I recently traveled to Haiti with the UN and a group of Emergency Directors from various non-governmental organizations, and what we witnessed was both shocking and shameful. It’s clear that Haitians are being stripped of their dignity and basic human rights in a humanitarian crisis that has been largely ignored by the international community. But we also saw glimmers of hope.
Staggering hunger statistics
Of the many countries currently facing extreme hunger crises, Haiti has a relatively small population. But the number of people affected, when taken as a percentage of the total population, is truly staggering. Today, 4.7 million Haitians — 43% of the entire population — are acutely food insecure. Incredibly, for a country once self-sufficient in food production, 19,000 people are now experiencing famine-like conditions.
The drivers of rising hunger in Haiti are not unique. Climate change, the COVID hangover, and ripple effects from the conflict in Ukraine are affecting many countries. But Haitians are also burdened by decades of political and economic instability, and they face horrific levels of gang violence. The illegal international narcotics trade also plays a key role in much of this dysfunction — Haiti is used as a transshipment point for drugs from South and Central America.
As much as 80% of the capital city, Port Au Prince, is now under the control or influence of scores of armed gangs. Killings, rapes, and beatings are extensively used as a weapon of fear, spreading into neighborhoods which in the past were considered “safe”. Over 530 people have lost their lives in Haiti since the start of the year, kidnappings are on the rise, and gang violence has displaced 155,000 people from their communities, many of them women and children.
Lack of action
Last October, the Government of Haiti called for the assistance of an international specialized force to bring order to the streets. Six months on, no decision has been taken by the UN Security Council. What this force would look like and how it would operate, should it ever be deployed, is uncertain and to date the only response has been the imposition of sanctions on key gang leaders and those who finance them. Shutting off economic power to those perpetrating violence is one tactic but stopping the flow of arms freely coming into the country should also be a priority.
Delivering humanitarian assistance to those most affected by this crisis is not easy, in fact it’s extremely complicated and challenging. However, any claim that it's impossible to work in Haiti is untrue and does a gross disservice to the heroic efforts of the aid community.
In the absence of political stability, humanitarian aid workers (the vast majority of them Haitian) have continued to fill the void, working through almost constant insecurity, frustration, and fear. In the past year, they have supported millions of people in the capital and throughout the country with food, shelter, and desperately needed social protection programs.
So, access is possible and humanitarian support is reaching people in need. But frankly, it’s not enough. The ongoing commitment from international donors is welcome, but it’s not enough and the humanitarian needs now vastly outstrip the funding available.
The UN has just launched an appeal for over $715 million, to support 3 million people. That’s double the size of last year’s appeal, which was only 50% funded. If this level of humanitarian underinvestment continues, it will have devastating consequences, not just now but for generations to come.
Reasons for hope
And it’s not just about emergency funding. It's about hope and opportunity. On the last day of our trip to Haiti, I met with representatives of youth groups working with Concern under the UN Peace Building Fund. Over 1,500 young people have come together to form six groups in different and divided neighborhoods of Port au Prince. Connecting through social media apps, they are engaging with other young people, bypassing both the physical barricades and invisible front lines of neighborhoods in conflict.
The program facilitates conflict management, trauma healing and skills training. It’s designed to build confidence and foster tolerance and non-violent forms of leadership. It is also opening up alternative options far removed from the gangs, by linking young people with businesses and colleges to secure internships. This is kind of work that could help define a more hopeful future for Haitians.
It’s obvious that the crisis in Haiti requires a political and security solution that is beyond the control of the humanitarian community. I believe a peaceful future is possible for Haiti, and most Haitians are doing their very best to make that a reality. But for this to happen, political actors — both domestic and international — must do the same.
Dominic MacSorley has spent four decades working with some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world, from Cambodia to Rwanda to Haiti. A former Chief Executive of Concern Worldwide, he now holds the position of Humanitarian Ambassador for Concern Worldwide US.