Rebuilding Haiti, Rebuilding the Fragile State Framework
Since the terrible earthquake that struck Haiti, I have been asked by many of my colleagues how I think Haiti should “rebuild.” My immediate response is that this is Haiti’s project and best left to the imagination and aspirations of Haitians. Still, standing farther back from the question, I have been thinking about our general approach as we engage with Haiti. I think that the policy lens we have been employing – the fragile state policy framework – could use some “rebuilding” itself.
Prior to the 1990s, most of our aid to Haiti had been humanitarian in nature, aimed at material sufficiency and basic needs (food, education, shelter, health, etc.). Since the mid-1990s, we began to think more expansively; the goal of building peace started to frame our interventions. Still, more recently, since 2004, we have been focused on reducing Haiti’s so-called “fragility.” My concern is that while there is still a forceful discourse about poverty reduction, democracy building, and development framing our interventions, it is now intertwined with more explicit security (ours and the world’s) and stability considerations. This is something that deserves some careful consideration.
We have designated Haiti as “fragile” because of its poor governance, weak economy, the presence of armed groups that occupied parts of the country in 2004, episodes of public insecurity due to gang violence and kidnappings, and concern that uncontrolled migration and other cross-border threats such as drug trafficking could affect its neighbours. We don’t view Haiti as a likely host for terrorists, still we view its poor governance and development malaise as threats to its citizens, neighbouring countries, and the broader international community.
Even though the fragile state concept is used by all OECD countries, some scholars and practitioners have found fault with it. One critique that we should heed, for instance, is that much of the West’s capacity building is aimed at fulfilling the tasks that we as outsiders consider important because they happen to relate to our own national interests and to international order more generally. Other scholars and practioners, particularly those from the global South, have suggested that, when using this lens, donors tend to focus on Haiti’s internal characteristics and dynamics rather than international factors that have caused or exacerbated the country’s so-called fragility.
One of my own concerns has been that by adopting a fragile state lens, we have made our overriding objective to make Haiti less conflict-vulnerable, rather than less poor. Of course, addressing the country’s vulnerablilty to conflict entails a commitment to poverty reduction. Still, it’s no longer the overarching objective. Moreover, I think that the distinction between poverty reduction for humanitarian reasons versus poverty reduction to allay instability or prevent conflict needs to be highlighted. For instance, if we are endeavouring to reduce poverty because it contributes to conflict, rather than for strictly humanitarian reasons, our aid is more likely to flow to localities and social groups that we view as predisposed to conflict or unrest, rather than to the poorest. While the two groups often overlap, this is not always the case. Indeed, in Haiti, the poorest are not necessarily the most conflict vulnerable. The rural poor suffer and die very quietly, often without breaking shop windows, burning cars, and blocking roads.
A fragile state lens still accommodates an ethical responsibility to those beyond our borders but it also places international security considerations at the forefront of our interventions. Labelling Haiti a fragile state may accord it strategic relevance but it can also lead to targeted aid that may very well overlook the most vulnerable and marginalized – the rural poor for instance.
Mark Duffield has astutely observed that the fragile state “is used as a generic expression of concern” – concern for the citizens of fragile states, but also for outsiders. As a policy lens, I believe it tells us a lot about our own fears – our alarm about countries like Haiti that seem perpetually at the threshold of emergency. Our decision to view Haiti through the fragile state policy lens signifies that our own national strategic interests – national, regional, and global security – have become more prominent. More ethically-inspired motives are still present but are now intermingled with apprehension, that is, concern about the potential ripple effects of Haiti’s ineffective state and its vulnerable peoples.
As we assist Haiti in its efforts to rebuild its infrastructure, state, economy, and society, we need to ensure that our own objectives are simplified, aimed at a single security referent, the most vulnerable Haitians. Regarding poverty reduction, we should be focused on reducing poverty by helping Haiti’s poorest, that is, those most in need of our assistance. As soon as we try to reduce poverty AND contribute to a more secure Caribbean neighbourhood and a less strife-riven world, we are muddying the waters. When dealing with the poorest country in the hemisphere, we should adopt a policy lens that focuses squarely on the security of Haitians. Not on global, regional, or national security considerations. Simply put, our interventions are unlikely to yield long-term benefits for Haitians if our own well-being and security – let alone global order and the world’s security – form part of the equation. The competing rationales will inevitably collide, as they have in the past, leaving Haitians by the wayside yet again.