As humanitarians call for greater attention to Haiti, U.S. pushes new approach to aid

State Department officials are consulting with Haitian grassroots organizations, academics and others to see how the United States can help tackle the country’s ongoing gang violence and instability.

The consultations, which have included discussions with over 230 individuals and organizations, are ongoing and part of the priority the country is being given under the Global Fragility Act. A long-term strategy that was rolled out last year, the idea behind the act is to support programs through a 10-year commitment that prevents violent conflicts before they erupt and fosters conditions for growth that help stabilize the country.

The hope is that by taking a long-term policy framework for the United States’ approach to assistance in Haiti, rather than short, erratic disbursements, the U.S. and Haiti will see better results. Critics have long accused the U.S. and others in the international community of being shortsighted when it comes to aid programs, or not showing a long-term commitment to ensure that programs work. As a result, the funding dries up and the program ends.

The White House first announced Haiti’s selection as a priority country last year. A public summary of the plan was finally released Friday as President Joe Biden was wrapping up a visit to Ottawa with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Biden had hoped to convince Trudeau to lead a military intervention into Haiti, where ongoing gang violence and kidnappings are worsening an already dire humanitarian situation.

Trudeau instead announced additional support for the Haitian National Police. Biden said he wasn’t disappointed. However, he acknowledged that the crisis demands a sense of urgency beyond strengthening the police, which “is going to take a little bit of time.” Gangs have now taken the place of the government, Biden said, acknowledging that the U.S. is “looking at whether or not the international community, through the United Nations, could play a larger role in this event, in this circumstance, but there is no question that there is a real, genuine concern.”

Haiti joins several other countries including Libya, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea and a group of West African coastal states as priority countries under the Global Fragility Act.

This is not the first time the U.S. has tried to approach assistance to Haiti in a new way. After the country’s deadly 2010 earthquake left more than 300,000 dead, the Obama administration touted trade instead of aid and focused assistance outside of the capital in hopes of encouraging many of the more than 1.5 million left homeless by the quake to relocate.

A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, however, detailed how efforts to help the country rebuild fell short. Projects have been stymied by cancellations, reduced budget allocations and cost overruns and delays, the report found.

On Monday, the United Nations continued its appeal for international support for Haiti to help address the root causes of the crisis. The Haiti director for the United Nations World Food Program, Jean-Martin Bauer, said Haiti remains a country in desperate need of international support.

“Haiti can’t wait. We can’t wait for the situation here to get more difficult before the international community reacts and comes in,” Bauer told journalists during a noon briefing at U.N. headquarters in New York. “There’s been a lot of talk about supporting the political process in Haiti, about improving security in the country. All of those are important but they won’t be viable unless there is a robust humanitarian response.”

Nearly half of Haiti’s 12 million residents currently do not have enough to eat, Bauer said. Hunger weakens any effort to stabilize the country, he warned.

Bauer said the escalation in armed violence is affecting Haitians’ ability to feed themselves and forcing some to drink rainwater, amid an ongoing deadly cholera outbreak because of lack of access to potable water.

Proponents of the new U.S. funding strategy say they are well aware of the challenges but believe the crisis in Haiti requires a more effective approach.

The proliferation of armed gangs and kidnappings is making it difficult for assistance to reach the population and for people to move around.

Last week, the United Nations reported that fresh clashes between warring armed gangs in Port-au-Prince had left at least 187 people dead in less than two weeks. The month of February saw the highest cases of reported kidnappings, 259, in a single month, since the U.N. began tracking abductions in 2005.

On Monday, the State Department reiterated its warning that U.S. citizens in Haiti should depart the country “now in light of the current security and health situation and infrastructure challenges.” “Kidnapping is widespread and victims regularly include U.S. citizens,” a spokesperson said.

The spokesperson declined to say how many U.S. citizens have been kidnapped in Haiti. Last week, a Tamarac family pleaded for help after two of their loved ones, Jean Dickens Toussaint and his wife Abigail Toussaint, both 33, were taken hostage by a gang while riding on a bus along a gang-controlled road on March 18 south of the capital.

The gang is reportedly asking for $200,000 per person after initially receiving a $6,000 ransom payment. The couple still had not been released as of Monday afternoon.

“Our Travel Advisory for Haiti is a Level 4: Do Not Travel due to kidnapping, crime, and civil unrest,” the State Department spokesperson said.