Doing More, Better: Reflections on the Future of Canadian Assistance to Haiti

By Gaëlle Rivard Piché

Ready for change. That was the Liberal Party’s main slogan during the Canadian electoral campaign that brought Justin Trudeau into power on October 19. It is also the state of Canada-Haiti relations after four years of sullenness due to a decline in Canadian funding for Haiti’s reconstruction and successive diplomatic faux pas.

After a decade of Conservative reign driven by hard-line security imperatives and a development strategy resolutely based on economic priorities, a new Liberal government suggests a change in Canadian foreign policy. Considering Trudeau’s commitment to restore Canada’s image abroad, what will be the Canadian role in the next chapter of Haiti’s development?

In 2004, Paul Martin’s Liberal government agreed to participate in a multilateral effort towards Haiti’s stabilization and reconstruction. Under the following Conservative governments, Haiti officially remained a priority, but a shift in the rationale for aid put a stop to several bilateral programs, including quick impact projects funded by the Department of Foreign Affaires and International Trade’s Stabilisation and Reconstruction Task Force. The reduction of the budget envelope had a direct impact on the ability of the Canadian embassy to engage with its Haitian counterparts. The lack of a clear strategy after the end of the earthquake recovery phase in 2012 also marginalized the role and the importance of Canada at the donors’ table. Canada still remains a key contributor to the MINUSTAH, the UN peace operation deployed since 2004, but the foreseen end of the mission after 2016 raises serious concerns about the future of international assistance.

Nonetheless, a window of opportunity for change is also opening in Haiti. The first round of the presidential elections took place this Sunday. New governments in Ottawa and Port-au-Prince represent a key opportunity to revive relations between the two countries and redefine their partnership in the long-term development of Haiti.

The Trudeau government will most likely renew Canadian engagement towards Haiti, through bilateral and multilateral channels. Haiti fits well on the Canadian international agenda for three main reasons. First, it is an easy sell on the home front. The involvement builds on the traditional image of Canada as a blue helmet country, supporting the most vulnerable through peaceful means. Haiti is a good terrain on which to renew an image Canada has departed from with the successive military operations in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria more recently. Second, it contributes to hemispheric security and our partnership with the United States. Haiti is a source of instability for North America, serving as a platform for trafficking and smuggling. Stability in Haiti also means less boat people on the coasts of Florida. Third, a renewed engagement towards Haiti sends a signal to the international community that Canada is ready for business and prepared to play a part in ensuring global peace and security.

In any case, Canada’s renewed engagement towards Haiti should be based on lessons learned since 2004. We must do more, better. First, while Canada should continue to support the construction of state institutions especially in the security and justice sectors, these initiatives should be designed and implemented together with the rest of the Haitian society. Too often, reforms are conceived in technical terms and very little attention is given to the political and social context in which they take place. Canada should promote innovative strategies that engage local and non-state actors in order to contribute in an efficient manner to Haiti’s security, stability and development, not just empower national elites and reproduce existing power structures. Second, quick impact projects are an effective way to make a difference on the ground, but they must be embedded in a long-term strategy in order to prevent disruption and instability due to funding fluctuations. Local development projects often alter the structure of communities and their abrupt end can provoke local tensions and conflict, destabilising the community further. Stabilisation and development are political processes that must be perceived as such by those who designed and implement assistance programs. All in all, Canada should remain a key player in Haiti’s reconstruction. How it engages with Haitian partners will have significant consequences for the development of the local communities and the larger state.

Gaëlle Rivard Piché is a Ph.D. candidate at NPSIA, Carleton University. Her dissertation explores how security sector reform affects the production of public order and ultimately violence in post-conflict countries and fragile states. In 2014-2015, she was a Fulbright research fellow in the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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