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Security in Haiti: an impossible dialogue?
Caroline BROUDIC, September 2012


 Humanitarians: sociologists rather than security agents?

Security in Haiti is amongst the subjects which creates the most controversy and disagreement within and between international organisations. Perceptions of insecurity vary diametrically from one actor to the next, which raises the question of what these views of violence and crime are based on, and of the appropriateness of the measures put in place in response to this feeling of insecurity. In a context where violence is closely linked to the deterioration of social relations, and therefore trust, it is reasonable to question the security measures applied by a certain number of international humanitarian organizations.

Indeed, restoring mutual trust would allow more detailed understanding of social structure in neighbourhoods and encourage dialogue so that tensions could be managed more effectively. But the security approaches developed by numerous humanitarian organizations, and particularly since the earthquake, are based more on the principle of confinement which creates distance and mistrust between staff and local people. These approaches, therefore, in no way encourage the establishment of such a dialogue, without which there is little chance of re-establishing relations of mutual confidence. To some extent, this isolation reproduces the scenario of Haitian society where there is no social mobility and where the elites take refuge in their golden ghettos. It can only reinforce divisions and increase the feelings of injustice and frustration felt by these communities who are once again marginalized and ostracized.

For example, most international organisations refer to the classification established by the MINUSTAH, which splits the Metropolitan Port-au-Prince area into different zones (red, yellow and green) depending on its assessment of security risks. This zoning corresponds principally to the security operations of the MINUSTAH, that is to say, military or police operations. However, it is far from obvious that this is in keeping with the mandate of humanitarian organizations or at least, it is important to be able to constantly put it into perspective in relation to humanitarian principles. Such a classification cannot be neutral to the extent that it inevitably produces effects, whether consciously or unconsciously, by establishing artificial borders. Is there not a fundamental contradiction between ostracizing people and certain humanitarian principles, such as non-discrimination, direct access to populations and neutrality?

The appropriateness of this zoning, which has been widely taken up by international organisations, could nevertheless be easily contested, as it does not include any nuances. It does not deal with neighbourhoods but with ‘zones’ which are represented as an indistinct and dehumanised mass. Insecurity only seems to be associated to roughly outlined ghettos, as if violence was an integral part of the standard of living of its inhabitants and was limited to it. Yet, as indicated above, social cohesion is a determining factor of stability and is not limited to the question of resources. Despite the fact that it is situated in a green zone, the residential neighbourhood of Pétionville is far from being exempt from a certain form of crime due to glaring inequality. By contrast, there is less crime in some poor neighbourhoods due to a social covenant. In addition, neighbourhoods are never homogenous, but, on the contrary, include groups of people with very diverse standards of living, which renders the notion of ‘zones’ incomprehensible.

It may therefore be useful to ask certain questions before retaining this zoning as a reference for regulating people’s mobility or worse still for establishing conditions for a humanitarian response. This list is not exhaustive, but it widens the debate about security by viewing it from a different perspective:

  • What is the zoning of the metropolitan region of Port-au-Prince based on and what social and economic impact does it have?
  • What criteria are used for this zoning and how do the indicators evolve? What analysis is there of these?
  • What are the mental perceptions related to this zoning among the local population themselves and humanitarian organisations?
  • What is the risk of ostracising part of the population and particularly those people who live in « red zones » in poor neighbourhoods, which should be a priority for action?

It therefore seems essential that the question of security within humanitarian organizations should not simply be externalized, that is to say, should not just be left to security managers. Security cannot be evaluated in isolation from in-depth political, social, environmental and economic analysis. A change of approach would make it possible to move from the monitoring of events to genuine sociological analysis. Security management rules should also be evaluated in terms of their impacts on the population itself and on the relations between the population and international organizations.

It is not a question of denying that security problems exist in Haiti, but 1) of putting them into perspective and being able to describe the risks that humanitarian organizations really face, without any paranoid exaggeration, and 2) of linking the issue of security to operations and their context. Indeed, trust in others, “can be decisive in terms of carrying out collective objectives, which require not only a large quantity of material resources, but also a shared vision of what these objectives are” [Charlier, 2012]. The appropriation of external operations by the local population is impossible without this mutual trust. It requires understanding of power relations in neighbourhoods and of the issues related to an external humanitarian operation. This therefore means not creating borders based on prejudices. It is the basic principle of acceptation, one of the main elements in managing security within NGOs, which can only be built via a sustained presence alongside the population.