Political tensions are running high in Haiti these days. The people of Haiti have been asking for elections — especially fair elections — for some time now. In mid-December, I saw thousands of Haitians take to the streets of Port-au-Prince in protest. Just last week, hundreds more protested in the capital city.
It’s been nearly four years since certain municipality and national parliament elections have taken place. One might argue that it’s been even longer than that since fair elections were held.
And meanwhile, on Monday, Jan. 12, a majority of parliament seats will expire. Unless a compromise can be reached, this will render the parliament defunct and allow President Michel Martelly to rule by decree.
Jan. 12 also marks five years since the devastating 2010 earthquake, and the country is struggling to overcome rampant poverty, hunger, gender-based violence and corruption. In the years since, more than $2 billion in aid have poured into Haiti to help the country rebuild.
Major donors like the U.S. government and other stakeholders who want to see their investment put to good use should take serious stock of Haiti’s political crisis. The impasse could derail development efforts. It’s already hurting the marginalized populations these efforts are targeted to.
What we should be watching
Right now, Haitians’ constitutional right to representation and their human right to food, water, energy and the pursuit of economic opportunity are being violated.
The national political crisis has trickled down to the municipal level, where the lack of democratically elected mayors and other local officials in certain parts of the country has had tremendous negative effects. Haitians’ access to already limited water, transportation, electricity, and agricultural resources has gone from bad to worse.
From an aid perspective, the lack of democratically elected officials and representatives complicates and even holds up up a multitude of development initiatives that could help increase economic opportunity and improve the lives of Haitian families.
During such hard times, women and girls always feel the effects first and most. The World Bank confirms that women face much greater challenges in accessing land, financial services, education and other assets; these gender disparities become even more apparent during emergencies.
Local activists know this firsthand.
Haitian women’s rights activists have told me they are worried that the denial of elections translates into decreased access for women to decision-making processes, whether in the agriculture sector, education or health services.
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They worry that it means fewer women will be able to take their cases to court and seek justice for rape or assault. It means even fewer children will be able to attend the already limited number of schools. It means less and less access to clean water, increased cases of cholera, less successful agricultural production and higher food prices in markets.
In short, Haitian women — who have been waiting for legislation to pass through parliament that would require 30 percent representation — will have almost no remaining democratic channels through which to voice their needs if this political crisis continues.
The harsh reality is that political instability also threatens the timely, effective delivery of U.S. aid and other investments in the country — implementing the U.S. Agency for International Development’s landmark Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy, for example, will be more difficult without a functioning government that can help correctly direct gender-focused aid dollars and work to build the capacity of its own women’s affairs ministry.
The U.S. government, investors and NGOs should not pack up their bags and go home. Haitians have weathered many political storms before, and the broader global community’s support of fair elections could help enable a new political beginning for the country.
The U.S. government should, however, take a hard look at the way in which it engages with both the Haitian government and Haitian civil society. A good first step is strengthening partnerships with grass-roots organizations, including women’s organizations and supporting their capacity building and movements toward fair democracy.
These organizations are modeling a more democratic process of development and serve as stabilizing agents within the communities they work.
Organizations like MPNKP work to create local seed banks and promote the use of organic fertilizer as well as nutritious agriculture that will benefit both women and men, girls and boys. Other organizations help traditional leaders in local communities understand the dangerous elements of gender discrimination and speak out against domestic violence. They organize women to access credit and financial services and combine assets in order to have greater economic impact. They also mobilize groups to speak up to local officials, in those places where they still exist.
Many Haitian civil rights, grass-roots and women’s organizations have called for the U.S. to step up and speak out for fair, transparent elections that ensure an inclusive, participatory democratic process.
The State Department has sway in Haiti, and should continue to listen to local advocates. An end to the impasse is important for effective development efforts and a better life for the Haitian people.
What can foreign donors do to help pave the way for free and fair elections in Haiti? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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