A Pause in Port au Prince: Time for a Surge?
Apologies to Port au Prince residents, but the capital city is an impediment to development for the country. Port au Prince became the problem city of Haiti during the reign of the Duvaliers – each of whom centralized power and authority in the Capital, disempowering secondary cities such as Cap Haitian and Jacmel.
Port au Prince grew wildly as a result of rapid population growth, urban influx as a result of agricultural productivity coupled with a desire for non agrarian employment. Looking at photos of the city in the fifties, it is hard to believe what has happened to it since.
As one of the most unstable cities in the Carribean, government officials spend what few resources they have (after graft) on stabilizing the capital. Addressing deforestation, access to health care, and modernizing the national school system are after-thoughts. If the rest of the country is to have the full attention of the government, the Capital must first be stabilized.
Weak though Aristide was, his departure created a vacuum which the interim (and non-democratically elected) interim government could not fill. The gangs took full advantage. Kidnapping was not new in Port au Prince, but now politically oriented gangs, drug-related thugs, and common criminals were involved. The end result was that Haiti surpassed Colombia as the country in the Western Hemisphere with the highest number of kidnappings.
The UN Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) took a hands off approach at first, believing that they were there to keep the peace not to function as law enforcement. However, in a setting such as this there was no peace to keep. Resentment grew against MINUSTAH. Haitians saw MINUSTAH officers at beaches, hotels and strip clubs.
As a result of national and international pressure, MINUSTAH shifted its strategy and became more assertive, going after the gang members in Cite Solei, who perpetuated the kidnappings. This may not sound dramatic but there are few precedents for this sort of operation by UN Peacekeepers. The only other parallel at present is the MONUC force in the DRC. Both forces have been criticized for civilian casualties that have occurred as a result of operations. Both have been accused of, and taken steps to address, sexual exploitation by peacekeepers. Both have had recent successes – MINUSTAH in taking back Cite Solei block by block and MONUC in making possible relatively peaceful elections in the DRC.
Cite Solei is peaceful for the moment and kidnappings are down. Now comes the hard part. Security is necessary for development but it is not enough. As a Cite Solei resident put it, “you can’t eat security”. Now is the time to re-energize efforts in Haiti, not to lose interest as has been the pattern of the international donor community.
I suggest a surge….in a development rather than a military sense. There have been some livelihoods programs introduced by the government, but mainly for gang members. There have been few takers, and not all participants have severed their ties to the gangs. Livelihood programs should be much more expansive, focusing on infrastructure projects primarily. Cite Solei could function as a pilot before being expanded throughout other parts of the city and into the countryside. The Civilian Conservation Corps worked in the USA, it worked in Afghanistan, and it could work here as well.
MINUSTAH must maintain its presence in Cite Solei but MINUSTAH is not a long term solution. A transparent and reliable police force must be developed, trained, and yes, even appropriately armed. Limitations on weaponry never made sense in a county where gangs are armed to the teeth. Until investment can be built up, funding for this endeavor will come from international donors, and will take years. Haiti is unabashedly pro-Taiwan, and China may again try to limit MINUSTAH’s mandate. The premature withdrawal of the UN has occurred before and should be prevented again.
The health and education systems need to be bolstered and modernized. Haiti’s government has suffered a brain drain that has taken place over several decades and institutional capacity is weak. Haiti should be encouraged to strengthen its stewardship role in overseeing the NGOs and providing support to the NGOs that provide the vast majority of the services in the country.
And of course, judicial and penal reform. I have little expertise in this error and defer to those of us in the Haiti Innovation Community who do.
There are many other opportunities for capitalizing on this new “humanitarian and developmental” space that exists at present. We have highlighted several here.
It is our hope that this window of peace marks a lasting change for the better and that we will all be able to contribute to it in some way