After more than a decade working in and on Haiti, and having gone through the same bouts of cynicism and depression that many Canadian officials and observers are now expressing, I, too, have tried to walk away. And I have failed. You cannot simply walk away. And Canada, too, is learning this lesson.
Canada is involved in Haiti for a combination of reasons, none of which allow it simply to leave. Julian Fantino, the federal minister responsible for foreign aid, must be well aware of this, even as he complains about a lack of results from Canada’s $1-billion aid program to the country and hints of a temporary aid freeze.
A reality check puts an end to any hyperventilation about Canada abandoning Haiti. On one hand, Canada is in Haiti for humanitarian reasons. Those suggesting we withdraw our aid and leave will be the same chorus yelling for a return when the next gut-wrenching humanitarian crisis strikes.
Leaving now would only raise the cost when we went back in. And, let’s not kid ourselves, we know we would go back in.
The other reason that we are in Haiti, as with so much of our foreign engagement – especially in the Americas – is that it is important for our relationship with the United States. Were Canada to seriously consider withdrawing the first phone call would be from the White House.
Haiti is, first and foremost, a security concern rather than a humanitarian issue in Washington and, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said, the United States’ security concerns are also Canada’s. Immediately after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, the U.S. quickly and quietly diverted resources that were desperately needed in Haiti to set up large-scale refugee camps on a small corner of its massive base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, just in case there was a massive boat exodus.
One could make the case, and the Americans most certainly would, that abandoning Haiti is abandoning responsibility to help protect North America. Canada might not get the credit it deserves in Washington for its work in Haiti, but abandoning the country surely would not do Canada any favours.
Or consider that Brazil, against even greater domestic scepticism about Haiti, almost single-handedly staffs and runs the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti with more than 1,800 troops on the ground -- compared to just five from Canada. Even Guatemala has more than 100 troops in Haiti. Everyone in the hemisphere is pitching in on the Haiti problem, but only Canada seems to be complaining.
But whichever reason one chooses, it amounts to the same thing: Canada is not walking away.
Those who work on Haiti have repeated, ad nauseam, that it is a most difficult task, that there are no easy answers, that it will take generations, that there will be numerous setbacks, and that we will not get it right in the short term. That does not mean that we accept failure, nor that we accept corruption and poor performance. But it does mean that we should not give up.
It means that we identify problems, try to correct them and try not to cause them again. It means that we remain critically engaged, it means we need to demand that more of Haiti's elite and government start to care about their country as much as do most donors. It appears that this is what Mr. Fantino, perhaps ineloquently, was trying to say.
If this were easy, we would not be having this discussion.
The challenges in Haiti should be familiar to the government as they are similar to what it faces with Canada’s first nations: A long history of damming mistreatment that explains how we got here but offers little in the way of how to move on. A system of aid that is politically expedient and morally necessary to prevent suffering, but at the same time has created an aid-dependent state that is the root cause of corruption, dependency and skewed incentives. Our aid to Haiti has also arguably been as much about making Canadians feel good about themselves as it has about achieving real results in that country.
With Haiti, as with the first nations, it seems that we never have a “best” option, nor a second-best or even a not-so-bad option. It always seems to be the least-worst option. So a small amount of corruption or allowing something that is not quite needed is tolerated, all in the hope of achieving a greater good.
What is perhaps most frustrating about the situation in Haiti is that nothing that the country faces is beyond human capability to fix. But by abandoning Haiti, Canada would admit that it is beyond its ability, that it has nothing to contribute or that it is simply too hard. That is not Canada.
Carlo Dade is a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development. Previously, he was representative for Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the English-speaking Caribbean at the Inter-American Foundation, a U.S. government foreign-aid agency.
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