How to help Haiti by trying to do less

Haiti is Canada’s second-largest recipient of foreign aid after Afghanistan, absorbing more than $100 million a year. I wrote about Canada’s impact on the country last year.

Earlier today I met with Michel Forst, the United Nations “Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti.” He’s in Ottawa to meet with Canadian government officials and NGOs. Forst’s full report on Haiti and the international community’s involvement there can be read here. While things have vastly improved in Haiti, the country remains in rough shape.

What struck me from our meeting however, was what he had to say about the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). CIDA, he says, is trying to accomplish too much in too many different areas. By spreading its resources so widely, it has diluted the impact it makes on the ground. He argues that Canada should refocus on the areas where it can accomplish most and where its expertise is most pronounced – he suggests prisons and the justice system, and policing.

As I wrote earlier this year, Haiti’s justice system is in horrible shape. Prisons are almost inconceivably overcrowded, and most of the inmates – who include Canadians – have never been charged with any crimes. They are there under “preventative detention,” and because so many judges have been sacked for corruption, sorting out who belongs in prison and who should be released will take years. Training new and hopefully honest judges – at a cost of about $600,000 a year for each batch of 25 candidates – will go a long way to building Haitians’ faith in their justice system, to say nothing of freeing innocent men from truly inhumane conditions in Haitian prisons.

By directing aid toward focused projects such as this, rather than broader and vaguely-defined goals such as, for example, “peace consolidation,” Canadian aid money in Haiti might accomplish more.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.