The Haitian political activist Marie Antoinette Duclair appears to have been unaware that two men on a motorbike were following her car through the badly lit streets of Port-au-Prince.
Her passenger on the night of 29 June was a journalist, Diego Charles. They had been attending a meeting, and she was now, at 11 o’clock at night, dropping him at his home in the Christ-Roi area of Haiti’s capital.
As Charles walked to his door the gunmen on the motorbike opened fire, killing him first before murdering Duclair as she sat in her car.
In all, 15 Haitians died in targeted killings that night, including Charles and Duclair. It was not a story that made many international headlines. At least not for very long.
Just over a week later another assassination drowned out interest in that bloody night of violence: that of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, who was gunned down in his home in the hills above Port-au-Prince by mercenaries in an apparent coup attempt.
If there is a link between the two events it is that they are both brutally representative of the situation in Haiti, the western hemisphere’s most impoverished nation, a country that since 2018 has been convulsed by protests and violence, where guns – and those prepared to use them – are the currency in an escalating crisis.
A snapshot of that crisis was illustrated in December 2019 by an encounter the Guardian had with Wandy Drelien, a Haitian man who was manning a protesters’ barricade near the capital’s airport, a pistol bulging in his waistband under his shirt.
In those days, a few weeks before the advent of the global coronavirus pandemic, Haiti’s long-running political crisis had brought demonstrations and violence to the streets, even if few then had any sense where it would lead.
“We’re fighting against a system where we can’t eat and we don’t get paid. That’s why we’ve taken to the streets,” Drelien explained then. “The president [Moïse] isn’t working for us. He’s no friend of the people – only of the bourgeoisie and businessmen, while we live in poverty.”
Now Moïse is dead, assassinated in his private residence in the Pelerin 5 district of Pétion-Ville, the wealthy enclave where Haiti’s political and business elite live in the hills above the capital. And Haiti’s long-running crisis has reached full throttle.
It has become routine to see one of the world’s most corrupt and ill-governed states lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe, amid coups, failed governments and natural disasters. But this current crisis brings a particular question to the fore – how, despite being the recipient of $13bn (£9.5bn) in international aid since the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 220,000 people, has the situation for Haitians, by most indicators, continued to worsen?
The very modest gains in poverty reduction in Haiti, according to the World Bank, has gone into reverse, with 60% of the country living in poverty and the richest 20% of the population holding more than 64% of its income.
Haiti is unusual among failed and fragile nations. It is not only an “aid state”, hugely dependent on external development assistance and remittances from Haitians living abroad, but one where aid and foreign intervention, far from helping, has helped undermine an almost nonexistent administration.
Few who have not visited Haiti can fully comprehend the absence of services and institutions, planning or state direction.
Even as the current crisis was beginning, in an interview three years ago, Joël Boutrue, then deputy special representative for the UN stabilisation mission in Haiti, was blunt. “Haiti would be better off without aid,” he said. “Or at least, without the bad kind of aid that allows the administration and the elites to continue without changing.
“It would be better to create the conditions in which change could happen,” he added. “If we get involved, we should do so in an intelligent way, even if that is less visible in terms of the value it brings.”
And while it is only a part of the picture, it is a significant one. The world’s first black republic and the first country to be founded by former slaves, Haiti declared independence from France in 1804. The new nation faced blockades, isolation and protracted interference over two centuries from white-majority powers, including France, which imposed a century of impoverishing reparations for the loss of its slaves, only paid off in 1947, in exchange for recognition.
While some of the toxic consequences of intervention have been obvious, others have been more subtle. As US historian Robert Taber wrote in the Washington Post last week, some have been well documented, “including the Clinton administration cratering the Haitian rice market in the mid-1990s and a UN peacekeeping force reintroducing cholera in the mid-2000s.”
“The notion of Haiti as an aid state is a corrective to the idea of failed state,” says Jake Johnston, a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, who coined the term and returned from Haiti a few days before Moïse’s assassination. “It’s not just about aid itself but about foreign interference and intervention.
“And when you talk about the ‘aid state’, it is a country [in which] current institutions have been shaped more by outside actors than internal ones. That has manifested itself in different ways, not least by the fact that since the years of the [Baby Doc] Duvalier dictatorship (which ended in 1986), aid has bypassed government, which has had a deeply corrosive effect.
“Rather than strengthening institutions, the mechanisms by which it has been delivered inherently undermine those same institutions, especially in more recent decades, which has seen the outsourcing of the state,” said Johnston.
“Economic policies have been imposed by multilateral banks, like the IMF, which has seen agricultural subsidies slashed. The education and health systems have been turned over to private actors like NGOs. All of which has created a separation between the people and a government that is not governing.”
If that has hollowed out Haiti’s institutions, foreign interventions including aid policy have had, in Johnston’s telling, a more insidious effect.
“Aid to Haiti has been used for political purposes going back years. It is transactional. It has gone up under certain leaders and it has gone down when someone isn’t liked, or it goes to an organisation that shares the interest of the donor country,” he said.
This profound disconnect between a barely governing ruling class, drawn from a wealthy elite, and the barely governed, leaves little incentive for those notionally in charge to combat Haiti’s many problems – from the violent criminality represented by its gangs to its lack of services, rampant poverty and devastating environmental despoliation.
In a Haiti where politicians and criminals alike enjoy impunity, politics historically has relied on the armed gangs – operating like paramilitaries – rather than electoral accountability to remain in office, from Papa Doc Duvalier’s Tontons Macoutes to the Chimères [or ghosts] of the Jean-Bertrand Aristide era, and the gangs used by both sides under Jovenel Moïse.
Jonathan M Katz, an American journalist who reported on the 2010 earthquake analysed how $3.5bn of foreign aid failed to improve Haiti in his book The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.
“The thing is that I don’t think a lot people realise how aid has been used intentionally to weaken the Haitian state. There’s a long, if little-known, paper trail, going back to the end of the Duvalier dictatorship, particularly involving the US,” he said.
“There are documents that very specifically talk about using private, voluntary organisations – now known as NGOs – to funnel money away from the Haitian government to recreate its functions elsewhere.
“It happened again explicitly during the period of the Aristide government [the leftwing president who fell victim to a coup and was reinstated by a US military intervention] and there are public documents from USAid and other government agencies saying we were withholding money and giving it to private organisations to weaken the policies of Aristide.”
The consequence, as critics have pointed out in recent years, has been to deepen the long-running democratic crisis in Haiti, with electoral participation plummeting since Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected leader in the 1990s to the first post-quake elections, which saw less than 25% of the population vote.
Recent governments have been largely divorced from Haitians’ lives of poverty, nominated from within the same tight circle of politically connected oligarchs with the blessing of foreign powers, not least Washington, which have pursued short-term stability over long-term sustainability.
All of which came to a head in the PetroCaribe scandal that began during the presidency of Michel Martelly and in which Moïse became embroiled when he succeeded Martelly.
The $3.2bn PetroCaribe scheme – from which about $2bn is alleged to have been stolen – was an alternative model to improve the Haitian situation, in which funds freed up by a deferred payment credit scheme for Venezuelan energy were then to be dispensed by Haiti’s government for large-scale development projects.
Where the PetroCaribe scandal was different – if not in the corruption – was the ability of ordinary Haitians and Haitian institutions to ask what had happened to the missing billions.
“The thing about PetroCaribe,” says Katz, “was that it was supposed to be the thing that the post-earthquake reconstruction was not. Venezuela in its munificence was going free up all this money for Haiti to spend on itself.
“If there had been a better leader, more accountable to the people, rather than Martelly, it might have done some good.”
Jean Marc Brissau, a young Haitian who studied as lawyer in Port-au-Prince before leaving for the US, identifies another critical issue that has contributed to Haiti’s problems: the exodus of the country’s well-educated people, who have been put off becoming involved in the problematic politics.
“The gangs control the country, so educated people like myself can’t find a place in Haiti,” he said. “We don’t feel welcome. You don’t feel like you would want to be involved in politics and be labelled as corrupt or killed or kidnapped.
“So you say to yourself I can better change things from abroad. It’s not the way it should be, but this is the way it is.”
World’s poorest bear brunt of climate crisis: 10 underreported emergencies | Global development
From Afghanistan to Ethiopia, about 235 million people worldwide needed assistance in 2021. But while some crises received global attention, others are lesser known.
Humanitarian organisation Care International has published its annual report of the 10 countries that had the least attention in online articles in five languages around the world in 2021, despite each having at least 1 million people affected by conflict or climate disasters.
The findings, from a collaboration between the charity and international media monitoring service Meltwater, highlighted how the accelerating climate crisis is fuelling many of the world’s emergencies, said Laurie Lee, CEO of Care International UK.
“There is deep injustice at the heart of it. The world’s poorest are bearing the brunt of climate change – poverty, migration, hunger, gender inequality and ever more scarce resources – despite having done the least to cause it,” he said. “Add Covid-19 into the mix and we see decades of progress towards tackling inequality, poverty, conflict and hunger disappearing before our eyes.”
The number of people in need of humanitarian aid is expected to rise to 274 million this year, or one in 28 people, and more than 84 million people have been uprooted. Lee highlighted the impact of the UK’s 2021 foreign aid budget cuts, saying that it “resulted in over £166m less in humanitarian aid reaching the 10 countries mentioned in this report compared to 2019.”
First on the list, Zambia has 1.2 million malnourished people and about 60% of the 18.4 million population living below the international poverty line of $1.90 (£1.40) a day. Women produce 60% of the country’s food supply, but families headed by women faced higher poverty rates than those headed by men.
Food insecurity in Zambia has primarily been blamed on prolonged drought, but rising corn prices and flooding have contributed.
Currently in the news amid renewed tension between Russia and the west, in Ukraine, 3.4 million people were in need of assistance in 2021, after years of conflict.
“While a comprehensive political solution for the conflict is still not in sight, people in eastern Ukraine are daily forced to put their lives on the line. Along the 420-km ‘contact line’ that separates Ukrainian government-controlled territory from that of the separatists, the situation is particularly dangerous,” the report said.
Malawi is facing a food insecurity crisis, with 17% of the population severely malnourished. Droughts, floods and landslides have been predicted to worsen over the coming years. Cyclone Idai in 2019 severely affected harvests and left tens of thousands displaced.
“The climate crisis is hitting people here earlier and much harder than the people of the global north,” said Chikondi Chabvuta, advocacy lead for Care International in Malawi. “We are already seeing real-life consequences with delayed rainfall, heavy and destructive rainfall, unpredictable rainfall patterns, infertile soil, destroyed harvests.”
Central African Republic
In Central African Republic (CAR), where civil war has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, half of the population face food insecurity. A ceasefire agreement struck in October 2021 is fragile and more than 700,000 people have been internally displaced – more than half children. CAR is ranked second to last globally on the Human Development Index. “On average, a child attends school for just under four years, and girls for only three,” the report said. About 30% of children are in work.
Poverty, violence and the climate crisis are leading problems in Guatemala, which is on the migratory route to Mexico and the US. Two-thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day and 38% of the population face food insecurity.
Camps sheltering those sent back by Mexico are overcrowded, meaning many live on the streets, the report said. Guatemala is considered one of the world’s most dangerous countries, with 3,500 murders in 2020 alone. “Although about 3.3 million people in the country rely on humanitarian aid, the frequent occurrence of violence is in many cases a barrier to accessing urgently needed assistance,” said the report.
Nearly 5 million people live under the control of armed groups, and 6.7 million people are dependent on humanitarian aid.
Food insecurity has been blamed on an economic recession caused by the pandemic. It has particularly affected indigenous communities, those uprooted internally and 1.8 million Venezuelan refugees, mainly in northern Colombia.
Ranked as the country gaining the least attention in 2020, Burundi was seventh in 2021 when 2.3 million of the 12.6 million population were in need of humanitarian assistance.
The country secured only 27% of the $195m pledged in aid. Extreme weather, hunger and political unrest were among the challenges faced by Burundians. In a country where 90% of people rely on small-scale agriculture, only a third of land is suitable for cultivation, due to drought, floods and landslides. The report also highlighted structural discrimination against women – 20% of those in Burundi’s decision-making bodies are female, while 60% of the agricultural workforce are women.
Niger is deeply vulnerable to climate disasters. Persistent droughts and recurring floods have had catastrophic consequences: nearly 3 million people rely on humanitarian aid. About 1.8 million children need food assistance and almost half of all children under five are malnourished.
Militias in eastern and northern Niger have caused 313,000 people to be displaced as of last September. “Providing emergency relief is often hindered by the fact that infrastructure is destroyed, operation areas are marked by violence and rural areas are difficult to access,” the report said.
Zimbabwe has acute food insecurity with increasingly extreme climate conditions and economic mismanagement causing 6.6 million people to need humanitarian aid. More than a third of the population (5.7 million) lack sufficient food.
“The harvests in many rural areas are not sufficient to secure basic food supplies and other needs. In these regions, households must rely on local markets when supplies are depleted – but the prices there are unaffordable for many,” the report said.
Poverty and violence have exacerbated the humanitarian situation in Honduras, prompting many to leave for the US. About 70% of the population live in poverty, according to a 2020 study.
There have been problems with farming due to drought, hurricanes and floods. The country has 937,000 displaced people, the highest number in Latin America.
“In Honduras, people therefore often talk about poverty being female, as it is mostly women who stay behind with the children,” the report said.
Polish minister warns of risk of war in Europe
“It seems that the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years,” Poland’s foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, who currently chairs the Vienna-based intergovernmental body, said Thursday during the latest round of talks on Russia. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said the same day Russia saw no reason for further talks with Nato, as its demands were being ignored.
Covid created 20 new ‘pandemic billionaires’ in Asia, says Oxfam | Global development
Twenty new “pandemic billionaires” have been created in Asia thanks to the international response to Covid-19, while 140 million people across the continent were plunged into poverty as jobs were lost during the pandemic, according to Oxfam.
A report by the aid organisation says that by March 2021, profits from the pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and services needed for the Covid response had made 20 people new billionaires as lockdowns and economic stagnation destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of others.
From China, Hong Kong, India and Japan, the new billionaires include Li Jianquan, whose firm, Winner Medical, makes personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers, and Dai Lizhong, whose company, Sansure Biotech, makes Covid-19 tests and diagnostic kits.
The total number of billionaires in the Asia-Pacific region grew by almost a third from 803 in March 2020 to 1,087 by November last year, and their collective wealth increased by three-quarters (74%), the report said.
The report said the richest 1% owned more wealth than the poorest 90% in the region.
Mustafa Talpur, campaigns lead at Oxfam Asia, said: “It is outrageous and highly unacceptable that poor people in Asia [were left at] the mercy of the pandemic facing severe health risks, joblessness, hunger and pushed into poverty – erasing the gains made in decades in the fight against poverty.
“While rich and privileged men increase their fortunes and protect their health, Asia’s poorest people, women, low-skilled workers, migrants and other marginalised groups are being hit hardest,” he added.
In 2020, an estimated 81m jobs disappeared and loss of working hours pushed a further 22–25 million people into working poverty, according to the International Labour Organization. Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific region’s billionaires saw their wealth increase by $1.46tn (£1.06tn), enough to provide a salary of almost $10,000 (£7,300) to all those who lost a job.
Covid has claimed more than a million lives in just Asia, and countless more deaths will result from increased poverty and disruptions to health services. The report said women and girls were more likely to have lost jobs or income. Women are also more likely to work in frontline roles, putting them at further risk; in the Asia-Pacific region, women account for more than 70% of healthcare workers and 80% of nurses.
In south Asia, people from lower castes do the bulk of sanitation work, often without protective equipment, and face poverty and discrimination that prevent them from accessing health services. The pandemic has exacerbated this, said Oxfam.
The wealth gap is set to grow. Credit Suisse forecasts that, by 2025, there will be 42,000 more people worth more than $50m in Asia-Pacific and 99,000 billionaires. The number of millionaires by 2025 is projected to be 15.3 million, a 58% increase on 2020. Both the World Bank and IMF have said that coronavirus will cause a significant increase in global economic inequality.
Talpur said: “The political system is protecting the interests of the tiny rich elite. Governments have consistently failed to work for the majority during the pandemic. It was the juncture of global solidarity, but rich countries and big pharmaceutical companies turned away their faces.”
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