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Humanitarian Aid on the move #7, special issue: Haïti

Contextual understanding, coordination and humanitarian space: key issues for Haiti
François Grünewald

The image of the humanitarian sector and the confidence that people have in it determine the quality of aid, the security of humanitarian staff and the possibility of having a positive impact in the long term. These are vital issues which need to be taken into account in a difficult context like Haiti which has experienced periods of violence and which is confronted today with enormous challenges following a large-scale disaster. Understanding of the context, coordination mechanisms and perceptions of the relations between humanitarians, the government and the army are key factors which need to be analysed to understand the image of aid.

 Understanding a complex reality

In order to be able work in Haiti, one must first attempt to understand the complex context there. The pre-earthquake context was characterized by a number of salient points.


Cultural complexity: Though there are no descendants of the original inhabitants of the island, Haitian culture is extremely rich. Haitian singers, painters and poets are amongst the most famous in the Caribbean. Traditional cultural life is deeply rooted in traditional Voodoo, and has been enriched by numerous other religious and cultural practices. The memory of slavery is still present. Recent history has seen growing tension between traditional culture and evangelical churches which have gained in influence in the last decades and are clearly trying to limit the influence of traditional practices.

History which has not been given sufficient recognition: Haitians are proud of their rich history: the first black republic, the successful struggle for independence from the pro-slavery, colonial West, a Human Rights declaration which predates that of the French Revolution, etc. But very early on, the development of the country was held up by a number of obstacles: the pillaging of resources, military occupation, dictators supported by foreign powers, the destruction of rural economies through the liberalisation of agricultural markets which left Haitian products without protection from international competition, etc.

A troubled recent history but a gradual consolidation of the State: Haiti has had a troubled recent history with politically motivated violence with roots in the Duvalier period. This political violence regularly led to the intervention of international armies. The hopes raised by Aristide’s Presidency were dashed amid mismanagement and corruption. The period of turbulence which followed, from 2000 to 2004, led to the application of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter and the creation of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Its stated objectives were to maintain the security of the country and reinforce the rule of law. Though significant progress was made nationally and regionally via a policy of decentralization, the continued presence of the MINUSTAH is now questioned by many Haitians and some observers. Why has Chapter VII of the UN Charter been applied? What is at stake politically for Latin American States? To what extent is the USA motivated by concerns about controlling migration and preventing a “boat people” type phenomenon? Not only has the costly MINUSTAH become unpopular with the majority of Haitians, its presence leads to the application of high level security procedures by the United Nations system. This “security paranoia” has contributed a great deal to the paralysis of international aid, even since the earthquake of 2010.

Poverty and inequality: Today’s social fragmentation has its roots partly in the colonial period (overexploitation of natural resources, monoculture for the colonial market and payment of a decolonisation tax [1]) and also in the post-colonial economic system (market deregulation with Haitian agricultural products unable to compete with subsidised imports). These have contributed to making Haiti the poorest country in the Caribbean. 72% of the population lives on less than two US dollars per day. Alongside this poverty there is a high degree of social inequality, with a number of families in possession of a large part of the national wealth. The lives of many Haitians in rural and urban areas are often a case of day to day survival, with a great deal of dependence on aid and money transferred by the Haitian diaspora.

Major vulnerability and extraordinary resilience: Different types of natural disasters have regularly struck Haiti in the last decades. Poverty, environmental degradation and weak development have made the country very fragile. Landslides regularly disturb the circulation of people and goods. There are frequent hurricanes and tropical storms with tragic consequences for the population. For example, in 2008 cyclones, which caused no deaths in neighbouring countries, caused 800 deaths in Haiti.
One of the factors which made the effects of the earthquake worse was the fact that disaster management had focused solely on climatic disasters. Priority was given to the more frequent risks (cyclones, floods and landslides) rather than rarer risks like earthquakes. Nevertheless, the Haitian population is incredibly resilient. Rural and urban informal sectors are supported both by the diaspora and by an extremely dynamic micro-finance system.

A strategic position: Due to its geographical position, Haiti falls within the sphere of influence of the United States and regional powers like Brazil, Venezuela and Chile. As Haiti is a French-speaking country and is relatively close to the French territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique, it is also within France’s sphere of influence. As a result, political decisions to assist Haiti are not always disinterested.

Haiti, the development aid abyss: As it has been allocated considerable amounts of development aid, Haiti is one of these places which makes people question whether aid “really has any effect”. The “c” word (c for coordination) is often accused of being the source of all evil. Already, before the earthquake, complex coordination and governance mechanisms had been put in place. These involved different families of stakeholders (donors, international and national stakeholders, UN agencies, multilateral actors, the Haitian government, etc.) with different mandates (development, humanitarian, etc.). Dialogue between Haitian civil society groups and the different international coordination forums has often been difficult.


The different coordination forums already in place before the earthquake were :

-The Group of 11 (G11), which facilitated dialogue between the 11 main donors and the government.

-The Groupe d’Appui de la Coopération Internationale (GACI), which included UN agencies, the MINUSTAH, international development agencies, donors and international NGOs and facilitated coordination in the areas of disaster preparedness, resource mobilisation and technical cooperation.

-The Comité Permanent Inter-organisations (CPIO/IASC), which was the coordination body for humanitarian agencies.

-Internal coordination within the United Nations was the responsibility of the United Nations Country Team and the MINUSTAH and had at its head the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General.

-The international NGOs who had been present in Haiti for a long time had created the Comité de Liaison des ONG (CLIO) which brought together national and international NGOs. Haitian civil society was organised around specific themes (Human Rights, etc.) or particular professions (e.g. peasant farmer associations).

-The Système National pour la Gestion et la Réponse aux Désastres (SNGRD) was created in 1999 under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior to manage disasters. It was run by the Direction de la Protection Civile (DPC) which, during previous disasters, had shown both its dynamism and its limits.


Then the earthquake struck, highlighting the major structural weaknesses in the country and redistributing the cards in terms of coordination.

[1] DOUYON, Frantz ; HOLLY, Daniel Douyon, F./ Holly, D. (2004)