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Haiti's Escalating Humanitarian Crisis and International Response

Mr Mohanasakthivel J is a Research Analyst in the ALACUN Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.
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  • April 04, 2024


    Haiti’s plight underscores the urgent need for a unified international response, with the need for the United States to play a pivotal role in fostering collaboration and implementing sustainable solutions.


    In the wake of the profound political upheaval and rampant gang violence, the resignation of Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry on 11 March 2024 underscored the daunting challenges facing governance in Haiti.1 President Jovenel Moïse was also assassinated in July 2021. With Haiti's political landscape devoid of elected representatives and a functioning legislature, the formation of a transitional council aims to address the country's electoral challenges. The dire situation in Haiti has prompted the United States2 , Canada3 , EU, France4 , and India5 to launch evacuation missions.

    Haiti’s Many Challenges

    Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has endured decades of hardship. Natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes, inflict repeated devastation.  While international interventions aim to foster stability, their efficacy remains a subject of debate. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), operational from 2004 to 2017, serves as a prime example. Established with the intention of promoting security, the mission was ultimately tarnished by allegations of misconduct and the inadvertent introduction of cholera.6  Similarly, the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake was further complicated by difficulties in distributing international aid, hindering recovery efforts. These factors contribute to a persistent cycle of instability, where political unrest and poverty remain constant battles for the Haitian people.

    Pervasive Influence of Armed Groups

    Haiti faces a significant challenge in the form of proliferating armed groups.  Estimates suggest that roughly 200 such groups operate nationwide, with a concentration of around 20 in the capital city, Port-au-Prince. These groups act as a major impediment to stability and progress. Within this landscape, two main coalitions, the G-Pèp and the G-9 Family, wield considerable influence, particularly in impoverished neighbourhoods of the capital. These groups often forge opportunistic alliances with political parties, oscillating between conflict and collaboration.

    Notably, figures such as Jimmy Chérizier, alias ‘Barbecue’, have risen to prominence within these gangs, with Chérizier leading the Living Together alliance which has increasingly advocated for political reform. However, his calls for change are tarnished by allegations of past brutality associated with himself and his organisation.7

    Despite this violent history, a potential shift in tactics might be underway. Recent pronouncements by Chérizier suggest aspirations to dismantle the current government and establish a more robust justice system.  Furthermore, his openness to disarmament contingent upon the armed groups' participation in negotiations to form a new government, hint at a possible willingness to pursue political solutions. Chérizier's insistence on gang inclusion in these discussions underscores his belief that such involvement is necessary to curtail gang violence.8 He further emphasises opposition to foreign intervention as a means of restoring stability.

    Whether Chérizier's rhetoric translates into a genuine pursuit of peaceful solutions or represents a strategic manoeuvre remains to be seen.  However, his influence within the gang landscape necessitates a nuanced approach. A deeper understanding of his motivations and potential role in Haiti's future is crucial for navigating this complex situation.

    The UN describes the situation in Haiti as 'cataclysmic' due to a surge in gang violence.  Since the start of 2024, over 1,500 people have been killed and 826 injured.9 Corruption, impunity and ineffective governance have pushed the country's institutions to the verge of collapse. Gang-related sexual violence has surged, including assaults on women who have witnessed their spouses being killed. There is ongoing lethal vigilantism, with community groups targeting those suspected of minor crimes or ties to gangs.

    Armed gangs have seized control of much of Port-au-Prince, destroying police stations, government buildings, financial institutions and medical facilities, while also engaging in numerous killings and abductions. There are concerns that the Haitian police force, already outnumbered and outgunned by the gangs, may soon be overwhelmed. Despite international efforts to address the crisis, such as the provision of US$ 10 million in equipment to Haitian security forces by the US State Department, illegal weapons continue to flow into the country, undermining existing arms embargoes.

    Deteriorating Humanitarian Conditions

    The issue of food insecurity has reached unparalleled heights due to gangs impeding agricultural operations and obstructing crucial transportation paths, further worsening the humanitarian predicament. Food insecurity persists at alarming rates, affecting 44 per cent of the Haitian population with acute shortages. The surge in violence has led to the internal displacement of 313,901 individuals, with 60 per cent of this displacement occurring in 2023.10

    Children are particularly at risk, with 3 million in urgent need of assistance. Rampant violence makes it difficult for parents to provide proper care and nutrition for their kids, and fear of getting caught in the crossfire prevents them from seeking medical attention at health centers. The healthcare system is crumbling, with at least half of facilities malfunctioning due to a lack of medicine, staff and beds to treat people injured by the violence. The situation is further compounded by lack of international support. With nearly half of the population (5.5 million) in need of aid for survival, the UN's response plan is drastically underfunded (only 6.6 per cent of the US$ 674 million goal has been met).11

    Haiti faces the terrifying prospect of a large-scale hunger crisis. Nearly half the population, a staggering 4.97 million people, are struggling to put food on the table. This situation is especially dire for children, with a shocking 19 per cent increase in severe acute malnutrition cases in 2024.  The roots of this crisis run deep. Gang violence has become a central driver. Gangs extort farmers, disrupt food distribution with roadblocks, and threaten agricultural production in vital areas like Artibonite, the country's main rice-growing region. This violence has triggered an economic collapse, driving up food prices and pushing more people into poverty.12

    Haiti's vulnerability to hunger goes beyond the recent surge in violence. Decades of political and economic instability have weakened the country's food security system. Deforestation, fuelled by poverty and natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, has further eroded its ability to feed itself. In addition, unsustainable trade policies that undercut local agriculture have also played a role.13

    Regional and International Responses

    The far-reaching repercussions of Haiti's gang violence, political deadlock and humanitarian catastrophe pose a significant threat to the stability of not just Haiti itself, but to the entire Caribbean region. With no apparent resolution in sight for the political crisis, it primarily falls upon the regional countries to mitigate human suffering and prevent the country from descending into chaos.

    First, although the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has not traditionally played a major role in resolving Haitian crises, some scepticism remains regarding its current involvement, particularly acting as US proxy.14 CARICOM is uniquely positioned to contribute meaningfully due to its geographic proximity to Haiti, and commitment to democratic principles. CARICOM's advantages include a deeper understanding of Haitian realities due to its physical closeness. This, combined with historical ties, fosters cultural empathy, and facilitates communication between Haitian stakeholders and international actors.

    Additionally, CARICOM's unified stance on democratic governance has already exerted pressure on Haitian officials to prioritise free and fair elections. The CARICOM meeting in Jamaica on 11 March 2024 represents a positive step forward. By facilitating dialogue and consensus-building, it could pave the way for a Transitional Council and a more stable political environment.15 However, the success of this initiative hinges on sustained engagement from both CARICOM and the international community as a whole. CARICOM's continued leadership, informed by its regional perspective, is essential for fostering long-term stability in Haiti, which benefits the entire Caribbean.

    Second, the United States plays a significant role in Haiti due to its geographic proximity.  Its policy towards Haiti is multifaceted, aiming to address the nation's pressing challenges and promote stability. This strategy prioritises supporting Haitian-led initiatives to combat gang violence, navigate political and constitutional crises, stimulate economic growth and address the root causes of emigration.  Legislative measures like the Global Fragility Act and the HAITI Act reinforce these efforts. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) serves as the leading humanitarian donor, deploying Disaster Assistance Response Teams and investing in disaster preparedness programmes.  Despite these efforts, challenges remain, such as Haiti's low COVID-19 vaccination rate.16

    In October 2022, Haiti found itself in a desperate situation. Gang violence and a blockade of the country's main fuel port led to crippling shortages, bringing the nation to a standstill. Prime Minister Ariel Henry, recognising the severity of the crisis, made a plea to the international community for a ‘specialized armed force’ to help restore order and address the growing humanitarian concerns.17 However, Haiti's request for assistance wasn't met with an immediate response. The international community faced challenges in mobilising a solution. Finding a country willing to lead a security mission in a volatile situation proved to be a hurdle.

    It wasn't until July 2023 that progress was made. Kenya stepped forward, offering a significant contribution of 1,000 police officers to support a potential security mission. This offer represented a turning point, but it still took several months for the international community to solidify its response. Finally, in October 2023, after a three-month delay, the UN Security Council authorised the creation of a full-fledged Multinational Security Support Mission for Haiti.18 This delay highlights the complexities of coordinating an international response, particularly in a situation as critical as the one Haiti faced.

    The US approach to security in Haiti also reflects a reluctance for a direct intervention due to its past experience. Following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, the US hesitated to lead a multinational peacekeeping force. Despite initial US requests, Canada declined leadership while offering financial aid.19 Haiti, with US backing, then reached out to Africa. Stepping forward, Kenya agreed to lead the mission, sending 1,000 police officers to Haiti, with the US providing most of the financial resources.

    Third, Kenya's plan to lead a security mission in Haiti has sparked heated debate at home. Sending paramilitary police to quell gang violence raises concerns. Critics fear Kenyan casualties and question the mission's justification. Prime Minister Henry's resignation further complicates matters. Reports of some Kenyan officers opting out add to worries about safety and effectiveness.20 Haiti's worsening security has reportedly forced Nairobi to delay the deployment until political stability returns. Despite accusations of secrecy and neglecting domestic needs, Kenya sees the mission as a way to boost its international profile and ties with the US. Yet, doubts persist about the mission's viability and whether it can address Haiti's systemic problems.

    Despite ongoing discussions, the future of the Haiti mission is unclear, clouded by worries about its impact on both Kenya and Haiti. Some argue for alternative approaches, focusing on empowering local institutions and fostering long-term stability, rather than solely relying on external forces. This perspective advocates for supporting Haitian-led efforts, emphasising strengthening national institutions for lasting peace and security. As talks continue, the mission's fate remains uncertain, highlighting the complexities of international intervention and the need to prioritise the long-term interests and sovereignty of the nations involved.

    Finally, the recent call by the United Nations Secretary-General for renewed efforts towards reparatory justice frameworks,21 resonates deeply in the Haitian context.  Haiti, the first nation in the world to declare independence based on the ideals of liberty and equality (1804), was forced to pay a crippling indemnity to France for its liberation.22 This financial strain, amounting to billions in today's terms, stifled Haiti's economic development for generations and continues to contribute to the country's current struggles.  In 2003, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's demand for France to repay this debt, then estimated at almost US$ 22 billion, was met with his overthrow in a coup reportedly involving both France and the United States.23   This incident underscores the enduring impact of external meddling in Haiti's path to development.


    Haiti's challenges serve as a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of global issues and the imperative for collective action. Beyond its borders, the nation's plight underscores the urgent need for a unified international response, with the need for the United States to play a pivotal role in fostering collaboration and implementing sustainable solutions. By reimagining frameworks such as the Monroe Doctrine to encompass not only security but also economic emancipation, there lies an opportunity to pave a path towards prosperity and stability for Haiti and the wider region. Now more than ever, concerted efforts and innovative approaches are essential in addressing the multifaceted challenges facing Haiti and in shaping a future for its people.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.