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Haiti : Risk, conflict and sustainable change


By Lee Chance [1]

Submitted to AlterPresse on October 24, 2007

Haiti has almost vanished from the news; Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur and the current presidential race in the United States can partly explain the lowering of the interest for this country, but Haiti still needs attention. There is currently an optimistic tendency towards Haiti because the government, with the support of the UN Mission, has cracked down on the gangs and drugs dealers in recent months, but it will be a mistake to consider that Haiti has completely emerged from this turmoil. In fact, the country is still extremely vulnerable and there are many risk factors; such as the failure of the disarmament program, that can diminish the impact of the Haitian government’s effort to create the conditions for a lasting peace for development.

Since the end of the Duvalier era in February 1986, the country has experienced over twenty years of an erratic and long lasting unsuccessful democratization process that has been interrupted by several periods of intense conflict and violence. Each period began with optimism and then plunged into chaos. Haiti, as the first black republic that emerged from a violent period of power struggle in 1804, has never managed to define its own path towards progress and development.

Haiti is ranked 11 out of the 60 countries that are considered failed or vulnerable states by the Failed State Index 2007, because,”…Haiti is wracked by extreme poverty, lawlessness, and urban violence [2].” For transparency international, Haiti [3] is the most corrupt country in the world, just before Burma and Iraq. [4]

The current situation highlights a few changes, especially in the area of security. How will the country manage to transform this momentum into a sustainable peace that can create positive conditions for democracy and development? This is the challenge faced by the current government. We have to remember, though, that Haiti has in the past, experienced such periods of calm, but these periods were systematically succeeded by periods of violence. This brings us to wonder what the most fundamental stake in Haiti is today: peace or development? By Peace, we mean the establishment of (peace) mechanisms within the State to mitigate conflict and violence.

Peace is a major stake in Haiti because conflict and violence has been an overriding feature in Haitian history over the last few decades. For this reason, development and democracy are impossible to emerge. Pouring aid money and technical expertise the way that it has been done in the past will not be productive as we can see that it has not provided any lasting, positive impact in the development of this country over the past several decades. Haiti gives all of us a sense that history keeps repeating itself. The popular perception in Haiti is that the country is cursed for an original sin; just like Sisyphus in Greek Mythology was punished by Hades and was forced to roll a block of stone over and over again.

The justice system is collapsing, but this is not a new fact. In 1995, William G. O’Neill [5] observed that,

“Among Haiti’s many priorities, reforming the justice system is near the top of most people’s lists. Judicial reform, […], revamping Haiti’s horrendous prison system, […] are essential in this delicate transitional period from dictatorship to democracy. Without fundamentally changing how justice is administered, human rights guarantees will be fragile and the rule of law a pipe-dream.”

Ten years later, in 2005, Mr Thierry Fagart, the director of the UN’s Human Rights section [6] notes that,

“….More than 90% of detainees in Haiti’s prisons were in pre-trial detention, and that many had been in jail for more than two years without seeing a judge. Haiti’s constitution requires that detainees see a judge within 48 hours of their arrest.”

Former UN spokesperson David Wimhurst stated that,

“….Haiti’s judicial system was "totally chaotic," adding that "it doesn’t work."

The justice system has collapsed despite aid coming from the UN development program (UNDP) and other donors such as the Canadian Cooperation.

In spite of reasonable results, the last report of Crisis International Group emphasized the fact that Haiti still has a long way to go before achieving stability, “…security and stability remain fragile [7].” Haiti is still extremely vulnerable because neither the government nor the current UN mission in Haiti, have yet tackled the root causes of the problems.

In the past, the international community has used the approach of bringing remedies (ie; projects, money) to attempt to curb the symptoms of the problems in Haiti. Instead, we need to approach Haiti not as a country with problems, but rather as a problematic country (meaning that the problem lies within Haiti itself; ie: a failed state, low social capital; conflicting social classes, etc.). Chetan Kumar in his 1998 book [8], highlighted the necessity to solve the conflict that hinders the capacity of the Haitian society to develop a sort of social contract that would be the basis for a national effort towards sustainable changes.

There are two major issues that we ought to reckon with: culture and history. It is difficult for experts and donors to use the cultural framework to define policy and strategy, but culture matters [9] and to some extent it influences capabilities of certain actors to deal with certain situations. History matters as well because the country has experienced “…decades if not centuries of institutional abandonment [10].”

Without adopting a deterministic perspective, we ought to admit that history constitutes with the present, a continuum of experiences and choices that were taken and that impact the current situation. History has a certain level of determinism in shaping the situation and characteristic of the both the State and the Haitian society.

There are still many internal risks (social unrest, discontent, etc.) and external risks (natural disasters) that can mortgage the future of this country. The Haitian government as well as the UN Mission in Haiti needs to be aware of them in order to set up the proper political and institutional framework that will reduce the impact of these risks factors on the political and social stability. The donors provide support for the modernization of the Haitian State, but it is not sufficient because as long as the State is not willing to create the conditions for social order to engineer social and political changes, there will be forces within and outside the country that will challenge the authority of the Haitian State. The State needs to impose and enforce a social order based on certain values and behaviors to be adopted by the citizens. To achieve this task, the State needs to find a consensus with the various social groups that resist its authority and instead compete with the State to exert control over the society.

Haiti has a long way to go. For the next two decades the country needs sound support and efficient and comprehensive programs in order to create the conditions for it to emerge from its dire situation. The donors have to stop imposing their own visions and strategic priorities. We understand that there is a fatigue vis a vis this country, but in the current world dominated by conflict, instability and terror, the United States does not need to have a failed State in its neighborhood.


Contact :

[1Social Analyst of Research and Action International Consulting Firm – REACTIC, Virginia

[2The Failed State Index 2007, in Foreign Policy, July/August 2007, (P56).

[3Corruption Perception Index 2006 of Transparency International.

[4Redaction’s note : Refused position by some Haitian specialists

[5Was then consultant for the Human Rights NGO, National Coalition for Haitian Rights, he wrote the report on the judicial system and human rights abuse in 1995.


[7Crisis International Group, Report 21 July 18th 2007.

[8Building Peace in Haiti, International Peace Academy New York, NY 1998,. This book is even more relevant today than ever.

[9Culture matter, How values shape human progress Ed. Lawrence E. Harrison & .Samuel P. Huntington, Basic book 2000…

[10Crisis International Group, Cf Note 5.