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After Matthew: is Haiti on its feet?

Blandine Sixdenier
Blandine Sixdenier | March 13, 2017

On October 16th 2016, Haiti was hit by Hurricane Matthew, resulting in more than 900 dead and widespread devastation and displacement in the South. Haiti was already suffering from a humanitarian and political crisis following the 2010 earthquake as well as a cholera outbreak and a prolonged drought. So where are we now?

Haiti on Election Day

Photo: OAS, Flickr

What’s working

The election of Jovenel Moise in November 2016 ended a long cycle of political turmoil. First held in October 2015, the presidential elections were postponed several times and the original results annulled due to widespread violence and accusations of mass fraud. As a result, President Moise’s inauguration in February 2017 marked a turning point. Political stability is an essential condition for Haiti to meet its development goals and address its economic, social and humanitarian challenges.

The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, has noted improvements in the security situation over the past months. The UN Under-Secretary-General for peacekeeping operations announced on February 9th 2017 that the withdrawal of MINUSTAH’s military component was likely in the near future. After 13 years, its disengagement would allow Haiti to take over the control of its own public security. This would be a great step towards sustainable recovery and development.

The tenure of the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival is another sign of Haiti’s recovery. The 4th edition was cancelled in 2010 due to the earthquake. Yet, four months after Hurricane Matthew, artists from around the world will gather to celebrate Jazz music in Haiti.

Photo: Logan Abassi , UN Photo, Flickr

The challenges

Despite these notable improvements, Haiti remains in a fragile state. While the country was still recovering from the 2010 quake, Hurricane Matthew wiped out much of the progress made in the South where there had been a decrease in extreme poverty. In the areas most affected by Matthew, villages and farms were completely destroyed and almost all crops were lost.

Matthew impacted over 2 million people and left a further 1.4 million in need of lifesaving assistance. Today, more than 1 million Haitians face hunger. The health situation is dire and the international community fears a surge in the cholera epidemic. Over 8,000 new cases were reported in just one month in November 2016. Diphtheria is also on the rise.

In addition, numerous women are at risk of forced labour and human trafficking. In February, the police saved 33 girls, some as young as 13, from being sold by traffickers. Children are also exposed to exploitation and abuse. Low income families and unaccompanied children are often sent to wealthier families to be fed and educated in exchange for light chores. Yet, it is a common fate for these children to be used as domestic slaves.

Haiti is also facing a crisis with returnees from the Dominican Republic. Between June 2015 and January 2017, almost 170,000 people arrived in Haiti from the Dominican Republic. Haiti lacks the capacity and infrastructure to handle massive arrivals. Consequently, many returnees live in makeshift camps in miserable conditions, and are at risk of statelessness.

Photo: PresidenciaRD, Flickr

Photo: PresidenciaRD, Flickr

Ways forward

To tackle the acute crisis, the Humanitarian Community requested almost US$ 300 million (Humanitarian Response Plan).

While Haiti relies on NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to provide basic services to its population, the Humanitarian Response Plan was designed to deliver both immediate lifesaving assistance and rapid recovery measures. These measures, such as the rehabilitation of homes or the promotion of small rural businesses, aim at strengthening Haiti’s resilience. This would pave the way for long-term development and strengthen Haiti’s capacities to cope with future humanitarian challenges.

So far, the Plan is less than 10% funded. Haiti needs strong commitments from international donors to ensure stability and exit the cycle of humanitarian dependency.  

Four months after Hurricane Matthew, Haiti is slowly recovering. Despite notable progress, Haiti still needs international attention and continued support. With the help of the Humanitarian Response Plan, Haiti will be able to make some strides towards sustainable recovery and development by strengthening its resilience.

5 key challenges extraordinary aid workers face in the Central African Republic

Blandine Sixdenier
Blandine Sixdenier | March 8, 2017


One of the most dangerous places on the African continent, the Central African Republic remains in a fragile state today. Despite often hostile working conditions, relief workers continue to provide lifesaving assistance to many Central Africans. Aid workers in CAR face five major challenges:

Challenge 1. Security

While significant improvements were made to pave the way for lasting peace, including successful elections, the Central African Republic is plagued by instability. Although violence varies by region, the security situation deteriorated again in the second half of 2016 with armed groups striking throughout the country. Today, around 14 armed groups operate nationwide and fight over the control of resources.

Despite their humanitarian nature, NGOs have not been spared by armed groups’ and have been targeted since the beginning of the conflict. In 2016, more than 330 attacks were carried out against relief organisations, resulting in the death of 5 aid workers.

Twenty-four humanitarian workers have been killed since 2013.

Although direct threats are posed to their lives, and their facilities looted, relief workers continue to pursue their activities nationwide. More than 50 international NGOs and 65 national NGOs are currently present in CAR, conducting operations in some of the country’s most dangerous places to ensure the millions of Central Africans in need are not abandoned.


Challenge 2. Scale of humanitarian need

The entire population has been affected by the conflict. Today, 2.2 million people, roughly half of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs.

The health system is almost non-existent, drinking water is scarce, 2 million people face hunger, 2 million people need protection from armed groups’ violence and living conditions in refugees or displaced persons camps are deplorable.

Malaria, which is treatable, is currently the leading cause of death.

Sexual and gender-based violence is widespread affecting thousands of women and girls.

The government, already weak prior to the conflict, does not have the capacity to respond to the humanitarian crisis. Three years after the beginning of the conflict, Central Africans rely on NGOs to access basic services, leaving aid organisations with a colossal job to do. In 2016, more than 60 humanitarian organizations were focused on protection, 60 plus on food security and 37 on health.

Yet, due to ongoing violence, vulnerable people cannot always benefit from lifesaving assistance.



Challenge 3. Lack of infrastructure

Another obstacle humanitarian workers face is the lack of infrastructure. Outside Bangui, many parts of the country are very difficult to access and isolated. With a territory slightly bigger than France and nearly 5 million inhabitants, CAR’s population density is low and concentrated in the west and south of the country.

Transportation infrastructure is poorly-maintained. Most roads are not paved, many bridges are unusable and networks between cities are underdeveloped. The country has no railroads, internal flights are rare and depend on the security situation. Traveling from one city to another is time-consuming. The rainy season, from April to October, further renders traveling difficult, if not impossible in some areas.

Also, due to the presence of armed groups and road bandits, humanitarian workers have to travel in convoys.

This situation affects both the operation of NGOs’ deployment throughout the country and responsiveness when new hotspots emerge.


Challenge 4. Lack of finance

In January, the government and the humanitarian community launched a two year plan, requesting almost US$400 million to finance humanitarian actions for the year 2017.

Making a substantial difference to the situation in CAR requires long-term commitments and the attention and support of the global public. With other humanitarian crises erupting throughout the world, the Central African Republic is at risk of fading from the international agenda, as so often before. This would impact the funding of humanitarian organizations and have disastrous consequences for the population.

In 2016, only 37% of the funding requirements to meet humanitarian need was met. One of the consequences of this shortfall was shortages in humanitarian supplies. For instance, the World Food Program, instead of targeting 1 million people, was able to help only 400,000 people and had to cut its food rations by half.


Challenge 5. Lack of information

Last but not least, gathering real-time information is extremely difficult. Outside Bangui and other large city centres, cell-phone and internet networks are almost non-existent.

In 2015, only 30% of the population had a subscription to a mobile phone and 4% of the population was using internet. As a result, knowing exactly what is happening in one village takes time which can delay the potential humanitarian response in case of crisis.

Unknown to most people, despite often extreme and hostile conditions, the humanitarian actors in CAR help hold this country together. The long-suffering people of CAR and the incredible community who support them need more of us to take notice and take action.

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Key sources (in French)

MSF suspends its activities in PK5 (Bangui) for 7 days

Surge in violence: the UN calls on armed groups not to obstruct humanitarian access

Without urgent funding, the World Food Program would have to suspend its help to thousands displaced people

Bringing stability to CAR: using emergency public service and infrastructure projects to promote post-crisis recovery

Money, Hunger and Crime: The disturbing economics behind the Syrian conflict

Nathanael Chouraqui
Nathanael Chouraqui | February 28, 2017
Photo: Pawel Krzysiek, ICRC

Photo: Pawel Krzysiek, ICRC

In the news on the Syrian war we hear much about Islamist groups, international power struggles and political grievances. But there is another side to the conflict, one where financial aid, smuggling, misery and crime are sometimes decisive in shaping the war.

Unemployment, heat and the causes of the crisis

We may mark the start of the crisis as March 2011 when, spurred by the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, predominantly young and provincial Syrians took to the street. To understand what led to that point, let’s make a quick historical detour.

At the end of the rule of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current President, Syria’s socialist-oriented economy was facing the challenge of a fast-growing population. Its model was sustained by state subsidies and largely dominated by the public sector, which was increasingly unable to provide jobs for this new generation. Youth unemployment was growing dramatically.

When Bashar Al-Assad took power in 2000, he announced the liberalization of the economy and cuts in public expenditure. But what he really did amounted to what economists call “crony capitalism”. The state’s alliance with big companies was strengthened at the expense of small business and the majority of Syrians who depended on subsidies.

In the 2000’s, the country experienced droughts and dust storms that affected millions of people, devastated the agriculture and prompted massive rural-urban migration. At the very moment extremes in climate were making the need for agricultural aid more pressing than ever, the government was cutting subsidies. Crucially, this further heightened the sense of inequality in Syrian society. Big cities were able to absorb migration more easily than provincial centers. Idlib, heavily impacted by the cuts, became a hotbed for the rebellion.

By 2011, the economic slump stoked political grievances contributing to the outbreak of protests.

Photo: Pawel Krzysiek, ICRC

Photo: Pawel Krzysiek, ICRC

A vicious cycle of violence and profit

More than five years on, the war has left the Syrian economy in tatters.

On the ruins of the formal system, a new war economy has flourished and profoundly reordered the Syrian social fabric. Dominated by the leaders of armed groups and their ties in business, the middle class has been left deeply impoverished and dependent on foreign aid, and a growing underclass has been deprived of livelihoods.

Looting, bribery and criminal activities form the basis of this new economy. Trafficking is rife, with fuel and tobacco smuggled to Turkey, antiquities pillaged, and weapons sold to rebels by corrupt government officers. The smuggling of refugees and kidnappings are widespread. Drug trafficking has expanded, with narcotics labs found in various regions. Even refugee camps have been turned into profitable businesses, with landowners asking for rent for people to stay. According to an aid worker in Atmeh, “some people there are selling their organs to survive and help their families”.

Importantly, what all these economic activities have in common is that they rely on the continuation of violence. In a war economy, key actors have an interest in ensuring war goes on, thus creating a vicious cycle of violence and profit.

Numerous local ceasefires have failed in part due to armed groups wanting to retain control over massively lucrative checkpoints in besieged areas. In several cases, rebels have prolonged battles to receive further funding from allied Gulf states. Some have prefered to sell arms rather than to use them to defend civilians against the regime’s forces.

Rim Turkmani, researcher at the LSE, summarizes the logic of the vicious cycle: “the main economic activities depend on violence and violence depends on those same economic activities.” It is hard to escape the conclusion that economic factors have been a significant driver in the duration of the Syrian conflict.

Economic forces do not only prolong the war but also shape its very dynamic.

In the case of the so-called Islamic State (IS), the economic strategy of the group helps explain a lot about its expansion. Many of IS’ first troop movements were aimed at controlling new resources. Rebels and government alike soon became dependent on IS for oil, especially in Idlib and Aleppo, which considerably strengthened the group’s positions.

Even IS’ recruitment is largely based on economic needs. In many areas, unemployment and starvation leaves men exposed to recruitment. The organization indeed pays the highest salaries for fighters in Syria, starting from USD 400 per month. According to various accounts, the bulk of IS forces is formed of men who do not necessarily believe in its ideology but had little choice” in the face of widespread destruction and misery.

Photo: Teun Anthony Voeten, ICRC

Photo: Teun Anthony Voeten, ICRC

Ways forward

So, where can the country go from here? There are no easy answers. The country and the region’s economic and natural resilience are both exhausted, and the war economy will likely plague post-conflict reconstruction.

Breaking this vicious cycle therefore has to be a critical step in any reconstruction plan. Recommended strategies, which all require political dialogue, have included counter-smuggling programs with Syria’s neighbors, lifting sanctions and rebuilding legitimate infrastructures profitable for both parties.

Considering the war economy the opposite way – as a paradoxical tool for peace – may also prove efficient. In Burma for instance, the regime granted informal business ventures to rebels as compensation for peace, leading to remarkably robust ceasefires.

Another step is to realize that one of the best prospects for reconstruction is to help ensure it is homegrown. Research has shown that the usual formula – planning reconstruction from a distant capital – has not worked, and has called for the involvement of communities as a way to increase efficacy and legitimacy.

Empowering the Syrians’ potential is key. And it is bigger than we may think. Many reconstruction initiatives already exist on the ground. A new project led by World Bank researchers is using satellite imagery and social media analytics to identify these “low-hanging fruits”.

Empowering the Syrians also means encouraging the return of the skilled population that fled the country. According to a UN survey in Greece, 86% of refugees have secondary or university education.

Finally, it is crucial that reconstruction and the ensuing economic boom benefit Syrians. It is important to learn from the past experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, where most of the building materials used were imported, creating money and jobs elsewhere. To avoid this in Syria, one idea selected by the World Bank is to create an Advance Purchase Fund for potential buyers to give preference to construction materials made in the country.

As World Bank official Ferid Belhaj puts it: “Even before the dust settles, a post-war effort needs to be launched … to create the jobs and economic expansion that will restore hope, and help pave the long, uncertain way to reconciliation and peace.”

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