Why do aid groups remain in lawless Haiti?

Haiti’s grim humanitarian situation is back in the spotlight after gangs attacked an Oklahoma-based missionary group working in the capital Port-au-Prince on Thursday, killing two Americans and the Haitian director of the Missions organization. at Haiti.

The attack left many wondering why American missionaries continue to work in Haiti, considering the immense violence that has paralyzed the country and the control that gangs have over most of Port-au-Prince. Thursday’s incident follows the 2021 kidnapping of 17 missionaries working in Haiti with Christian Aid Ministries. A Haitian gang kidnapped 16 Americans and one Canadian in that attack; Weeks later, 12 of the hostages escaped and the others were freed.

While Haiti is no stranger to violence and instability, the situation has worsened considerably since the 2021 assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse. Since then, the state collapsed and gangs proliferated, filling the void.

This week’s killings come as Kenyan-led forces arrive in Haiti in the coming weeks to confront gangs and help stabilize the country. They are being funded by the United States and other members of the international community.

The gangs now control much of the capital, including vital infrastructure such as national highways and seaports. They are able to stop imports of basic foods and other needs from a country that produces very little and depends heavily on foreign products.

According to research groups, gangs now control or can influence about 90 percent of the capital. In many ways, Port-au-Prince is a giant open-air prison, with much of its population of six million unable to move freely and gang violence dictating their daily lives.

From March 1 to May 20, gang-related violence killed 1,160 people across Haiti, including 136 women and 35 children, according to the latest United Nations figures. There were also 294 kidnappings, including six children, in that period.

More than 160,000 people are currently displaced in the capital’s metropolitan area, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The organization reported in March that 15,000 Haitians were displaced in a single week, many of whom had previously been displaced by gang violence. The IOM counted 10 displacement sites that were completely emptied over a period of a few weeks, from February to March, by people fleeing “successive waves of violence,” according to a statement from the organization.

About 59 percent of the country lives below the poverty line and nearly one in four children suffers from chronic malnutrition, according to Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Aid groups have been active in Haiti for decades, but their presence increased after a devastating earthquake in 2010 that leveled entire parts of the capital and killed about 300,000 people.

Since that earthquake, the international community has injected approximately $13 billion into Haiti. But instead of helping the country recover, Haitian institutions have weakened, contributing to the current collapse of the state, according to some experts.

“Individual aid projects may be fine and offer help, but they are still part of a broader system that has undermined the state, reduced capacity and partly led to the current situation that is developing,” said Jake Johnston. , a Haiti expert at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank, and author of the book “Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism, and the Battle to Control Haiti.”

“What has led to the increase in violence and insecurity is, in many ways, the lack of state presence – the lack of capacity – and that is largely a result of aid programs,” he said.

Aid groups say they are preventing an already bad situation in Haiti — mass unemployment, rampant sexual violence, malnutrition and more — from getting even worse. Some aid workers blame international governments for Haiti’s current instability, alleging that they have rallied behind corrupt politicians whose misrule has led the state to collapse.

When the earthquake hit in 2010, nearly half of all American families donated to help Haiti, according to USAID director at the time, Rajiv J. Shah. Wyclef Jean, the famous Haitian-born musician, ran a massive donation drive, raising some $16 million, but was accused of wasting much of it.

When UN peacekeepers deployed to Port-au-Prince from 2004 to 2017, they were accused of fathering hundreds of children and then abandoning them and their Haitian mothers. Other peacekeepers were accused of running a child sexual exploitation ring. The UN peacekeeping mission was also responsible for causing a deadly cholera outbreak that killed at least 10,000 people and sickened hundreds of thousands.

While Haiti is filled with aid organizations, the nearly extensive presence of Christian aid groups in the country (often led by missionaries) has been one of the most controversial.

Although mission groups in Haiti have launched some successful projects to feed, clothe and educate the population, particularly children, Haitians often view them with extreme distrust.

After the earthquake, some missionaries were caught running orphanages accused of illegally trafficking children. Ten missionaries were jailed for trying to bring 33 children to the United States without documentation.

The common practice of many mission groups of sending outside volunteers (often from the United States) has exposed them to criticism. Critics say these groups leave Haitians totally dependent on foreign aid, provided by the Americans, in a patron-style arrangement that only perpetuates the country’s poverty by failing to build local capacity.

Very.

In some other places, armed groups are often ideologically driven and tolerate or assist aid groups in their efforts to help the population. Instead, gangs in Haiti exist to enrich or gratify themselves by preying on civilians, through extortion or rape, for example.

Gangs tended to have somewhat more of a moral code, allowing aid workers to do their work largely unmolested. But that changed in 2021, when the state collapsed.

“Ten years ago, if you were an aid worker, Haitian or foreign, or a missionary, people greatly respected you,” said Pierre Espérance, executive director of the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, an organization in Port-au-Prince. . “Now, the gangs don’t respect any institutions in Haiti, not just aid groups.”

Over the past three years, gangs have attacked and occupied aid distribution centers, schools and hospitals. In some cases, schoolchildren have held fundraising campaigns to pay the ransoms of their classmates.

But gang control over seaports has also complicated relief efforts. The gangs control not only some of Haiti’s most important docks, but also the roads in and out of the capital’s seaports. This has delayed fuel deliveries, paralyzing the entire country and often leaving aid groups unable to distribute vital supplies of essential items such as food and medicine.

That has led to rampant inflation throughout Haiti. The price of basic foodstuffs, such as rice, is skyrocketing.

Unlikely.

Aid groups have continued to work in Haiti despite the challenges and dangers that many groups have faced over the years.

“When there is a need, that is when we are expected to work,” said Allen Joseph, a Haitian who is program director for Mercy Corps, one of the largest international aid groups operating in Haiti. “And in Haiti there is always need.”

Joseph and other aid workers said the latest violence against Missions in Haiti would likely prompt their own aid groups to take more security precautions, which would cost more.

As violence escalated last year, Joseph said Mercy Corps had to adapt its operations to provide security for its personnel, most of whom are Haitian. Each Mercy Corps office in Haiti now has a “hibernation kit,” he said, in case staff members become locked down by violence and cannot return home. Each kit includes mattresses, sheets, kitchen supplies and basic hygiene items.

Earlier this week, housing housing international Mercy Corps personnel was caught in the crossfire of gang violence. Staff had to drop to the ground, lie face down or take shelter in bathrooms (often the safest place in a building because there are few windows) as bullets flew.

“Nobody is saved. We live and work every day in fear of being kidnapped or killed by an armed group,” Joseph said.

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