How the West let Haiti down

Brian Stewart on the international retreat in helping Haiti.

It would be a great mistake for us to view the litany of failure in helping Haiti as a towering international disgrace.

That would be putting it far too mildly. A year squandered in helping Haiti recover from its devastating earthquake is a disaster of historic proportions.

Yes, hundreds of aid groups can point to some gains to fit those obligatory "Hope amid the ruins" stories that we all like to see.

But given the scope of Haiti's cataclysm, this past year represents more of a retreat than an advance.

Let's have no illusions here. "We're commemorating a year [in which] not much has been done," Michaelle Jean, Canada's Haitian-born former governor general and now the UN special envoy for Haiti, said this week in a searing indictment that too many observers will agree with.

What reconstruction? A Haitian woman stands amidst the rubble of a Catholic church in January 2011, one year after the earthquake struck. ((Jorge Silva/Reuters))

"The system is not delivering anything."

Readers will be all too familiar with the long litany of failure — the streets still full of rubble, the more than 850,000 still in overcrowded tent cities and besieged by crime gangs and rapists, the cholera epidemic that ran rampant for weeks, and the delays in delivering $2.1 billion in pledged funds.

A particularly blunt assessment came from Edmond Mulet, the head of the UN stabilization mission in Haiti, who told the PBS show Frontline that the country continues to "commit collective suicide." It is a broken, corrupted and crime-ridden state where the rule of law "doesn't exist anymore." 

So what is to be done?

Backing off

Let's get to the most critical decisions taken by the international community in the wake of the earthquake, which will help explain why a nation killing itself has moved still further towards the abyss.

The greatest lapse was the failure to ensure firm and transparent governance, and public order backed by law.

This was a country that needed to be resurrected from a state of prostration comparable to rubble-strewn Germany or Japan after the Second World War. (Though even these bombed-out powers had more to fall back on in terms of infrastructure and economic potential.)

There were even some calls to make Haiti a UN protectorate, to ensure a working state functioned while a large-scale peacekeeping mission was established to provide security and aid.

There are currently almost 12,000 UN troops in Haiti. But by many accounts that is not enough. ((Kena Betancur/Reuters))

I know of at least one other plan that circulated in high circles in Ottawa. It called on Canada to lead a Western hemispheric force that would include Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and the U.S.

The force would partner with a Haitian coalition government of the very best Haitians at home and abroad.

Other plans envisaged a group of five big powers, again involving Canada, which would provide a 30,000-strong security force to help coordinate medium and long-term development through a similar national unity government in Port-au-Prince.

The reason for the big show of force was as much for planning, coordination and development as for security.

But civilian officials in Foreign Affairs were not at all happy with the idea of our military playing such a lead role in a situation like this. It did not fit with the famously "risk averse" worldview making the rounds these days.

Need the military

In their extensive study, "Fixing failed states," development experts Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart observe that UN missions are usually handicapped from the outset "because the skills, resources, time horizons, and staying power necessary for their realization have by and large not been mastered."

Future missions, they say — their treatise was written before the earthquake— need more military input because "these forces bring a much-needed alternative perspective to development and easily grasp the need for a state-building doctrine."

Canada has a large number of officers who are well trained and experienced in helping on the development front and, in the wake of the earthquake, 2,000 troops were raced to Haiti and the cities of Leogane and Jacmel to provide security, medical aid, housing and infrastructure repair.

Our military expected to play an important future role in Haiti, but Ottawa had other ideas.

A few months after the Canadians arrived, to so much publicity, the Harper government pulled them out, to the clear disappointment of the UN and aid agencies.

"I think there was a strong request that they stay on," Nigel Fisher, the UN's head of humanitarian aid in Haiti told Canadian Press at the time.

"Could they have stayed longer? Many people felt it would have been great if they had."

The republic of NGOs

Earlier this week International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda defended the withdrawal, insisting the mission shifted to more of "an international effort led by Haiti's government." To which most people would say "What government?"

That would be the same nearly invisible government widely suspected of being in a close embrace with some of the criminal elements preying on the population and so corrupted and powerless that it is one of the prime reasons Haiti is on the path to collective suicide.

But Canada's abrupt downsizing of its rescue mission pretty much mirrors the rest of the international community. Many governments clearly fear Haiti will suck them into endless chaos.

So instead of that strong international partnership guiding a coalition Haitian government of national unity, we have only an unworkable Haitian government (with no incoming president yet) and an Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission made up of Haitian and international members.

The latter has met only four times to discuss how to co-ordinate the chaotic jumble of over 1,000 often competing and overlapping aid agencies, the non-governmental organizations that some are calling the "republic of NGOs."

Little of this is getting Haiti much closer to what it most urgently needs — the rule of law and civil order, without which nothing lasting will be accomplished.

Of course the central truth here is that none of the nations and agencies who are involved with Haiti, and none of the Haitian political parties, had found a way to achieve these things even before the earthquake.

But we simply can't lose another year stumbling around amid the ruins looking for answers. Perhaps the idea of an international intervention force will be revived if things get worse, but at this stage it's truly frightening to think what "worse" would even look like.