Finally, some good news from Port-au-Prince: Haitians went to the polls and peacefully elected a new president by a wide margin in early April, a mere 15 months after a magnitude-7.0 earthquake devastated large swaths of the country and killed an estimated 230,000 people, and barely five months after an earlier election attempt disintegrated into chaos. The political shift that has taken place in that short time says much about the resiliency of the Haitian people, and also about the priorities of the U.S. and other nations in managing the strategic risks associated with political instability while helping a country get back on its feet.
The January 2010 quake resulted in consequences of all kinds – almost all of them negative. Millions were made homeless (and remain so), a cholera epidemic killed thousands and violent crime spiked. One of the few bad things that did not happen after the quake, however, was a mass exodus of Haitians to U.S. shores. Despite predictions to the contrary, and a prior record of large migration (think post-1991 military coup), Haitians stayed put this time.
But living conditions in the island nation have remained medieval and, as if those weren’t dire enough, Haiti’s already precarious political foundations eroded further in the aftermath of spectacularly disorganized and fraud-riddled presidential elections last November, which led to widespread rioting and mounting concern among Haiti’s neighbors. Natural disasters didn’t push the Haitians out, but political chaos had in the past – and could again.
So the most pressing question in Washington over the winter became: What should we do now? One of the more intriguing answers that caught our eye came from former DHS Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Programs Juliette Kayyem. Writing in The Boston Globe on the one-year anniversary of the quake, Kayyem asked: “How does the United States continue to help Haitians rebuild Haiti – rather than flee it?” Her answer was that U.S. strategy “should focus on one basic objective: keeping Haitians committed to Haiti.”
Kayyem outlined two necessary components to achieve such an objective. The more obvious one was of course to press ahead with an already massive humanitarian assistance effort that has involved not just U.S. citizens and relief organizations but entailed a large federal government presence as well. This was no mere sideshow, she pointed out. “In recent history, due in no small measure to international humanitarian intervention, populations have remained incredibly resilient to natural disasters. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Pakistan flooding resulted in tremendous death and devastation, but no major civilian exodus.”
The second component was more subtle but also potentially more consequential. It was to monetarily and materially support fresh presidential elections that had been called for the spring, recognizing in her words the “tangible risk to the recovery from the uncertainty now surrounding Haiti’s politics” as well as “the key fact… that America’s interest in Haiti today is as much about the election politics as it is about food and shelter.”
Kayyem reported that, “embedded in the budget for humanitarian assistance to Haiti, the United States is also supporting the elections themselves, including technical assistance, the procurement of election materials and ballot boxes, and domestic and international observers for post-electoral developments.”
The respective articles by The New York Times covering the November 2010 and April 2011 elections starkly highlight the differences between the two, and serve to confirm Kayyem’s reading of what was important from a strategic risk management perspective. It may be all but impossible to ascertain how much of an influence outside assistance has in such cases, but either way the outcome is obviously being greeted with smiles of relief all around.
Haiti’s political foundations, at least, have again been shored up.
(Photo courtesy of Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images)
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