Haiti, on Background

A Haiti expert gives context to the current tragedy

I have been to Haiti at least yearly for the past two decades, and have spent months working at the Hotel Christopher, where the UN has been based during most of those two decades. Among the 150 UN staff reported missing from that five-story, former hotel building is a former colleague, Gerardo Le Chevalier. I first met this charismatic, insightful, and dedicated international civil servant in an earlier life, when he was a Salvadoran politician. In Haiti, I worked with him on Haiti’s elections in 2000, when he headed the Latin American division of the (U.S.) National Democratic Institute, and in 2006 as the UN head of electoral assistance in Haiti. The UN’s leading staff of the MINUSTAH peacekeeping mission are now, like so many other things in the country, decimated. It breaks the heart to see so many blood-strewn bodies in the streets and the city’s few hospitals, along with icons where I once visited and worked like the National Palace, the National Legislature, and the Montana Hotel, all in ruins.

But American audiences aren’t necessarily seeing the full picture of Haiti, even if the coverage has been comprehensive, duly respectful, and restrained. News organizations’ foreign-bureau cutbacks—until the quake, there were only two full-time American reporters in the country—lack the institutional knowledge that comes with a round-the-clock, on-the-ground reportorial presence. There is more to the story here than the grave images captured by the parachuting journalists, more than the saga of human misery, fear, and solidarity that has already appeared online, in papers, and on cable and network news shows.

In the days to come, as descriptions of scenes of death and destruction widen their scope to consider the broader implications of the quake, reporters will likely—and rightly—be asking what, if anything, can be done to stabilize and rebuild Haiti. To adequately address those questions, they’ll need to understand Haiti’s recent political and economic history. Consider this, then, your cheat-sheet for context on Haiti.


Ninety percent of Haiti’s economy is informal, meaning that it is neither taxed nor monitored by government agencies. Food riots less than two years ago led to the resignation of the prime minister. Still, before the quake, there were signs of improvement in the desperatively impoverished nation. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) mission, implemented in June 2004, led to positive GDP growth and the beginning of foreign investment in the nation. There has been a stable government since President René Preval’s 2006 election. And while the Senate election in 2009 was quite irregular, Haiti’s political trends have generally been improving.

Despite that, it is noteworthy that the Haitian state itself has not been able to take a lead role in the current crisis. This is the result of historical factors, part of which is the legacy of international patrimonialism. Generally, Haiti has endured three decades of the parallel state approach. As in Afghanistan, where the Karzai government has been accused of electoral and political corruption, Haitian governments since Jean-Claude Duvalier in the 1980s have been distrusted by the international community. So that community has provided aid to Haiti via international and domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs), rather than state-building. (Following 2008’s four tropical storms, for example, there was a recommitment of international aid to Haiti, rather than a renewed push to assist in its development.)

In this case, however, given the nation’s current resources, one does hope that the U.S. Marines will be able to secure relief supplies on behalf of the Haitian people; otherwise, even more chaos could befall the country. In 1991, for example, after the coup against President Aristide, Haitian warehouses were ransacked as desperate people sought to obtain what resources they could for themselves. Such panic rushes for basic necessities like food and water are typical of life in refugee camps (and certainly not unique to Haiti, as similar rushes have occurred in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nicaragua, and, yes, New Orleans).

Some of the scenes inevitably have been borderline pornography, exploiting human suffering without any sense of the privacy of or permission from those suffering. While the media will always present the most shocking photos, at least this will induce the US and other governments to respond quickly and the American public generously. As the trickle of relief operations commences, I hope the news media will give us examples of heroism, to be sure—but also that they will tell Haiti’s story in a way that illustrates the tragedy there without indulging in the voyeurism of human suffering.

But overall, and in the long run, journalists ought to focus on assessing the quality of the humanitarian relief response to the earthquake. Events like 2004’s Asian tsunami have arguably received a disproportionate amount of attention—which, while that led (beneficially) to a philanthropic focus on them, also led (detrimentally) to fundraising challenges for other, less well-publicized disasters. And while the emergency response to Haiti’s current tragedy must continue to rely on the NGOs’ parallel state, coordinated through the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at a certain point, the dysfunctional Haitian state has to learn to provide education, health, and other basic services. Not to mention basic public goods like security and the rule of law.

If Haiti continues to be a charity ward based on NGOs who are accountable to the international donors and charities, but not to Haitians themselves, Haiti’s citizens will never be able to develop their own state institutions. While the immediate priority now has to be, of course, the survival of the quakes many victims, in the long run, Haitians need to become participants in their own development, rather than stigmatized recipients of charity. And the immense challenge of realizing that goal should be the context in which journalists tell Haiti’s story.

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Henry (Chip) Carey is associate professor of political science at Georgia State University. His forthcoming books are Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding (Palgrave) and Reaping what You Sow: A Comparative Study of Torture Reform (Praeger).