A Broken Country

Adam McCauley reports on the many challenges facing Haiti and the failure to meet them.
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August 8, 2012
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Freelance journalist

Tarpaulins. Mud. Debris. Port-au-Prince. Those were the first words I scribbled crudely in my notebook, through turbulence, as my flight to Haiti rumbled to a halt on the re-paved runway last March. Gathering my belongings from the overhead compartment, I caught half conversations of fellow passengers: deliverables, triage, operations management – the parlance of relief and development, the antibiotics of modern social ruin.

I didn’t bring any blueprints for social repair, a supply of medication, or specialized instruments. I carried a camera and a notepad, and, I hoped, had enough time to learn how an international security and development project as vast and comprehensive as Haiti’s was affecting the lives of everyday Haitians.

As the airport parking lot gave way to the city, the chattering din of jockeying taxi drivers fading under the growl of my fixer/driver’s dusty engine, I joined innumerable United Nations vehicles as the afternoon’s traffic crawled past the city’s disease-ridden camps, still home to 500,000 earthquake-affected Haitians. Slowly, through the filmy windows of the vehicle, two worlds emerged: the Haiti of the victims, and that of the visitors. What I didn’t know then is that the two sides exist in discrete spheres, each unwilling, or unable, to acknowledge the other.

When the Dust Settled

Eight million of Haiti’s 10 million people still live on less than two dollars a day. The earthquake that killed more than 200,000 destroyed the livelihoods and the expected futures of those who remained. The international community rushed to aid the state, but has only deployed $2.8 of $5.4 billion in assistance. Since that January disaster, the United Nation’s 10,000-strong occupation and unknown numbers of ex-pats, international “do-gooders,” and outspoken activists have been primary imports, each group tasked with “making Haiti better.”

Two years later, many tuck themselves behind $30 dinner plates in Pétionville, an upscale, hillside neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince. Trading restaurants for smoky bars, they leave Haitian attendants to park their vehicles in neat rows as they slip inside to enjoy cheap drinks and North American music, wax nostalgic about previous missions, discuss the challenges of their responsibilities, and while away the pre-curfew hours on patios overlooking a city where half of the residents live without electricity.

Critics contend that the sheer number of NGOs working in Haiti, and even the tentacles of a large UN operation, spurn negative consequences – that their presence can lead to dependence, and that “good intentions,” unregulated, can actually create long-term vulnerabilities. But most striking, for me and for many Haitians I spoke with, is the number of people and organizations that, with marketing campaigns preaching good intentions, have failed to build a roadmap for development.

The community of aid may pour resources into the broken country, but it’s time to ask whether Haiti is better for it.

Tipping Scales

Last March, on a visit to the United Nations Logistics Base in northern Port-au-Prince, Special Representative to the Secretary-General Mariano Fernández Amunátegui addressed the growing crime in Haiti’s capital city. In the press conference, held in stilted French, he blamed Haitian President Michel Martelly and his administration.

Specifically, Amunátegui referred to the February 2012 departure of prime minister Garry Conille, the latest challenge for President Martelly, who has battled internal political opposition since taking office in May 2011.

“Without a prime minister, or proper government, Haiti can’t function,” Amunátegui said, suggesting the failure of politics was to blame for the increase in crime.

Wilson Jeudy, the mayor of Delmas, a prominent commune and industrial hub in Port-au-Prince, said, “Without peace we don’t get investments.”

I met Mayor Jeudy in the new marble and glass residence that he built after the earthquake. Waiting to enter his air-conditioned office, a quick glance through the floor-to-ceiling windows revealed the compound’s backyard, complete with manicured lawns and a freshly painted band shell. Port-au-Prince residents said that this space was used for festivals and celebrations – rare occasions when the gated compound is open to the public. Beyond the exterior walls, however, Port-au-Prince’s impoverished residents trudged through the discarded wrappers and soiled refuse collecting against the locked gate.

Mayor Jeudy said he supported President Martelly, and that he understood that internally, Haiti was suffering from significant political resistance. He said that the Haitian elites, many of whom have been in government for decades, may bring the stability of experience, but they also traffic paralyzing bias into the Haitian political system. He said that this group continues to show disdain towards any potential reforms. According to Jeudy, these elites have even supported criminal elements as a way to destabilize Martelly’s government. If they can make his job more difficult, they will, Jeudy said.

Bilking Capacity

Knowing that crime and conflict have been common challenges for the island nation, the international community pledged support to train and strengthen Haiti’s local security institutions, such as the chronically underpaid, undersupplied, and poorly respected Haitian National Police. Yet, more than two years after the earthquake, UN police spokesperson Michel Martin confirmed that Port-au-Prince’s gangs continue to evade police, and have murdered, with impunity, at least four Haitian officers in 2012.

My second day in Port-au-Prince ended with reports of gun-toting gang members on motorcycles who surrounded a national police patrol and killed one of the officers. The next morning, the attacked police truck was still parked at a dusty intersection on the northeast side of the city, with a single bullet hole in the driver’s side window, and three more in the back door. Three Haitian police officers were sitting quietly inside. The vehicle’s back door was so damaged it was tied closed with rope.

These egregious attacks on Haitian police have occurred despite the 3,500-strong UN police force patrolling Port-au-Prince’s streets.

“There are more than 42 countries contributing police,” Martin said, noting that the system requires unprecedented co-ordination between police codes, regulations, and styles of police engagement. But if co-ordination between UN forces wasn’t difficult enough, poor communication makes establishing meaningful relationships between the international officers and local police – the very process intended to improve Haitian police effectiveness – nearly impossible.

“Seventy percent of the officers can’t speak French,” Martin said, admitting that almost no one speaks Creole, the dialect of choice for most Haitians. “How would you feel if your supposed mentor didn’t speak your language?”

Yet, according to MINUSTAH’s policies, Haitian police are the only agents deputized to arrest and detain suspected or captured criminals. While they are necessary partners for the UN police, however, Haitian police have made a habit of defecting during operations or – at times – warning the criminals that operations are being planned, Martin said. Illustrative of a culture of corruption, criminals that fail to escape arrest can usually finance their way out of detention. While “corruption” is a phrase often tossed around without regard to specifics, Haiti’s culture of impunity for a price isn’t just myth – it’s measurable. Even my driver was stopped at a roadside police checkpoint and threatened with an official citation – until he offered a bribe and was released.

However, traditional law-enforcement struggles are only the beginning. As the UN police force fights to keep crime under control, MINUSTAH’s peacekeeping component wages an eternal battle to remain relevant.

“Most people in the city despise the troops,” said one of the UN’s Creole interpreters. “It’s because the people don’t understand what the United Nations is there to do.” Haitians believe the UN is responsible for everything, the translator said. They wonder why so little has changed in the eight years the UN has been present.

UN-Sustainable

In part, the confusion should be expected. The United Nations has been on the ground, in some capacity, since 1990, and deployed successive peacekeeping operations between 1994 and 2000. In 2004, renewed armed conflict brought a multinational interim force (MIF) of peacekeepers to Haitian shores, and they’ve hunkered down ever since.

The MIF’s early success stabilizing cities like Gonaïves ushered in MINUSTAH, intended to assist with the political transition in the country. By October 2011, an updated MINUSTAH mandate called for the drawdown of military personnel from more than 9,000 to 7,340.

One source, who asked to remain anonymous given his position, discussed the UN’s dirty secret in Haiti: Officials, hungry for status and experience, would accept the posting, move onto the base, conduct business from air-conditioned trailers, dine in North American-style cafeterias, and then, when their time was up, simply move on. Their interaction with Haiti, Haitians, or anyone else outside the compound was rare. If officials did venture out, the source said, they were “safe” within the shell of their sport utility vehicles.

This charge of deficient engagement is difficult to verify, as these trends are tricky to trace. However, questions of meaningful engagement expand beyond concerns about human capital to issues of financial investment, a fact unearthed by the Building Markets report released in concert with this essay.

The Building Markets report argues that investment in local partners and suppliers (for goods or services) can seed a developing economy, pushing much-needed capital into the local market. But the report found that MINUSTAH had a comparatively low level of local engagement compared to other UN missions, with only eight per cent of the mission’s spending and 11 per cent of its procurement being spent on local Haitian companies. 

When Failures Speak Louder

The United Nations is often described in terms of its failures: the 2010 cholera outbreak, which has now claimed nearly 7,000 lives and prompted legal action; the alleged physical abuse of civilians by Brazilian peacekeepers; and the egregious sexual-assault charges filed against five Uruguayan peacekeepers. In the latter case, the victim, an 18-year-old male, was allegedly targeted because he “made fun” of the peacekeepers.

These examples only sweep dust away from truth’s sharp edge: There is no simple solution to the crisis in Haiti, and it’s unclear if the international community has the capacity to co-ordinate a more complex one.

For instance, an unemployment rate of nearly 40 per cent has left nearly 80 per cent of the population below the poverty line. Without jobs, the unemployed sell grey-market goods street-side, creating tension among local officials and the owners of the few established businesses. These groups consider the desperately poor as a threat – to stability, to profits, and to the future of the country. That seems to be an unsustainable position, given that those poor are also the majority.

Back in early March, Special Representative Amunátegui addressed the United Nation’s Security Council in New York, citing concerns that without increased security, there is little chance for foreign investment – an important driver of Haiti’s development. The solution, according to Amunátegui, is a greater United Nations presence: more police, more military, and more investment.

Next Act

 “We have no future here,” declared my fixer (a Haitian native and experienced go-to guide for journalists, academics, politicians, and the like). He noted that 85 per cent of graduating students leave the country in search of careers. Certainly, “making Haiti better” involves creating a country deserving of investment – personal, professional, and political. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear which acronym, organization, or institution is best suited to do that.

The damage dealt to Haiti has cut far deeper than politics or security. The complexity of the challenge, at times so extensive it appears overwhelming, demands a carefully calibrated effort across all issue areas. But no matter the number of moving parts, and the balancing act required from the actors involved, true reconstruction won’t be found by rebuilding buildings and business, but by mending now-broken community trust – the one condition essential for all relationships.

In the airport, waiting to depart, I sat beside two young women who were flicking through pictures of their trip (ostensibly a charity-work vacation) on their laptop. I saw the country’s characteristic raw beauty captured in rich blues and greens, a colorful mosaic of chaotic pastels; the country’s strength still palpable even if the photographers had come in response to its terrible weaknesses.

As I opened my notebook to add a closing passage to my notes, the discordant images of Haiti remained in my mind. “Maybe the greatest gift international scholars, practitioners and advocates can give Haiti is an honest evaluation of their own intentions,” I wrote. “Charity for the donor’s sake just isn’t ‘good’ enough.” Minutes later, I was airborne, banking west over the Caribbean Sea, the small island growing smaller still with every drone of the plane's engines.

Photo courtesy of the author