Britain has been embroiling itself in a historic, somewhat tragic, naval-gazing contest as the race to be the next prime minister consumed all oxygen in the media and politics. And yet the rest of the world carries on. The proud talk of a “Global Britain,” which so dominated early Brexiteer chatter, has dissipated. And so, opportunities are missed, obligations are foregone and global affairs complexify without British influence.
As a former Methodist minister in Haiti, a country I love dearly, I am particularly attuned to both our missed opportunity and a dereliction of duty in that part of the world.
2020 will mark a decade since the earthquake that devastated the country’s infrastructure and set Haiti back a generation. Lest we forget, this earthquake was catastrophic. More people died in five minutes than during five years of conflict in Syria.
A decade later, the memories of the destruction of Port-au-Prince, and the tent cities housing hundreds of thousands of displaced people, remain vivid. To make matters worse, the United Nations contingent from Nepal introduced cholera to Haiti in the aftermath. Again, there is a startling statistic worth considering: more people died of cholera in Haiti than have ever died of Ebola in West Africa, despite the global news coverage of that terrible outbreak in 2014.
Regional geopolitics have been no kinder. The descent of Nicolas Maduro’s Presidency in Venezuela into dictatorship gave Haiti a stark choice. In the end, the country took the decision to sever political ties with the Maduro regime and support human rights and democracy for the Venezuelan people. But with this, the generous oil-backed aid programs in countries across the Caribbean have ended, hitting Haiti particularly hard.
The outpouring of aid and support that followed the earthquake in 2010 predictably ebbed away and the country remains in a precarious economic position. Too often, the international community laments Haiti’s lack of development. How short their memory is.
It is unrealistic and unhelpful to expect a nation to prosper when, already one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere following a shameful history of theft and exploitation by colonial powers, it has suffered one of the most destructive earthquakes in history and, more recently, overwhelming floods in the wake of Hurricane Matthew in 2017.
Protests have wracked the streets of Port-au-Prince in recent weeks, with many calling for a change of leadership. Parliament has not sat for many months, refusing to vote in a government. Political instability, to which Haitians are accustomed, has become endemic.
Despite all this, the US, the UK and France have failed to step up. But what can the UK do faced with problems that seem entrenched? Well, it is in our interest to give Haiti a hand – and it’s easier than we might think.
Firstly, we must voice our support for stability and for dialogue. I left Haiti in the early 1980s, and in the time that has lapsed since, the UK has had six prime ministers. Haitians have had 15 heads of state since just 1986. If the answer to Haiti’s problems was changing the head of government, they would be solved satisfactorily.
I have long argued that what Haiti really needs is institutions through which people can administer their own affairs, make their own decisions and prioritise their own policies. This means strong institutions which people trust.
We must put our money where our mouth is. For centuries, the UK and other Western powers decimated the Caribbean, enslaving the people and extracting its natural wealth. We have never fully repaid this debt. Haiti needs to strengthen its justice system and its electoral commission. UK government funding in the past has gone to immediate humanitarian causes, which is of course essential. The UK government trebled its funding for the humanitarian response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake from £6.2m to £20m, which was of vital help during the crisis.
But unless we start analysing the causes of instability in Haiti, and spend our money wisely and systemically instead of just rushing in when disaster strikes, the cycle is likely to perpetuate. We need to provide our world-leading judicial and legislative expertise to strengthen their institutions. We need to provide funding for investment in Haiti’s infrastructure and in the wealth of innovative companies which are crying out for finance.
If we are serious about being a force for good, and about projecting our values and interests after Brexit rather than turning in on ourselves, we can try to be part of Haiti’s destiny and make up for the historical debt we owe. If we can build relationships based on mutual trust and interest in countries like Haiti, the “Global Britain” so often mocked may just realise itself. But if we pass up this opportunity, we may well come to regret it in time.
Lord Griffiths is the Chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Haiti in the UK parliament and was a Methodist minister in Port-au-Prince during the 1970s.
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