The nation-building trap: Haiti after Aristide

Johanna Mendelson Forman
11 March 2004

The departure from Haiti of its president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, marks the opening of a new chapter in the history of that unlucky country. It is also the end of an era of nation-building that demonstrates that the United States, and the international community in general, are unwilling to demonstrate full commitment in a place where winning the peace might have been possible.

This article was written in cooperation with Rick Barton, co-director of the post-conflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington D.C.

The crucial period in their failure was after 1994, when Aristide was restored to the presidency by force of US arms after a three-year exile. Then, the fitful largesse of the international donor community meant that Haiti’s greatest resource – its own citizens – were not given a chance to reclaim their own country.

The international community did supply peacekeepers under the United Nations rubric, but it did not build a social safety-net for the majority of Haitians who were illiterate or untouched by the benefits of modern life: clean water, decent housing and adequate medical care. The incomplete efforts to build new judicial and governing institutions – the small, inadequate police force being the most representative example – contributed to the events of February-March 2004, when gangs of thugs, supported by opposition leaders, occupied provincial cities then marched on the capital, Port au Prince.

For a “Rough guide to Haiti” please click here

In this light, Haiti must be seen in the broader perspective of a more recent doctrine, “humanitarian intervention”. This enjoins the international community with a “duty to protect” citizens of a state who face imminent danger to life and liberty. Even though in 1994 US-led international peacekeepers were permitted to enter Haiti, the “duty to protect” Haitians in the real sense of that term was not fulfilled.

From hope to hell

Ten years ago, a group of us went to Haiti to help rebuild a society torn apart by political unrest and violence. As part of the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) first efforts to address the transitions of the post-cold war era, we formed the core of the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) – a small office inside USAID dedicated to the political development of post-conflict countries. Unlike other types of development work in Haiti, OTI sought to address the most immediate issues that could make or break the restoration of President Aristide.

We had two main concerns. The first was security. We were dedicated to the demobilisation and reintegration of the Haitian army, bringing closure to an institution whose repressive power had dominated Haiti’s history. Within six months, the demobilisation programme was underway, with vocational training and support for former soldiers a key factor in the stabilisation of the country.

The second concern was with the local communities where 75% of Haiti’s 8 million people lived. We undertook a community development programme where small grants, given to any party willing to work on a project that would benefit the community, could help to jump-start economic life. Our ability to move quickly, to disperse funding, and to work with other agencies, including the American military, made it possible to create some tangible results quickly.

Our community development programmes dispersed resources to community projects: school repairs, water works, replacing small bridges, reforestation. With these came the seeds of local governance as our staff helped Haitians convene meetings to decide on community priorities. These ad hoc councils eventually laid the foundation of community organisations chosen by election. By injecting not only money, but also hope, we felt we were making an important difference to the lives of so many Haitians all around the country.

In two years, we made forty trips to Haiti. The OTI approach, a non-traditional development programme, was considered a success as more communities became involved, and as the former army was transformed into a corps of able-bodied young men who now had a trade or some skills to use. It was uplifting to be part of something that was improving the daily lives of Haitians.

But the programme was short-lived. After two years, no additional funds were allocated to “reconstruction”. Communities were left without further resources to continue with the local projects. The “institution-building” programmes that replaced them did not value citizen participation.

Our last visit to Haiti was in 1996. We visited the community of St. Marc, observed the wonderful work that so many local citizens had completed – mainly because of the infusion of small amounts of resources – and wondered what would now happen to all these efforts. Our pleasure was mixed with apprehension: two years was certainly insufficient time to build a strong foundation for local governance or economic stability.

The fears we had that day have been confirmed by subsequent events in Haiti; indeed, St Marc itself was one of the centres of violence in the recent political tumult. From the vantage-point of a decade later, a two-year time frame for post-conflict reconstruction seems ridiculously short. But this issue can only be addressed if development agencies and the UN were to meet the costs of long-term “nation-building” and reinforce the moral and financial commitment to complete the job started in 1994.

US policy routinely seeks to uphold democratically elected governments rather than allowing them to be overthrown by rebels or dissidents. The case of Haiti may represent a situation where a visceral dislike of a political leader may ultimately have hastened his departure. Even in 1994, President Aristide was a lightning rod for partisan bickering among US political leaders. The use of 25,000 soldiers to reinstall him to his elected office was not followed by long-term willingness to secure his position against challenge.

Thus, after Washington had spent the last three years cultivating only one side of the political spectrum, no middle ground for negotiation with the opposition was available in these recent critical weeks. Even more tragic is the probability that Haitians may no longer be persuaded that it is long-term political compromises and patient institution-building that are necessary to alleviate their poverty – not quick-fix rescue efforts.

The nation-building toolkit

In the last decade, the perceived need to act in the face of imminent danger to the citizens of a state has resulted in a new form of international action: “humanitarian intervention”. It was first expounded in 2002 in the work of Australia’s former foreign minister, Gareth Evans, and a former UN special advisor, Mohamed Sahnoun.

This doctrine interprets the UN charter as allowing intervention when a state is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens from harm. This “duty to protect” has in practice three elements: that UN member-states intervene to prevent further death and destruction; that further conflict is prevented via security measures and peaceful conflict resolution; and that the international community is involved in reconstruction.

In short, nation-building is the other side of the intervention coin. If countries intervene militarily to prevent death and destruction, hopefully with the blessing of the UN, then they must also invest resources to repair ailing states over the long term.

How does the experience of Haiti measure up to these criteria? The country received the immediate benefits of protection in 1994 through the presence of peacekeepers and a UN mission; but the rebuilding component made Haiti a victim of “donor fatigue” as well as of the problems inherent in a weak, fragile state that had often struggled to sustain its core institutions and maintain public order.

The abandonment of Haiti reflects a wider problem within the international community. The world’s nation-building capacity, expressed via individual donor countries or the collective will of the UN, is quite limited. Long-term rebuilding is more than either an operational or a financial option – it embodies the evolving doctrine enjoining action beyond the boundaries of state sovereignty in the interests of saving lives. But the core mandate of this doctrine, “the duty to protect”, cannot be fulfilled without a new consensus that explicitly includes the responsibility to rebuild. The experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan are clearly of vital relevance here.

Rebuilding states is a multilateral game. But the resources or the political commitment to something as long-term as nation-building remain elusive. Without a new consensus about how these are allocated, we will continue to see quick-fix interventions that may have the unintended consequence of weakening further rather than strengthening the capacity of a country to rebuild.

A UN-based transitional authority system has been suggested, which could perform a dual role for states like Haiti: protection by international peacekeeping and security forces, alongside administrative support by the international community. This might include common resource pools overseen by the World Bank, and specific programmes to alleviate the worst forms of human insecurity. All this could be quickly inaugurated by a Security Council decision to intervene as a humanitarian act.

There is still time to consider this option in Haiti. The country could be the first beneficiary of this new intervention package. But until robust intervention is followed by equally robust nation-building efforts, the “duty to protect” will remain unfinished business – and the political future of Haiti will remain as unsettled as that of Afghanistan or Iraq.

A Rough Guide to Haiti
by Caspar Henderson

The world’s first black-led republic, Haiti was the first Caribbean state to achieve independence, in 1804. The last two decades have seen a downward spiral of poverty, environmental degradation, violence and instability, which have left it the poorest country in the Americas.

After decades of brutal dictatorship under the Duvalier family, there were hopes of a brighter future after the election of a radical former priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1990. In 1991, he was ousted in an army coup, but economic sanctions and a US-led military intervention forced a return to constitutional government in 1994.

This intervention restored Aristide to power, and after an interval of five years, he was again elected president in 2000. His second administration became increasingly controversial, with allegations of corruption, electoral irregularities and extra-judicial killings. The country’s infrastructure collapsed. Drug trafficking corrupted both the judicial system and the police force.

Haiti’s main exports – coffee, mangoes and other agricultural products – have steadily declined in value on world markets. Subsidies and trade barriers by rich countries have worsened Haiti’s position. New sectors such as clothing manufacture have not proven to benefit the economy as a whole.

The economy shrank by an average of 0.2% per year during the 1980s and 0.4% a year during the 1990s.

There are about 8.3 million people in Haiti. Life expectancy is 49 years. GDP per capita is US$480. Half the population is undernourished, half is illiterate. Over 40% of Haitians are under 14 years old. The incidence of HIV/Aids is the highest in the Americas, at 4.5% of the population.

Haiti has remained highly dependent on foreign aid from the World Bank, the European Union and the United States, but in 2000 the US cut off assistance, charging that 70% of it was being stolen by corrupt officials.

Haiti’s most serious social problem is probably the huge wealth gap between the impoverished, Creole-speaking black majority and French-speaking mulattos. 1% of the population own more than half the wealth.




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