Why state-building is important: the case of Haiti
Haiti has been in the press a lot lately. The country has been dealing with a number of serious challenges, leading some analysts to label the country "a failed state". The government of Haiti's recent call for an armed intervention by foreign powers, continues to cement this rhetoric, while armed groups, or gangs, control two-thirds of the capital, ensuring that basic services cannot be delivered. Since then, more than 96,000 Haitians have been forced to flee their home, as cholera and hunger run rampant.
In Haiti, the US intervention in 2004, as well as the UN stabilisation mission that lasted until 2017, did little to strengthen the institutions of the country and ensure a future stable administration capable of meeting the demands of Haitians.
Many of the world's most serious problems, including the ones we are seeing in Haiti today, are the result of weak institutions, which is why many talk about the importance of 'state-building' in developing states. The OECD defines 'state-building' as an internal process “to enhance the capacity, institutions, and legitimacy of the state driven by state-society relations”, which, in simpler terms, means the process of ensuring that a state runs more effectively. Three of the main pillars of state-building, are state-society relations, legitimacy, and administrative capacity. Haiti is failing in all three, leading its people to face worsening consequences as a result.
State-building is a continuous process that both fragile states and stronger, more developed states go through, however in states like Haiti, this process is even more important and delicate. In stable states, people expect that if they follow a set of rules, such as paying taxes, accepting some restrictions on freedoms, and the state's monopoly on violence, then that state will provide security, social rights, and economic prosperity.
These expectations, of course, vary depending on the social and historical contexts of where one is born. People born in Germany will expect different things from their government, to those that were born in Burundi, to those born in Singapore. States must ensure that they deliver these expectations and be able to manage any changes and shocks to the system without having parts of society resorting to violence. Resilient states do this by not excluding any social groups, because doing so often leads to a backlash, sometimes even a violent one. Excluding these groups, even if they do not have access to state power, might be successful in the short term, but ensures bad state building in the long run, creating the conditions we see today in Haiti.
By ensuring that the governing authorities are legitimate in the eyes of the population, they will be better able to serve and deliver the services needed by the same population. At the same time, delivering these services effectively creates legitimacy for the authorities, creating a cycle that enforces itself.
While legitimacy depends very much on the local historical and social context, and does not necessarily promote the democratic model, this is still one of the weak points for Haiti. A series of events that took place over decades of misrule, including France's imposed debt on Haiti after the latter asked for independence, have severely weakened the legitimacy of Haitian governments from the start. More recently, following the dictatorships of the Duvaliers' between 1957 and 1986, and the assassination of Haitian President Moïse in 2021, Haitian leaders further lost a lot of legitimacy in the eyes of their people.
A resilient state cannot work without a functioning civil service and the ability to raising funding through taxation and growth, in order to deliver services such as security, and health services.
In a paper titled 'The Imperative of State-Building', Francis Fukuyama speaks on the difference between the scope of state functions, which refers to the different activities taken on by governments; and the strength of the State, which refers to the ability of states to execute its plans and enforce its laws. According to Fukuyama, in state-building, ensuring the strength of the State should come before increasing the scope of state functions, and to do this, a state needs a well-trained, and a well-equipped civil service. This is something that Haiti severely lacks, and which was made worse when at the beginning of 2023, the mandate of the last ten remaining elected officials in the country came to an end.
While criminal gangs continue to wreak havoc in the Port-au-Prince and in the country, people continue to die of lack of basic resources and common diseases. All of this is leading to an increase in support for another foreign intervention in Haiti, despite earlier public disapproval when Acting Prime Minister Henry first requested foreign assistance in October 2022. A foreign intervention brings certain risks for the UN Member States that take part, but also for locals, especially for those that remember the sexual exploitation and the abuse that took place. At the same time, it can bring much-needed stability and order to the country, and might be the country's last hope to prevent further spread of violence.
Any intervention should ensure that it has the backing of the majority of political parties in Haiti, and is carried out in cooperation with local security forces and institutions. It should avoid repeating past mistakes that led to the current crisis.
Haitians deserve a state that can provide them with security, personal freedoms, and economic opportunities, and this can only be achieved if local institutions are given the appropriate training and tools they need to re-gain the lost public support.