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White Man’s Burden? The International Community’s Role in Haiti

13 October 2009 No Comment

[Winter 2007, Volume XX, Issue VII]

Haiti is a small country of nine million people occupying the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola. It is politically unstable, overpopulated, and poor. Its farming sector, which employs a majority of the workforce, suffers from deforestation, soil erosion, fragmented land ownership, and minimal productivity. It has few natural assets save its people. Abroad, it is known mostly as a place hellish enough for millions of boat people to risk their lives in the dangerous crossing to Florida in a desperate attempt to leave.

Haiti also happens to be one of the most assisted societies on the planet. For the past thirty years, foreign aid has poured in by the billions. Private and public projects have vaccinated children, fed the hungry, planted trees, run schools, and organized elections. The U.S. military sent 20,000 men and two aircraft carriers in 1994 for the sole purpose of returning a Haitian president to power. Foreign peacekeepers occupied the country from 1994 to 2001, then again from 2004 on. Per capita, there are few countries on which so much international attention and money have been lavished.

This international involvement in Haitian affairs has had two goals: fostering political stability within a democratic framework and jump-starting economic development, all of this with the unspoken assumption that emigration pressures would be alleviated. Yet, thirty years later, Haiti is still politically unstable, overpopulated, and poor—as well as deeply resentful of the very foreigners who bankrolled this international campaign. What went wrong is one of the most interesting puzzles of our time, and a case study for which the conclusions should serve as a cautionary tale for the many other Western attempts at democratization and development in the Third World.

Given the magnitude of the failure, there is blame aplenty to apportion. Some should go to Haitian rulers themselves; some should go to misguided policies on foreigners’ part; finally, some is inherently linked to the neo-colonialist belief within international policy-making circles that non Haitians have a “white man’s burden” to constantly intervene in Haitian affairs.


Western involvement—mostly French, Canadian, and American—began in earnest in 1971 when François “Papa Doc” Duvalier died and was replaced as Presidentfor- Life by his son Jean-Claude “Bébé Doc” Duvalier. Following the death of the murderous Papa Doc, the United States decupled its foreign aid program (to $35.5 million a year by 1975) with the hope that Bébé Doc would use the money to improve his countrymen’s economic lot, fight as a loyal ally in the Cold War, and dismantle the repressive apparatus of Tontons Macoutes he had inherited from his father.

The 18-year-old Bébé Doc was the world’s youngest head of state and was widely rumored to be dim-witted and thus easily manipulated; but he proved his political acumen by turning down demands that he liberalize his regime, pocketing the money intended for his starving subjects, and still obtaining a total of $1 billion in aid from France and the United States during his 15 years in power (his financial acumen was less developed; he is now a penniless alien in a suburb of Paris).

One assistance program consisted in sending used clothing from the United States to the Haitian poor; donated clothing became so ubiquitous as to be called kenedi in Creole (after the American president)—and to seriously undermine the local garment industry, which could not compete against foreign products offered for free. Rice was another example of aid’s unexpected consequences. A staple of the Haitian diet, rice was exported at low or no cost to Haiti to relieve European and American agricultural surpluses while feeding hungry Haitians. But the native rice industry, in which production costs were already high due to inadequate irrigation and poor soil, could not withstand foreign competition. To make matters worse, later Haitian governments lowered tariffs after Bébé Doc’s downfall in the hope of reducing food prices for the Haitian poor, thus exposing Haitian farmers to even greater competition. Rice production fell—quite a paradox for a program designed to combat hunger.

An oft-cited example of poor aid management took place in 1982, when the United States offered to  kill local Haitian pigs threatened with swine fever and to donate larger, fatter breeds as a replacement. The generous offer backfired, however, when the foreign pigs failed to adapt to the meager feed and spartan facilities available in Haiti, leaving the peasants with no pig, foreign or otherwise. Outside aid can provide temporary relief in cases of natural catastrophes; but it has too many long-term unintended consequences (not the least of which is that it bolsters tyrannical regimes like Bébé Doc’s) to make it a lasting solution.


Bébé Doc’s years in office should have discouraged foreign donors, but it did not. Foreign involvement, still designed to combat poverty and democratize Haiti, increased rather than diminished after Bébé Doc was ousted in 1986. Foreign observers were there to monitor elections in 1987, which were cancelled when election-day violence left 22 would-be voters dead. New elections were held in December 1990 with international assistance, this time successfully, and they brought to the presidential palace a 37-year-old priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

There were many aspects of Aristide’s personality that should have made foreigners wary. He shared the theology of liberation’s critical view of Western democracies as greedy and imperialistic. He obliquely thanked his supporters when they responded to far-right political violence with lynching. But he was the closest thing to a champion of democracy foreign powers could find, and he was able to enlist foreign support for the next ten years of his career.

Aristide’s first presidency was short-lived. His calls for revenge worried army leaders who overthrew him seven months after his inauguration. But Aristide, while in exile, mounted a massive lobbying campaign to convince France, the United States, and other Security Council members to support the return of democracy (that is, himself) at any cost. The result was a three-year international embargo meant to punish the military junta that failed in its main objective but destroyed Haiti’s export-driven assembly sector in the process.

The public mood was isolationist in the United States in 1994. During that year, the Clinton administration evacuated its troops out of the Somali morass and refused to end genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda. But, in keeping with the inordinate amount of international attention aimed at Haiti, Bill Clinton sent 20,000 men to Haiti in September 1994 in an intervention that cost U.S. taxpayers over two billion dollars. The international coalition put Aristide back in the presidential palace, created a new police force, and lingered on until the last United Nations peacekeepers left in February 2001. Foreign occupation was accompanied by a massive aid package totaling $625 million for 1994-95 alone (or 25% of Haiti’s GDP), to which must be added money spent by occupation troops in Haiti, aid distributed by non-governmental organizations, and workers’ remittances sent by the Haitian Diaspora. Few knew at the time that Operation Restore Democracy, as it was called, would fail to create a functioning democracy in Haiti, that it would also fail to combat poverty, and that its only perceptible impact would be to feed anti-Americanism in the very population it was supposed to help.


France and the United States bankroll many of Haiti’s aid programs and are the favored destination for Haitians leaving their country, yet Haitians generally harbor strong anti- American and anti French feelings. As early as the 1970s, Haiti was rife with conspiracy theories that the USAID was a front for the sinister American Plan, of which the end goal was to destroy Haitian agriculture and force peasants to work in big city sweatshops exporting to the U.S. market. Bébé Doc exploited such xenophobia and portrayed his voracious dictatorship as a nationalist black revolution that proudly stood up to foreign imperialists, yet at the very same time, he lobbied his backers for an upsurge in foreign aid.

Haitian leaders, who find themselves in the difficult position of relying on foreign support for their survival while leading a people suspicious of any hint of foreign support, have demonstrated much expertise in this delicate balancing act. No one has been more adroit in that regard than Jean Bertrand Aristide, best known during his political ascendancy as a leftist priest of the poor who railed against capitalist, imperialist countries, particularly the Yankee hegemon he dubbed “the cold country to our north.”1 His radical and nationalist credentials turned into a liability when he was overthrown in 1991 and U.S. diplomatic and military help became his only hope of ever returning to power. Aristide thus swallowed his pride, moved to Washington, D.C., and changed his rhetoric to appeal to his new American friends. After a meeting with Bill Clinton in 1993, he declared that “we are with you; in the future, we will be with you, and you will be welcome in Haiti when I will be there after the restoration of democracy.”2

This sudden change of heart proved short-lived. Within a year of his return to Haiti in the footsteps of a U.S. military intervention, Aristide delivered an angry speech warning that he would “send back to his country” any foreigner who challenged his authority.3 Anti-Western rhetoric resumed its place as a central feature of Aristide’s rhetoric for the years to come despite his regime’s reliance on foreign aid.

One key bone of contention between Aristide, his Lavalas Party deputies, and international institutions like the IMF was the privatization of Haiti’s inefficient public monopolies. Privatization was listed as a prerequisite before many foreign monies could be disbursed; but it also was unacceptable to Aristide’s nationalist backers. Lavalas legislators thus preferred to forgo billions of dollars in aid rather than come across as unpatriotic by meeting a foreign demand.

Both Aristide (served 1991, 1994-1996, 2001-2004) and his friend René Préval (1996-2001) were elected president, but these elections—particularly ones in 2000—were routinely marred by irregularities. The Creole vocabulary in the 1990s reflected the troubled nature of Haitian democracy with such terms as dechoukaj (manhunt aimed at killing supporters of the old regime), Père Lebrun (burning someone to death by throwing a tire filled with gasoline around one’s neck), FRAPH, attachés, and chimères (paramilitary groups of various obediences).

By 2003, Aristide had been in office on and off for 12 years and had yet to make good on his oft repeated promises to provide every Haitian with electricity, a job, and one meal a day. He was also reeling from a scandal involving cooperatives backed by his government that had ruined thousands of Haitian investors. But he knew he could tap into his country’s nationalist tradition, especially as  the celebration of Haiti’s bicentennial approached. As he delivered a speech celebrating the 200-year anniversary of the death of independence martyr Toussaint Louverture, Aristide reminded his audience that Haiti had had to pay a 150 million franc indemnity to France in 1825 before France would recognize her former colony’s independence. This indemnity, he explained quite incongruously, was still a major drag on the Haitian economy 178 years later. “Restitution and reparations for us, victims of slavery!” he demanded.4 For Haiti to ever develop itself, France would have to repay the full amount, which, thanks to the magic of compounding interests and creative accounting, came to the most scientific amount of $21,685,155,571.48. France never paid the $21 billion requested of her; but the fantastic claim took attention away from the cooperatives scandal and allowed the Aristide regime to limp along for another year while his supporters debated what they would do when the promised windfall materialized.

When he was finally overthrown by right-wing rebels in 2004, the relationship between Aristide and the foreign powers that once heralded him as a champion of democracy had soured so much that France and the United States were happy to provide him a plane to facilitate his exile. The offer probably saved Aristide’s life, but it did little to ingratiate the two countries in Aristide’s eyes. As soon as he landed in the Central African Republic, he announced that he had in fact been kidnapped by U.S. and French troops who had taken him out of the presidential palace at gunpoint. Aristide’s following is larger than that of any other Haitian politician, so one may assume that his various barbs and conspiracy theories against the United States and France echo many Haitians’ own misgivings. This, after 30 years of foreign support, is most unexpected.


Aristide and his party members were re-elected in two fraudulent elections in 2000, so envoys from the United Nations and the Organization of American States remained a permanent feature in Port-au-Prince even after the end of the foreign military presence. Their mission to negotiate a peaceful settlement between Aristide and his opponents failed when Aristide was ousted in February 2004, but it did not deter the UN and the OAS from continuing their so far frustrated meddling in Haitian politics. The chaos that followed Aristide’s departure prompted the creation of yet another peacekeeping force (this time led by Brazilian troops) that is currently running parts of Haiti, including the capital.

Following this latest political convulsion, Haitian expert Gabriel Marcella went so far as to ask publicly that Haiti be turned into a UN protectorate. The suggestion was plausible enough to spark a passionate debate, but one may argue that Haiti is already a de facto protectorate since the Haitian treasury, police, schools, hospitals, electoral system, and roadbuilding programs are completely reliant on foreign charity for their survival, and, in many cases, actually run by foreigners. So complete is the Haitian reliance on foreign financing and advice that the Haitian Ministry of Cooperation received a $1.2 million grant from the Inter-American Development Bank to learn how one should ask for and manage international subsidies.5

Without foreign aid, one million Haitians who live off donated foreign rice would go hungry. The schools run by U.S. churches would close. There would be no one but private interim government led by Prime Minister Gérard Latortue would run out of funds and most likely be overthrown. Haiti is, quite literally, on life support.

So far, how successful has the thirty-year international effort to change Haiti been? Two foreign military interventions and several billion dollars in aid later, little political progress can be seen. During Bébé Doc’s time the aid (designed to entice the dictator to lessen repression) was squandered on his wife’s multi-million dollar wardrobe while democratization remained an elusive dream. The 1986-1990 era that followed his downfall was particularly unstable, with no less than six different governments in five years. Aristide, the first democratically elected president in Haiti’s history, was overthrown twice and is currently living in South Africa, while his supporters fight daily battles with foreign peacekeepers and right-wing militias in the slums of Port-au-Prince.

Lack of progress on the political front has had dramatic economic consequences. Massive emigration sent two million Haitians abroad. This brain drain was accompanied by deforestation, land erosion, and an AIDS epidemic, none of which the political class had time to address because of its sole-minded focus on preservation. In its 2001 report, the United Nations Development Program ranked Haiti 134th worldwide based on his Human Development Index (HDI) and noted that over half of the adult population was illiterate, that 62 percent of the population was undernourished, that less than half of the population had access to potable water, that 5 percent of adults lived with AIDS, and that the life expectancy at birth was a mere 52 years. Embezzlement of public funds has become so endemic that Haiti was ranked first in 2004 in Transparency International’s annual survey of the world’s most corrupt countries. Haiti, the richest colony in the Americas when its war of independence started in 1791, was by far the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere as it celebrated the bicentennial of its independence in 2004. That same year, when two tropical downpours destroyed Mapou and Gonaïves (killing at least 3,500 people), local warlords refused to offer help to the population, choosing instead to raid trucks from the World Food Program and sell the food to the highest bidder.


Many of the problems in Haiti are self-inflicted. The emigration movement, which has cost Haiti so many educated citizens, started as a Duvalierist campaign to rid the country of any person smart enough to mount a political opposition. Political infighting between ambitious Haitian officers in the wake of Bébé Doc’s downfall precipitated a sudden drop in the tourism industry. Similarly, the failure to make good use of the sudden bonanza of foreign aid that followed the 1994 U.S. invasion can be traced back to the controversy within Aristide’s Lavalas Party in 1997-1999 over the privatization issue that resulted in a gridlocked parliament, an ineffectual prime minister, and the cancellation of many donations for lack of a legitimate government to administer them.

But the foreign strategy of initiating change from the outside is itself not adapted to the Haitian environment. Haiti, because it was the first independent black republic and the only example of a successful slave revolt in the history of the world when it was created in 1804, is a unique society in which one’s race and a prickly sense of nationalism cannot be ignored. Foreign aid programs, however well intentioned, will never bridge the gap between the predominantly white officials who administer them and black nationalists such as Bébé Doc and Aristide who benefit from them. Any French or American advice on how best to run Haiti, however correct, will always be met by sullen distrust because it emanates from a country that served as colonial ruler in 1697- 1803 and another that served the same role in 1915-1934. Such missteps are often unintentional on outsiders’ part, but they can undermine even the most selfless act of charity. It is difficult for an American church member to understand that he is despised, not because he donated a former school bus to a local hospital, but because he brought his dog along (French General Donatien Rochambeau used Cuban bloodhounds to chase rebellious slaves in 1803, and seeing a white man with a large dog is considered offensive to Haitians to this day). This potent nationalism, verging on xenophobia at times, has undone many a foreign plan.

A related problem for foreign-inspired reform agendas is their lack of sustainability. Roads that are built with foreign aid remain foreign in Haitians eyes despite their usefulness and are frequently ruined because of neglect within years of completion. Trees planted by foreign NGO’s are not watered by locals despite the environmental devastation brought by soil erosion. Programs that make use of foreign engineers and bureaucrats, even qualified ones, are doomed to collapse when the foreigners leave because their Haitian counterparts will find some odd pride in the failure of a foreign project initiated by a white foreigner, even one that directly benefits Haitians. Already in 1915-1934, the United States presided over a 19- year protectorate that saw much economic progress, but had few lasting consequences because an anti- American nationalist movement born during the occupation portrayed all collaborators as traitors. Little has changed since.

Last, foreign-led reform programs reinforce the myth, already prevalent in Haiti, that any woe the country is suffering from should be attributed to outside influences. Haiti’s colonial past in particular, even though two to five hundred years distant, is still referred to repeatedly as a credible explanation for unrelated current problems. “In fewer than fifteen years, Spain extracted fifteen thousand tons of gold here,” Aristide wrote in his autobiography with little regard for historical accuracy. “As for France, we would never finish if we tried to recite all that it took from us…. The colonial powers, including the United States, must make amends for the wrong inflicted on the colony or protectorate in those days. The debt experts, when they speak of our liabilities, need to add up the second column of their own accountability.”6

Blaming the colonial legacy is a convenient cure-all for populist politicians like Aristide. It can be entirely attributed to outside forces, cannot possibly be modified by any action on their part, and can serve as a negotiating tool to obtain financial compensation from the former colonial ruler, whose intercession will join the ongoing lore regarding the neoimperialist meddling that only further aid can cure. If successful, it can deflect all criticism regarding the current ruler’s inability to lift his country out of poverty while serving as a source of personal cash. The colonial legacy theory also leaves little room for original thinking on development strategies. Aristide may complain of the American and French imperialist legacies, but when pressed for a solution to his countrymen’s misery, his most potent remedies were to ask one former colonial ruler to send the 82nd Airborne in 1994, and the other to give $21 billion in 2003.


During the heyday of imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century, Western powers like France, England, and the United States repeatedly intervened from the Caribbean to Africa and Asia so that they could “civilize” allegedly inferior races. Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden is a staple of history courses focusing on this era because it exemplifies the racist, selfless rhetoric that underpinned colonialism while offering a prescient warning that little success or gratitude was to be expected from people being civilized against their will.

What most people fail to notice, however, is that the colonialist mindset has far from disappeared from Western policymaking circles. Still today, officials in the U.S. State Department, the United Nations’ New York headquarters, and the French Quai d’Orsay consider it their duty to alleviate other people’s suffering by sending foreign aid, peacekeepers, and election monitors to nations that have been less blessed than they. These neo-colonialists no longer use the heavy-handed gunboat diplomacy of yesteryear, nor do they display the naked greed of their predecessors, nor do they claim that Darwinian evolution has made the white man naturally suited for global leadership, but they still believe that progress will not take place without Western intercession, presumably because local rulers do not have the required skills to choose what is good for their country.

The goal of spreading Western-style free-market democracy worldwide is as consensual today as colonialism was in its time. In an era of bitterly divergent diplomatic agendas, it is one of the few things on which France and the United States, or Republicans and Democrats, can agree. Even George W. Bush, who was initially reluctant to launch openended crusades when he was first elected, was setting for himself “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” by the time of his 2, February 2005 State of the Union Address. Woodrow Wilson, who hoped to “make the world safe for democracy” in 1917, would be proud—though somewhat puzzled that his dream remains a pious wish 88 years after he formulated it.

This global campaign to end poverty and spread liberty is generous and idealistic. It is also misguided. Just like their imperialist forebears of centuries past, today’s anti-poverty and pro-liberty crusaders are suspicious of lesser nations’ ability to achieve meaningful progress on their own and tend to meddle in affairs that would be best left to local governments. Because of this paternalistic attitude, positive developments bought at high cost are often temporary for lack of local support. Also, little gratitude can be expected of populations that find modern-day foreign intercession eerily reminiscent of the colonial rule that they experienced in the past.

One may find examples of such pitfalls in nation-building projects from Iraq to Afghanistan, but nowhere is the odd mix of Western idealism, underlying racism, massive aid, constant political meddling, disappointing results, and eventual ingratitude more striking than in Haiti. No American would ever think of asking Canadians to fix their health care system; or of hiring UN observers to monitor electoral polls in Southern Florida. And yet, reliance on outsiders seems to be the solution of choice when Haiti faces similar challenges. What is needed for Haiti, 201 years after it won its independence from France, is a second declaration of independence—not from outright imperial rule, but from the colonialist mindset.

Benign neglect—letting Haitians make their own decisions, good or bad, and get the praise or blame they deserve—would be a truly color-blind policy, one that would respect Haitians as capable of self-government and give them an incentive to start bettering their lives. It would also, incidentally, force Haitian rulers—who typically use xenophobic statements to conceal their own inability to turn their country’s fortunes around—to actively seek solutions to their own problems. Such a second declaration of independence, if agreed to by both Haitians and their former donors, would finally allow Kipling’s poem to gather dust on the bookshelves of history.

Philippe R. Girard is an Assistant Professor of Caribbean history at
McNeese State University (Louisiana). He obtained his Ph.D. from Ohio
University and specializes in Haitian history. He is the author of Clinton in
Haiti: The 1994 U.S. Invasion of Haiti (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004)
and Paradise Lost: Haiti’s Tumultuous Journey from Pearl of the Caribbean to Third
World Hot Spot (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, forthcoming 2005). He is currently
working on a monograph on the 1802-1803 Leclerc-Rochambeau expedition
to Saint-Domingue.

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