The Crisis in Haiti: Can a Nexus Approach Help towards a Solution?

Mourad Wahba
October 17, 2022

The interlinked development challenges in Haiti illustrate the shortcomings of putting the so-called humanitarian-development-peace nexus into practice. This nexus is based on the conviction that “pathways to peace” require development processes to interact meaningfully with humanitarian relief, mediation, security and conflict resolution tools. Based on a mission I undertook in early 2022 for the United Nations, I will illustrate the practical challenges of the nexus approach for Haiti, how to strengthen a “Haitian solution to a Haitian crisis” and what this means for international cooperation in the country.

Complex realities make it hard to implement the nexus approach

While the nexus approach makes eminent sense in theoretical terms, in practice, policy decisions are complicated by many factors, including the availability of finance, the specialization of international assistance, competition between development and humanitarian partners, political ramifications and the perceived need to sequence actions. Confronted by the need to address simultaneous crises, policymakers must make difficult choices regarding prioritization of approaches both in terms of funding and in terms of chronology. Situations are messy, solutions are complex and slow, and yet decisions must be made.

Haiti’s development challenges

Haiti is once more in the news. The long-term issue of vulnerability to natural disasters affecting 90 percent of the population, continuing needs for humanitarian assistance of 4.9 million annually, and already low standards of living, with Haiti ranking 163 out of 191 countries on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index have been made worse in the past year. The recent hike in energy prices, growing insecurity, continuing opposition to the legitimacy of the current executive with elections that have been delayed since 2019, and revelations of the corruption of state institutions have all combined to spark an explosive situation. For many observers, the situation is out of control. The resurgence of cholera in recent days is yet another indicator of the parlous state of health infrastructure following the near paralysis of the country in the current ‘peyi lok’ – the country shutdown as a result of gangs barring the entrance of fuel and food through the main ports.

Faced with such a complex situation, and multiple crises feeding on one another, Haiti defies traditional attempts to classify situations according to neat categories of humanitarian, development, political or security. Many of my Haitian interlocutors complain of having been abandoned by the international community and are now searching for a Haitian led solution to the crises.

Complex crises, such as the one in Haiti, do not lend themselves to simple solutions. And yet the elements of a solution are all there, most recently seen in the July 2022 Security Council resolution that extended the UN mission in the country, imposed an arms embargo on gangs, and requested the Secretary-General to explore possibilities for a regional force.

The development, security, humanitarian aid, and the rule-of-law challenges would be daunting for any government, but near impossible for one lacking internal legitimacy, and faced with an explosion of violence, poverty, vulnerability to natural disasters, weak institutions, and high levels of poverty.

First steps toward democratic legitimacy and development

The first step has already been taken with popular protests against the deteriorating situation, the elite warnings of the need to come out of the impasse and recent calls by the acting Prime Minister for international support and a ‘specialized military force’ to help secure the free movement of much needed supplies from the airport and the ports. Indeed, a more decisive international effort based on this Haitian position would be to encourage focused dialogue among Haitians to reach a roadmap for elections towards a constituent assembly, tasked with amending the constitution and streamlining the complex electoral system, and eventually to legitimate executive and parliamentary institutions.

Simultaneously, international development cooperation needs to focus on anti-poverty measures focused on rural areas and small urban centers to reduce migration to Port au Prince. International assistance would also need to focus programmes on anti-corruption, and the improvement of revenue collection. Border control measures, stopping arms and ammunition smuggling, and security sector reform are essential, as is international support to the Haitian National Police and corrections. Temporary international support to investigations might be a way to strengthen the judiciary.

The path towards greater coherence in a complex nexus situation

While these recommendations are well known to policy makers and would be far more cost efficient and less controversial than a new peacekeeping mission in Haiti, yet they appear daunting to practitioners. A more concerted effort of the international community to encourage a Haitian resolution of the political crisis, with direct negotiations between the executive and the opposition is yet to bring the hoped-for results. Instead, what can only be described as palliative measures, essential but not game-changing are taken. What then would be a path towards greater coherence in a complex nexus situation?

Three areas of work would seem important. First, a much more determined approach than hitherto in helping the executive and civil society reach a roadmap towards a political solution. Reliance on a “Haitian solution to a Haitian crisis” has had positive consequences, but an additional international mediation effort is now needed to encourage Haitian actors to compromise towards a temporary solution. Without political agreement, and political will inside Haiti, all other efforts will be palliative solutions.

Greater protection through greater security

A second area of work is an urgent treatment of the security situation, thus creating a virtuous circle with political progress and security improvements reinforcing each other. The Security Council has mandated the Secretary-General to explore enhanced security support for the Haitian National Police. This would ideally include supporting Haitian authorities with much stronger border control to enforce an embargo on the flow of arms and ammunition, and an enhancement of international support to training, arming, and providing intelligence-led policing to enhance the capacity of the police. International assistance to the judiciary, in the form of investigative capacities must enable the exposure and prosecution of corruption and stem the flow of finance to gangs.

Together with greater security comes greater protection. The recent Security Council resolution on Haiti mandated a strengthening of protection for the human rights of people, and in particular women and children, affected by gang warfare (estimated at 1 to 1.5 million persons in Port au Prince alone).

Joint humanitarian and development transition plan

Third, humanitarian and development actors need agreement on a joint transition plan aimed at reducing vulnerability through support to early warning systems, management of rural irrigation and drainage, management of irregular settlements in urban areas, and emergency food deliveries in a manner that supports market development rather than replace it.

The case for a comprehensive approach

These policies are by no means innovative, nor are they prohibitively expensive or controversial in comparison, say to a new peacekeeping mission. But they do require a level of international policy coordination, and an open dialogue with Haitian interlocutors that has, to date, eluded us, instead of the well-meaning, but discrete interventions of the past. As importantly, a comprehensive approach to supporting Haitians through this crisis would need innovative solutions in terms of matching integrated funding for a concerted approach. The donor community has not succeeded in finding such a financial modality. While long-term solutions may be difficult to implement in the current international aid architecture, there is a case to be made for an ad hoc approach that would see an integrated program for Haiti backed by at the very least a coordinated funding approach. The “basket fund” designed to bring to the table international financial support to support the Haitian National Police is a start.

These are complex issues that will test the willingness of the international community to engage in the necessary evolution of the aid architecture. These issues will also, and perhaps more importantly, put to the test the political and diplomatic skills of Haitians and their international supporters. I believe that a growing movement in Haiti rejecting corruption, political stalemate, and insecurity is ensuring that the first steps are taken.

About the Author:

Mourad Wahba is Officer-in-Charge of the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF). Until 2021, he served as acting Associate Administrator of UNDP. Previously, Dr. Wahba served in different roles at the United Nations, including in the Office of the Secretary-General, as Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator and as Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Haiti. While this think-piece is influenced by the author’s mission in early 2021 on behalf of the UN, the opinions and assessments expressed here do not reflect in any way the position of the United Nations.

This think-piece continues the author’s exploration in his previous essay Saving Lives or Saving Livelihoods? Reflections on the United Nations’ Role for Development in War.

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.