Civil Unrest in Haiti & The Underlying Challenges

At the Fond Blanc Foundation we are narrowly focused on serving the needs of the orphans and community of Fond Blanc, but we also get many questions from our supporters about the context of the larger challenges facing Haiti. This commentary is intended to provide a broader perspective for understanding those challenges. Comments are the solely the opinion and responsibility of the author.

 

The July 2018 unrest in Haiti followed a large government-mandated increase in gas prices and attracted the world’s attention, putting missionary visitors at risk, cancelling flights and generating lots of disturbing news footage. Infrequent observers who recall similar scenes after earthquakes and hurricanes might think nothing has changed.

 

Such thinking would be mostly correct. Very little has changed. The recent violence is merely a symptom, not a cause, of the problems afflicting that nation. It is the causes, not merely the symptoms, which need attention. Even when things calm down and the symptoms seem to go into remission for a while, the underlying issues keep the whole nation perpetually simmering not far below the boiling point. The challenges in Haiti always seem impervious to genuine – and sometimes not so genuine – efforts to help.

 

A case can be made that three underlying causes are responsible for a great many of seemingly incurable problems in Haiti. They are the prosperity gap, the chronic breakdown in the rule of law, and dysfunction in the social and civic infrastructure. At the risk of over-simplifying these extremely serious conditions, it is helpful to offer a description of these problems for concerned friends of Haiti, who may doubt the wisdom of their own efforts to help.

 

The prosperity gap is just an antiseptic phrase for describing the vast chasm between the extreme poverty of the many and the very concentrated power and wealth of the few. It is not an exaggeration to describe typical Haitian daily life as a continual dance along the edge of destitution, deprivation and even death. Hope hangs on tenuously, but when hopes are threatened the people may react violently.

 

Life can be a cruel teacher and, sad to say, Haitians have become experts at misery. They seem to have developed a capacity to endure far more with far less and for far longer than most Americans could probably manage. For much of the last 100 years, the national resources have been carved up by the elites through rent-seeking, crony capitalism and outright corruption. The average man on the street expects that their elected officials will be primarily focused on looting the common purse for their personal benefit – and their votes are understood to be a way to fight for the scraps that remain. Promises are made, but few are kept, and the powerful protect themselves. The current president resolved his own corruption investigation by simply firing the investigators after he took power.

 

Select application of the rule of law allows the elite few in Haiti to control the land, the power, and the purse. Certainly, the jails are full of petty criminals, and the National Police are on the streets, but there are other gaps in the law. Property rights, for example, are an enormous challenge for the nation. A relatively few families control vast amounts of Haitian land, and ownership records for much of the rest is always in dispute.

 

Haitians who move from long time family homes often end up squatting on someone else’s land wherever they try to establish a new home. Perhaps it is easier for wealthy absentee landowners to keep the peace by generally allowing the trespassers to stay, but then people are routinely kicked off the land when someone powerful has as actual use for it. Property rights are at the foundation of a society’s structure, and countless efforts to bring business development or humanitarian projects to Haiti have been scuttled by the inability to gain clear title to land.

 

Corruption is endemic to the entire culture, but selective, and sometimes transparently political prosecution hasn’t helped curb the practice. Business enterprises may employ Haitian labor, but it is far safer and easier to export the profits than to reinvest that money back into a system where they cannot predictably protect their property and investment because of corruption and inadequate protections under the law.

 

A third underlying cause of Haitian problems is the nation’s dysfunctional social and civic infrastructure. A working electrical power grid and passable roads, along with clean water and effective sewage treatment are all essential components of infrastructure that are broken or incomplete in Haiti. When people must resort to washing themselves in rain gutters and defecating in public spaces, the foundations of civic culture face an existential challenge. We don’t need to look at Haiti for proof on this one; we can see it today in our own city of San Francisco!

 

The systemic dysfunction can break the hearts and spirits of charitable volunteers too. But rather than lose hope, many who volunteer to serve “the least of these” in Haiti put their energies into targeted assistance directed at small pockets of people in need because the bigger problems are beyond their capacity.

 

History teaches that the imbalances such as Haiti is experiencing are unsustainable over time. The recent rioting over gas prices is just one incident, one data point, in a larger panorama. It is hard to project when Haiti might finally amass the collective will and commitment to begin to address these fundamental issues. But whenever Haiti does decide that she wants to make things right, she will need every available citizen who can assist. The charitable work of volunteers, large and small, is perhaps the best way we can help more of those citizens to get prepared.

 

By assisting with things like food, shelter, health care, education and simple friendship, we have a chance to offer individuals a respite from that interminable dance along the edge and allow them a small margin against the pressures of daily life. When the opportunity comes at least more of them will be ready to respond. And we will have been grateful for the chance to help them on their journey. May God bless Haiti.

 

By: Paul Young

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