Source: Shannon Finney/Getty Images for beyond borders.
A cherished cultural dynamic in rural Haiti emphasizes genuinely seeing the person you are engaging with, especially through intentional, individual greetings. Beyond being polite, this exchange lets people know you see them. Considering Haiti’s deteriorating conditions, many in the international community are chiming in with critiques and proposals. Some suggestions have merit, while others are misinformed, too short-termed, or are altogether dangerous. Fewer yet are coordinated. It is arguable that any truly see the Haitian people.
While the specifics of a path forward are unclear, non-Haitian advocacy and peacebuilding organizations, multilateral organizations, and foreign governments must do better about listening to Haitians and supporting Haitian-led solutions. In the midst of this noise and in the face of overwhelming crises—such as governance, economics, and insecurity—does the international community really see Haiti and its people? A good way to start is to reframe misguided policy questions into questions rooted in local history and context that encourage the different voices of Haitians themselves.
Why are we still talking about how bad conditions are in Haiti?
Since its self-emancipation in 1804, Haiti has faced strong headwinds maturing into a nation in a world that fears its existence. That history involved strong and repeated external influence that continually undercuts its development and weakens the relationship between Haitians and their government. As the world reimagines its relationship with this Caribbean nation, history must mold a diplomatic posture that moves from disempowerment to empowerment. Foreign leaders must cast aside their tendency to clinch control of Haiti while simultaneously laying blame at Haitians’ feet when things do not go well. Haitians have voiced these concerns well before The New York Times covered the topic. What can the international community learn from this history to inform engagement moving forward?
Does Haiti need foreign intervention?
This question fails to consider other challenges and obscures conversation about what constitutes intervention. Formally and informally, the international community already intervenes in Haiti. Haitians see this in U.S. bags of rice or the availability of firearms and ammunition. Externally imposed development solutions following the 2010 earthquake still shape life there. The legitimacy of Haiti’s acting prime minister, Ariel Henry, is rooted in the international community recognizing him. Are these policies counterproductive to the international community’s interests in empowering a more stable and thriving Haiti?
However, what experts usually mean by intervention—and what many Haitians envision and fear—is an extra-Haitian physical force. Given the serious harm from previous examples, the international community must consider mitigating harm if a military intervention does occur. This might include questions like: “What measures could prevent sexual exploitation?”; “How could effective intervention lead to better humanitarian aid while strengthening civil society?”; “Does the order of events matter, and who is making the request for intervention?”; and “Can international actors think multiple steps ahead?”
If foreign military intervention is off the table, why don’t we just support the Haitian National Police?
The question about foreign intervention frequently raises bolstering the Haitian National Police (HNP) as an alternative, even though many point to the failures of the HNP, while overlooking the fact they are an institution established and funded by the U.S. and the international community. In many ways, the inadequacies of the HNP are inadequacies of foreign policy that created and supports them. There is also a tendency to overlook the work of many good HNP officers while expecting the impossible—that the HNP compensate for failures in addressing international crime and a weak justice system. The simplified intervention question leads the conversation astray. A better path would define shortcomings, heed the warning signs of a long history of U.S. involvement in Haitian police forces, acknowledge the violence inflicted against the police, and then create and pursue remedies. Imported solutions risk absorbing problematic foreign structures, while strengthening local security and collective justice practices may build a more durable foundation.
Why not just listen to Haitian solutions?
Fundamentally, the phrase “Haitian-led solutions” is critical; for far too long, the world has imposed “solutions” onto Haiti. Haitian-led solutions are necessary for changing that dynamic. Still, there is a great need to define what these “solutions” could look like and understand how the mere presence of outsiders shapes engagement. From the perspective of more powerful countries, Haitians risk appearing weak and ungovernable when expressing dissent. The ways in which outsiders engage can easily stifle rather than promote conversation, and the positions of world powers often inhibit the independence of Haitians from determining their direction.
Yet, Haitian-led does not mean Haitian-exclusive. Those outside of Haiti should more seriously consider what they bring to the table while ensuring Haitians are in the lead, not as a cover for particular interests, but through genuine deference.
Supporting a Haitian-led solution is not a neutral prospect. Not all Haitians agree with one another, and that is fine. Finding Haitians who agree with a particular perspective and claiming the act lifts up the “Haitian-led solution” can effectively be an imposed solution. As international actors consider whose voices to uplift, emphasizing the most marginalized and those with particular expertise—not simply those with proximity to foreigners—would be a better place to start. The Montana Accord, its imperfections notwithstanding, defines a path forward at least for transitional governance and elections supported by an impressive array of Haitian organizations and individuals. The multi-sector initiative that created it began months before President Moise’s assassination in 2021, not as a response to it, as Haitians had understood the looming governance crisis induced by the Haitian government’s failure to hold elections.
Despite this, the international community has failed to seriously engage with the Accord, resulting in momentum lost over time. Some argue that there are too few Montana Accord signatories, but fail to describe what the right representative answer might look like or consider the costs of tolerating the status quo while waiting for a better alternative. The December 21 National Consensus for an Inclusive Transition and Fair Elections includes some encouraging language, but in practice, risks retaining the current and harmful power structure.
So, what can we do for Haiti?
Haitians advocate for themselves regularly despite foreign-backed dictatorships and the posture of the international community. However, their activism occurs against the backdrop of immense violence.
As many foreign advocates and experts pursue audiences with world leaders on behalf of Haitian voices, they request perhaps the impossible: that Haitians speak in such rare moments for their whole country and with the force of an imbalanced scale of global power lending credibility to anyone else who speaks in the room but them. The difficulty of expressing power from such a place while preserving one’s integrity is an impressive feat, particularly in front of the U.S. government or other critics.
Moreover, who gets to ask questions about Haiti and who gets to answer them are dynamics that fundamentally shape any foreign policy approach. Are questions of Haiti’s condition being asked of Haitians or simply of analysts for the international community? Asking such questions of Haitians and really seeing the work they are doing may reveal a deeper understanding of how governance, insecurity, and economic challenges must be approached holistically and concurrently.
The complications raised here are meant neither to induce desperation nor to imply rushing to quick action as the right way forward. Instead, this process of confronting and reframing fundamental questions is intended to generate more imaginative thinking, turn attention to the ingenuity, compassion, and determination of Haitians, as well as hold up a mirror for the international community to understand itself concerning Haiti better. We do not necessarily need to do more for Haiti, but we must truly see them.
Alan Yarborough chairs the Haiti Advocacy Working Group and works for The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C. He also helps people to enhance their understanding of one another and engage with tough political topics through civil discourse training and coaching with Habits of Discourse. The views expressed here are his own, though he credits and thanks the community of people who help challenge and inform him about Haiti on a daily basis.