The devastating cost of humanitarian intervention in Haiti

The devastating cost of humanitarian intervention in Haiti

by Angela Sherwood

Photo: Logan Abassi, United Nations

There are a growing number of articles, blogs, and reports advocating yet another humanitarian intervention to “fix” Haiti’s problems. With international press reporting that gangs now control at least 60% of the country, the US government, UN and US media outlets are calling for international intervention is essential to restore Haiti’s stability and foster development. This logic, however, has kept Haiti in the throes of political, social, and ecological crisis for over a century.

The dominant framing of Haiti’s recurrent instabilities and environmental disasters is that they are locally driven. This is built on a series of fictional divides. Haiti, on the one hand, is portrayed as ‘impoverished,’ ‘undeveloped,’ and lacking the capacity for self-rule. The West, on the other hand, is ‘knowledgeable,’ ‘competent,’ and ‘safe.’ In other words, it can be trusted to protect Haitian civilians and promote sustainable development and good governance.

However, these divides obscure the reality of the situation. In the present context, gang violence, like many other social issues in Haiti, is rooted in an imperialist dynamic and colonial structure of power. Since the 1915 U.S. invasion of Haiti, the small island nation has been pivotal for U.S. expansionism and the projection of its power. Over decades, the U.S. government and influential international actors, such as the United Nations and Organization of American States (OAS), have effectively bolstered the connections between local criminal gangs, the police, and a corrupt and neglectful state. Meddling in Haiti’s elections, financially supporting authoritarian regimes, and turning a blind eye to state violence have been some of their main strategies. In fact, no amount of state corruption, land grabbing, attacks on protestors, or reliance on criminal gangs to govern has stopped the U.S. and U.N. from backing the current Haitian government.

In Haiti, international humanitarian interventions have consistently involved serious crimes and severe human rights violations. They have done so by prioritising international interests at the expense of local ones. The closely linked environmental and ecological impacts of these extensive military and policing operations have also been devastating.

Following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, the U.S. military, UN peacekeepers, UN agencies, international NGOs, and multilateral and bilateral donors engaged in a massive, billion-dollar humanitarian operation. This concerted effort brought tens of thousands of foreign troops, police, and UN/NGO personnel to Haiti, accompanied by a vast global infrastructure of military aircraft, cargo planes, container ships, trucks, SVUs, and other logical support. It also led to the construction of multiple new bases, camps, and outposts on Haitian territory. Notably, with the United States military and United Nations assuming major roles in disaster relief, the intervention ramped up the operations of known carbon polluters.

Haiti’s 2010 earthquake also highlighted how humanitarian interventions dramatically escalate local pollution levels and can inflict significant environmental harm due to organisational negligence and disregard for local ecosystems and well-being, which we might also think of as a form of environmental racism.

A 2018 report on Haiti’s relief efforts dubbed the enormous waste produced by NGOs, UN agencies, and military forces a ‘second disaster.’ It pinpointed the surge of plastic bottles and food packaging by relief actors as worsening the contamination of Haiti’s beaches and public spaces, while severely obstructing local drainage channels.

These impacts, however, pale in comparison to the much larger controversy surrounding the UN’s waste management practices in Haiti, which triggered a deadly cholera outbreak in October 2010. While stationed in Haiti, the UN discharged untreated sewage directly into the country’s rivers and disposed of untreated human waste in open-air pits near their camps. The seepage of this waste from UN bases eventually led to a mass cholera epidemic that swept across the entire country and resulted in a staggering 820,000 cases and 10,000 deaths. In a class-action suit filed in U.S. courts, Haiti’s cholera victims asserted that the United Nations:

“knew or should have known that their release of raw sewage in to Haiti’s primary water source created a high risk of contamination”

Still, the UN shirked responsibility for the cholera outbreak, neglected reparations, and failed to address its environmental and public health impacts. In fact, a 2015 UN Audit Report disclosed that even three years after the outbreak, the UN’s waste management remained ‘unsatisfactory.’ It continued to worsen pollution and health risks by improperly treating sewage, disregarding water quality standards, and infrequently inspecting treatment facilities.

Haitians have consistently raised a critical point: much of the ‘expertise’ and ‘resources’ pumped into Haiti is unwanted by local people—and most of the time, these goods and services never reach them. Haitians are already equipped with the capacity to assist their fellow citizens and develop a vision for their country’s governance. The issue, however, is that their expertise is disregarded due to the prevailing logics and power dynamics of international intervention.

Those logics have driven many extractive and ecologically harmful development projects, which attempt to link the nation’s needs with the strategic interests of influential states like the U.S. and Canada. In the name of humanitarianism, international actors have steered Haiti into many high-costs ventures, from mining to new industrial parks, free trade zones, and land titling initiatives—all cast as “solutions” to the nation’s problems.

Haiti communities consistently resist these initiatives, seeing them as a danger to their way of life and the environment. At a 2022 hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Haiti’s environmental activists presented evidence of the extensive land damage, loss of livelihoods, and displacement of farmers caused by mining projects.

Likewise, internationally-backed industrial parks have resulted in mass displacements and severe pollution. For example, in Northern Haiti, wastewater discharge and industrial emissions from these sites are threatening Haiti’s mangrove forests and coral reefs. The establishment of free trade zones has also exacerbated food insecurity in a country grappling with some of the world’s highest starvation rates.

As plans for the establishment of a multinational force move ahead (led this time by Kenya, with U.S. and U.N backing), it is almost guaranteed that local people and their autonomy and expertise will be swept aside and the tragedy of previous ‘humanitarian’ interventions risks being repeated. And yet pledges of carrying out a “rights-based” humanitarian intervention dominate the discourse. This leaves a crucial void that must be filled with unwavering support for Haiti’s grassroots and environmental defenders, particularly in these critical times.

Angela Sherwood is Co-Director of the Centre for Climate Crime and Climate Justice.