnerships and working with local actors in Haiti. In assisting Haitians in rebuilding democratic, accountable governance and economic institutions, the United States should prioritize the following four areas of assistance based on the priorities set forth in Article 18 of the Montana Accord, which fixes the “major priorities of government” and lists the main programmatic axes of the transition roadmap.
Reorganize and bolster support for public security, safety, and accountability. The number one priority for Haitians is security. Without security, nothing else will be possible, including elections. The United States, United Nations, and other donors have provided robust financial support for the Haitian National Police (PNH) for years, yet the PNH has not been able to provide security to the population. Although Haitian and U.S. officials have arrested or extradited some high-level criminals, alleged perpetrators of crimes are rarely arrested or charged and authorities with oversight are infrequently held accountable for their actions. Victims of crime rarely see justice. The PNH is riddled with corruption and is often accused of being behind gang violence and committing human rights abuses. Police are rarely held accountable, and successive leaders have often used the PNH as a personal tool of enforcement or intimidation.
The new, well-funded INL program involves U.S. police trainers advising, mentoring, and coaching the PNH, though they do not accompany the PNH on missions. However, rebuilding the PNH alone will not succeed without confronting the social and political constructs that lead to such violence—namely, a lack of opportunities, employment, education, and other basic necessities—and addressing them through a sustained, multilayered approach to gain trust, curb insecurity, and transform the justice sector. To that end, the forced return of Haitians arriving at U.S. borders should be temporarily suspended.
Enhance justice and human rights, including strengthening anticorruption and accountability measures. U.S.-Haitian cooperation should be reviewed in coordination with the work of the PNH (and other partners) to enable Haiti to regain control of its ports and borders, collect taxes and duties, restrict contraband, and control the importation of arms and ammunitions that are supplied to criminals. Additional program collaboration could be sought with the UN Office of Drugs and Crimes. Other accountability measures, including financial and budgetary systems, should be explored to help Haitians deliver justice and end impunity. Programs should include support to—and justice for—victims of domestic abuse and gender-based violence. With controls in place, alleged criminals should be identified and held accountable, particularly white-collar criminals who are major actors in widespread corruption and violence.
U.S. officials should not shield—or be perceived as protecting—anyone accused of crimes, including high-level officials suspected of involvement in recent murders or kidnappings. Instead, the United States should use its voice and advocacy platform to call out those hindering such investigations. The imposition of sanctions for corruption and human rights violations under the Global Magnitsky Act should be utilized in order to demonstrate the United States’ seriousness about accountability and to hold Haitians to the same standard.
The PNH should participate in community activities with opportunities to develop and demonstrate its commitment to serving the Haitian public. Some PNH training on human rights could be conducted in public or carried out with community participation such as through simulations. The implementation timeline and proper sequencing, arrests, and trials of police and/or high-level government officials should be made public and communicated through a variety of means to demonstrate an end to impunity.
Programming should be mindful of the extensive work that Haitians will have to do at various levels to rebuild the social contract between the state and the general population, who not only mistrust the police but are also traumatized by fear and pervasive violence and insecurity. Community programs that address trauma and promote healing should be developed. To that end, a thorough evaluation should be undertaken of lessons learned from the UN peacekeeping mission’s community rehabilitation programs, along with an assessment of related U.S. programs. Efforts should be made to find and support innovative Haitian-led grassroots programs aimed at keeping young people out of gangs and providing them with incentives to leave as well as economic and other support once they are out. Employment and life skills are a vital element of such programming; training and developing Haitian mental health-care professionals, as well as avoiding stigmatizing those who seek such care, will help ordinary citizens and victims of violence process and heal from their trauma. Given security restrictions on official U.S. mission personnel and foreign implementing partners, Haitian partners should be carefully selected to ensure all programs are grounded in Haiti’s reality and implemented with due care.
Improve citizen participation in the electoral processes and government decentralization. Given the importance of citizen participation and decentralization to the Montana Accord, the United States should consider a major revision to its existing democracy, human rights, and governance program. The current Elections and Political Processes Support Activity (EPP) implemented through the Consortium for Elections and Political Procedures (CEPPS) began in March 2017 and was set to expire in June 2022. The stated objective for its $20 million investment is to “advance advocacy for electoral and political reforms; continue supporting the electoral body to consolidate effective internal processes; assist political parties to adopt party law reforms and solidify more inclusive internal structures; help legislative processes to be more accountable to Haiti’s citizens; and strengthen civil society advocacy and oversight of government.” Existing U.S. support in this area falls squarely within the priority areas for the transitional government outlined by the Montana Accord; but given the unsuccessful efforts of the CEPPS consortium over many years, the United States should consider other, more creative initiatives for promoting democracy and electoral reform in Haiti.
The preamble of the Montana Accord emphasizes the need to restore confidence and promote voter participation as necessary steps toward good governance, transparency in management, respect for human rights, justice, and the fight against impunity. In revising any electoral programs, the United States should follow the transitional government’s plan and work with Haitians to build a system of popular (versus electoral) legitimacy, supporting initiatives that promote political participation by and representation for underrepresented majority groups such as women and youth. Future U.S. funding and programming should focus on not only the importance and quantity of elections but also the quality of the elections and the entire electoral environment leading up to and during voting. In the same way that pre-assessment missions are undertaken by democracy and governance organizations long before scheduled elections, U.S. programming should ensure its implementing partners evaluate the criteria to participate in an election, rules for political parties, the underlying electoral laws, constitutional provisions, the media environment, and security.
Because acting Prime Minister Henry disbanded the provisional electoral council on September 28, 2021, donors can now partner with Haitian organizations as they form a new, independent electoral council. Once a greater sense of security has been restored in Haiti, the United States could help Haitians strengthen civic education programs, thereby deepening democratic roots based on Haitians’ creation of quality institutions that its population supports. For example, if asked, and only with or in support of credible Haitian advocacy organizations, the United States could promote additional “days of reflection” organized around citizenship rights, along with events that highlight Haitian talent and other advocacy/awareness-raising programs and campaigns around topics such as voting, elections, and democratic principles. These efforts should foster a sense of national unity by bringing Haitians together around the goal of a new dispensation in Haiti and targeting the population who are not signatories of the Montana Accord, including people far from the capital.
Revitalize the Haitian economy by prioritizing specific growth sectors. Operationalizing a functioning democratic state should help Haiti’s collapsed economy. With the GFA, the United States and other partners should begin planning for multiyear development programs anchored in Haitian priorities to revitalize Haiti’s economy and infrastructure. Programs should shift from large loans and grants to focus on enduring investment. Haiti imports most of its food; with widespread food shortages around the world, a closer look at Haiti’s agriculture system is warranted to move from subsistence to commercial farming. Agricultural investments should target small-scale farmers for micro-loans, helping them transition into small family commercial farming units.
Other growth sectors with job creation potential should also be prioritized, including: the garment industry, going beyond the current narrow focus on t-shirt production and expanding to higher value-added items and further vertical integration into jeans, dress shirts, medical wear, etc.; and the tourism cluster, taking advantage of Haiti’s history, culture, arts, cuisine, topography, and beaches. Boosting tourism and creative industries would add jobs, stimulate commercial agriculture, and increase GDP.
In developing multiyear programs with the GFA, the United States should work toward the full development of Haitian society—including women, who are too frequently excluded from political participation, businesses, and governance. The National Transition Council of the Montana Accord consists of 50 percent women. The GFA strategy contains strong provisions on women, peace, and security; these provisions should be implemented in accordance with Haitian priorities in all sectors of support, including the economy.
Redefine partnerships with regional and international organizations. Confidence in Haiti between citizens and the (near-absent) formal state is virtually nonexistent. Mistrust between the population and what it sees as incessantly meddling foreign powers—particularly the United States—is at an all-time high. However, a broad group of Haitian citizens has coalesced to form a roadmap to the restoration of democratic norms without the interference of foreign powers. For the United States, working in greater partnership with such organizations, particularly from the region, could help restore Haitian confidence.
Despite the sometimes unhelpful roles played by regional organizations, the Community of Caribbean States (CARICOM) and the Organization of American States (OAS) offer a regional and historical perspective different from the United States and other big powers. The United States could emphasize Haiti’s role within—and responsibility to—those wider communities of nations. By and large, the Caribbean nations have been governed by the rule of law; both of these regional blocs maintain strong institutions for electoral support, oversight, anticorruption, and accountability. Such organizations could provide assistance and norm-building throughout the country and could also pressure the Montana Accord parties, Ariel Henry, and the future transitional government to work together and commit to respect human rights and freedoms, justice, accountability, and implementation of the agreements they make. The countries of the CARICOM are outspoken champions on climate change. Robust partnerships with the regional block of countries through its structures could yield a broader array of climate and environmental solutions for natural disaster–prone Haiti.
The European Union has often linked its funding initiatives to firm commitments by Haitian government officials, frequently with reforms mandated by the International Monetary Fund. The United States should similarly insist on specific reforms by Haitian authorities. Following the 2017 end of the longstanding UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH) was created. Under my leadership as the special representative of the secretary-general of MINUJUSTH at the time, specific deliverables were developed by UN Mission and Haitian officials utilizing Sustainable Development Goal 16 (promote just, peaceful, and inclusive societies) as our guide. A unique model was developed with Haitian participation from a wide range of actors requiring specific indicators and measurable achievements for success. In tying future assistance to specific reforms by Haitian leaders, U.S. leaders on the ground should look to such mutual accountability models.
On October 16, 2019, an integrated UN presence office (BINUH) was authorized under Chapter VI of the UN Charter as a “special mission to advise the Government of Haiti in the promotion and strengthening of political stability and good governance, including the rule of law,” and to “preserve and advance a peaceful and stable environment, including through supporting an inclusive inter-Haitian national dialogue, and protect and promote human rights.” Ongoing U.S. and other bilateral and international organizations’ programs work with some of the nineteen UN entities of the UN Country Team and are a central element of the Core Group’s activities.
On July 15, 2022, UN Security Council Resolution 2645 extended BINUH’s mandate until July 15, 2023. Positive new elements of the mandate, based on BINUH’s strategic assessment mission, request BINUH to work with the UN Office of Drugs and Crime on illicit financial flows and trafficking in arms and related material, and authorize additional human rights and corrections personnel dedicated to addressing sexual and gender-based violence. China’s and Russia’s attempts to secure an arms embargo, travel ban, and asset freeze on those implicated in gang violence were ultimately rebuffed, as was its proposed multinational force under a Chapter VII mandate. All measures to reduce access to weapons by gangs and counter illicit financial deals—including an arms embargo—should be reevaluated.
Despite BINUH’s clear mandate to support an inclusive inter-Haitian dialogue, and its leadership by an American national, the United Nations, along with the United States and other Core Group members, has led the charge against the one inclusive Haitian-led national dialogue that resulted in an agreement, roadmap, and a transition plan—the Montana Accord. With a revised mandate from the Security Council, BINUH has an opportunity to reshape its relationship with Haitians into one of greater partnership.
Implementing the GFA in Haiti necessitates a change in U.S. assumptions and actions. The United States should pursue a true partnership with Haitians by listening, prioritizing, and providing support for locally driven political answers. As former Haiti Special Envoy Ambassador Daniel Foote wrote in his September 22, 2021, resignation letter, “Haitians want the opportunity to chart their own course, without international puppeteering and favored candidates.”
With a guaranteed budget, ten-year program cycle, and coordinated approach across U.S. government agencies in partnership with other donors, while being led by those on the ground in Haiti, U.S. policymakers could chart a new course. Rather than merely mouthing the words that the United States is committed to “supporting a Haitian-led solution to the country’s challenges,” the United States and its partners should invest in Haitian-chosen leadership and support the work of the brave Haitian civil society activists committed to achieving a rights-based democracy with accountability the United States claims it seeks at home and abroad.
Time is of the essence. The United States needs to make clear that it is turning the page on the past and working alongside Haitians desirous of charting their own transition. A more targeted form of international assistance through the GFA, with Haitians playing the principal role, should help to refocus U.S. attention on Haitian aspirations and lead to the emergence of a more stable and democratic Haiti.
This paper was made possible by the generous support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.