October 2009

Smart Development Assistance in Haiti

Security and sustainability go hand-in-hand in fostering development and stronger U.S. ties

By Natalie Ondiak


Throughout its history Haiti has been plagued with cycles of violence, endemic poverty and a weak government, leading many policymakers to see this small Caribbean nation as the perpetual “basket case” of the Western Hemisphere. Fortunately, a “dual-window of opportunity” has opened for the country: The combination of physical security in Haiti and a shift in foreign policy that acknowledges the importance of development assistance in Washington could allow for real improvements in Haiti’s economic development.

The United States has generally not seen development assistance to the world’s poorest countries as a strategic foreign policy tool. Instead, it views assistance as a distant third to American defense and diplomatic power. But countries such as Haiti, Sudan and Somalia do not need military solutions—they need sustained and effective development and diplomatic interventions.

The Obama administration has moved toward a more integrated foreign policy approach by adopting the use of “smart power” or “sustainable security.” These concepts recognize that poor development outcomes can present real threats to U.S. security.

Sustainable security looks at the intersection of development and security to identify threats to U.S. interests and find methods for dealing with them. As yet it has not been implemented by all relevant U.S. government agencies—for example, more than 20 U.S. government agencies are currently providing development assistance.

But the administration has taken some steps in the right direction. It announced a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which will help to set long- and short-term priorities for these capabilities. In addition, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to review global development policy across the U.S. government. Haiti and other countries that need development assistance would benefit from these changes in Washington.

The security situation in Haiti has improved in recent years by the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping force, which has helped stabilize the country. Also, Haitian President René Préval, who was elected in 2006, is liked by the international community. Yet external shocks including the rise in food prices leading to massive riots and back-to-back hurricanes in 2008 mean that Haiti has not been able to start on the path toward sustainable development.

Now there is renewed international attention on Haiti and its development challenges. Former President Bill Clinton was named U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a strong personal interest in Haiti. Also, at a donor’s conference in April 2009 the international community committed $353 million to the country. And in June 2009 the International Monetary Fund canceled $1.2 billion of Haiti’s debt.

These favorable circumstances will not last forever, however. In early 2009, President Préval noted, “I believe we are at a very serious turning point. We can either win or lose.” Sustainable development for Haiti must be long-term in nature, but short-term steps must be taken to spur Haiti’s economy and build Haitian government capacity.

Sustainable security is a framework that would help build a partnership between the United States and Latin America. And Haiti is a place where the Obama administration’s new emphasis on development assistance can effectively be put into practice. Haiti may not be a top priority for U.S. foreign policymakers, yet its proximity to the United States and its challenges cannot be ignored.


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