Why the Global Fragility Act Matters for Haiti

Authors: Roger Mitchell and Lauren Mooney

Last month marked the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse. The commemoration came at a pivotal time for Haiti, which has struggled under the weight of multiple crises—political, security, economic—for years.

Haiti is one of the priority countries recently selected for stabilization efforts under the U.S. Global Fragility Act (GFA), which will involve developing and implementing a 10-year country plan focused on preventing conflict and mitigating instability. Support through the GFA is critical to addressing destabilizing forces in Haiti. But the U.S. and its partners should also recognize that any long-term strategy must be grounded in developing responsive and inclusive democratic institutions and citizen-centered governance. Without empowering the people of Haiti to have a stake in their own future and establish core functions like the rule of law, Haiti will continue to face instability and violence.

The current situation is dire. More than 1.1 million people in Haiti live in areas controlled by gangs, which are often funded by predatory political actors to advance their own objectives and wreaking havoc on law and order. Corruption fueled the most recent wave of nationwide protests in 2019 and continues to plague the political landscape. Democratic institutions have crumbled: After last year’s presidential assassination, Haiti has been in the grips of a constitutional crisis for nearly a year. Both the legislature and the judiciary are defunct, and the interim Prime Minister has failed to fill the vacuum.

These are long-term, complex challenges which the GFA could help address—but it must be fully funded and implemented in order to provide the support that local partners need to stabilize the country’s security environment and foster trust in Haiti’s government institutions. The country plan to address Haiti’s governance deficits and promote stability should be developed in close coordination with local partners and should consider four core components.

To begin with, the US must increase its diplomatic presence in the country and emphasize the importance of a Haitian-led political agreement. Haitian actors from all sides have lacked the impetus and incentives to succeed, while the U.S. government is both distrusted and regarded as the ultimate powerbroker by many Haitians.

Recognizing these realities, the U.S. should work multilaterally to help local actors identify tangible benchmarks toward reaching a larger political consensus: for example, an inclusive national dialogue facilitated by respected international or Haitian mediators; a comprehensive transition plan focused on stabilizing the country; and a civil society-led constitutional and electoral reform process. Elections are necessary to restore democratic order—if conducted under the right conditions. An effective and inclusive transition period – led by Haitian political and civil society actors and supported by the international community – should not only seek to facilitate peaceful and credible elections but to enhance security, rebuild the economy, and pass key reforms.

The U.S. must also expand its analytical capabilities to better understand conflict dynamics, and promote local ownership of stabilization efforts by partnering with actors regarded as legitimate by the community. Recent public opinion polling shows that most Haitians distrust public institutions in the country. In situations where there is a vacuum of state legitimacy and capacity, gangs and other violent actors often proliferate and establish parallel governance systems and may have a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the population. To this end, the U.S. government must build on existing sources of legitimacy in the community to ensure that trusted partners, like local organizations and religious institutions, are recognized as gatekeepers of social norms and can play an effective role in reducing tension and risks of violence.

The U.S. should support local initiatives to not only strengthen state capacity but also help informal institutions to govern effectively, address grievances, fight corruption and encourage respect for human rights. This is particularly critical at the grassroots level, where local civil society organizations often operate informally through volunteers and with limited tools or resources to accomplish their aspirations. Strengthening informal governance and civic actors does not only bolster civil society, but other legitimate groups and networks as well, such as faith-based organizations. Communities trust their faith-based leaders, and places of worship can be a powerful conduit for counter-narratives and conflict prevention activities.

Finally, the U.S. should support young political leaders in peacebuilding and stabilization efforts. Young people in Haiti sometimes fall prey to gangs, be it by choice, necessity or coercion, but are also key agents of peace. The status quo of personality-driven politics dominated by the same faces that have ruled for decades is untenable. Future elections will only be successful if youth are at the forefront of politics and governance, including constitutional and electoral reform processes, civic and voter awareness efforts, political party campaigns and peacebuilding and security initiatives. The U.S. should bolster citizen security initiatives and prioritize efforts that are locally-led and centered around youth by addressing the key factors that drive susceptibility to recruitment. For example, youth empowerment programs that provide alternatives to joining gangs and encourage collaboration with community leaders have been an effective tool for supporting at-risk youth in Haiti.

As the U.S. government reflects on its longstanding partnership with Haiti and the many challenges facing its Caribbean neighbor, it must incorporate lessons learned from past stabilization efforts, and recognize that meaningful governance reforms are critical to addressing the country’s ills and moving toward a more stable future.

Roger Mitchell is a resident program manager for Haiti and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to advancing democracy and governance worldwide.

Lauren Mooney is a senior specialist for conflict prevention and stabilization at IRI.

Roger Mitchell
Roger Mitchell
Roger Mitchell is a resident program manager for Haiti and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to advancing democracy and governance worldwide.