Haiti's near collapse exposes the fragility and collective failure of the humanitarian response

“It is tragic that the UN has engaged in Haiti so often but is still trying to sort out many of the same problems with law and order that it first addressed in the 1990s”

Three years after winding down its 15-year mission in Haiti and five years after the departure of the last peacekeeper, meetings at the Security Council at the end of September, documents from the UN, and evaluations from specialized agencies warn that the country is on the verge of a collapse. Rival armed gangs now rule major parts of the country by terror, making Haiti one of the most dangerous and insecure countries in the world. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that about a quarter of the 11 million Haitians are under the control of armed groups.

The situation has gone from bad to worse after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, which created a complete institutional and political vacuum. The situation is so dire that the UN is now asking member states to reconsider sending armed forces to help the country address yet another descent into a deeper humanitarian crisis. And the debate is also bringing a bitter truth to light: 15 years of peacekeeping operations and billions of dollars in aid have not stabilized the country. “It is tragic that the UN has engaged in Haiti so often but is still trying to sort out many of the same problems with law and order that it first addressed in the 1990s,” Richard Gowan, the UN Director for the International Crisis Group, told The G|O.

The proposal for redeploying soldiers comes a week after Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry called for help, demanding that the international community send a “specialized armed force” to his country. António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, supported the idea in a 12-page long report to the UN Security Council. “Considering the extremely grave situation, international efforts to enhance support for the Haitian National Police must aim to reduce the ability of armed gangs to block access to and carry out attacks on strategic infrastructure and threaten the livelihood of communities,” Guterres wrote.

But the Haitian request forces the UN to rethink several aspects of its humanitarian actions. Not unlike war—easier to start than to end—when to end a humanitarian mission can often be a fiendishly complex equation. And too often in the past, cessations have been based more on financial consideration than on the reality of the situation on the ground.

During the Trump administration, Guterres and other member states had essentially no choice but to cave in to Washington’s blunt pressure to reduce the scope of the UN’s peacekeeping missions. In 2017, the UN agreed to a $600 million cut for its peace operations around the world, the largest cut ever imposed on the UN. The US had requested a $1 billion reduction in the blue helmets’ budget. After fierce discussions, the UN’s $7.9 billion for peace operations was reduced to $7.3 billion. Missions in Darfur, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo would suffer the most. Guterres had instead proposed deep cuts in UN administration in New York and Geneva, hoping to increase the blue helmets’ funding by $100 million. He was not followed by a majority of the member states. The UN chief now proposes that the UN Security Council (UNSC) “welcomes” the dispatch of blue helmets to Haiti, whereas in the past, such deployment had to be “approved” by the SC. Guterres’ proposal calls for an operation in two phases.

“In the short term, the UN proposal for a rapid international intervention to help restore order makes good sense. But there is a risk of mission creep.” - Richard Gowan

In the short term, the UN chief proposes that a rapid reaction force be deployed under the leadership of one member state but composed of forces from one or more countries. The funding would come from the international community; however, if governments are not ready to step forward with bilateral support, the UN itself would work out a path to provide the funds from its own budget. Simultaneously, the UN Secretary-General proposes to strengthen the Haitian’s national police, to restore order by countering and containing the gangs. Over time, what would be a rapid military deployment would be transformed into a police operation. However, UN member states remain reticent. “In the short term, the UN proposal for a rapid international intervention to help restore order makes good sense. But there is the risk of mission creep and outside powers getting sucked into another long-term deployment. I'd note that the UN seems to want member states to take on the initial enforcement action rather than blue helmets. However, I think there will be concerns at UN headquarters that if this initial plan does not work out the Security Council may start to think of a bigger blue helmet like MINUSTAH, although nobody wants to see that in the first instance,” says Gowan.


But the peacekeeping conundrum is not the only one. Amongst diplomats and humanitarian agencies, it is considered that the return of a mission, even under a new format, must also come with a recognition that the current strategy of a humanitarian response is fragile and gains obtained from years of investments can be lost in a short period of time. As of 13 October, some 7 million people were facing insufficient food consumption, according to the WFP Hungermap, the equivalent of 64% of the population, with an increase of 2.76 million over the last three months. In March 2022, the Humanitarian Response Plan estimated that 4.9 million people were already in need of humanitarian assistance at the beginning of the year, the equivalent to 43% of the population. About 24,000 displaced people living on makeshift sites have very limited access to food, water, or health services, with pregnant women giving birth with no medical care.

According to OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke, “OCHA is particularly concerned about the plight of women, children, and people with disabilities whose access to protection and basic goods and services is greatly challenged.” The UN's special representative for Haiti, Helen La Lime, warned that “an economic crisis, a gang crisis, and a political crisis have converged into a humanitarian catastrophe.”

In a report circulated amongst member countries, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) admits, “Haiti has been experiencing a security crisis due to violence from armed gangs in Port-au-Prince and other cities, which has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the country.” “The current vulnerabilities include malnutrition, internally displaced persons (IDPs), non-functional structures, limited or lack of access to health services, fuel shortages, limited access to safe water, and poor sanitation and hygiene facilities, amongst others,” it claims. “These factors would have an impact on the dynamics of the cholera resurgence and on the severity of the disease in patients with acute diarrhea.”

Access to the affected areas is difficult and therefore, timely assessment of the epidemiological situation and provision of health care for cases is complex,” it concludes. Potable water supplies have also been impacted, amplifying the cholera outbreak following three years without any cases. As of Sunday, there were 32 confirmed cases, 224 suspected, and 16 confirmed deaths.

Martin Griffiths, the UN’s humanitarian relief chief, called for emergency funding and warned that if the spread of the disease is left unchecked, it could lead to “cataclysmic levels of despair for the people of Haiti.” Gangs have blocked Haiti’s main fuel port, leading to gas and diesel shortages and forcing hospitals to shut down. The crisis has also led to a food shortage. Last week, La Lime also told the UN Security Council that 2,000 tons of food aid were lost due to attacks on warehouses administered by the UN. As result, 200,000 Haitians could be left out of supplies for the coming month. In fact, World Food Program’s (WFP) executive director Valerie Guarnieri, claimed, “the situation in Haiti has sadly reached new levels of desperation.” With inflation at a record level, 40% of the country is relying on food assistance.


In internal debates, humanitarian agencies pose questions on their capacity to assure development in the country, while some claim a sustainable transformation in the lives of millions of people will only come when elements such as political stability, fighting corruption, and the strengthening of rule of law are implemented. When asked if the current model is failing, OCHA responded that they “could not make such judgments in the middle of a (humanitarian) response. The ICRC, for its part, did not address the substance of the issue in its answer. But like OCHA, the ICRC is “concerned with the exacerbated humanitarian needs resulting from the current massive civil unrest, armed violence and the resurgence of cholera cases in Haiti.”

-JC. Additional reporting by Philippe Mottaz