Decolonizing aid: Centering Haitian leadership in human rights solutions

Image Credit: Oscar Coraspe/

Haiti and its people are often depicted by the media and communications from international aid agencies in the context of crisis. These humanitarian, human rights, and political crises stem from a long history of colonialism, racism, and oppression. Despite a rich history of resilience and resourcefulness, Haitian civil society has been weakened by its exclusion from high-level decision-making processes. As the international aid community works to fulfill the “localization” agenda (i.e., increased meaningful leadership of local and national actors in aid, including through direct funding) in the Americas, it must also prioritize decolonization by addressing the root causes of racism and dismantling neocolonial power imbalances in aid. Applied in Haiti, this approach would help create fairer, more inclusive, and more effective responses for the Haitian people.

“Root causes” and solutions: Revisiting international aid’s definitions

Colonialism and racism have long informed how Haiti’s peoples are portrayed—usually as vulnerable, hopeless, violent, or unruly—by the mainstream media, Global North–based politicians, academics in the Global North, and international aid organizations and agencies. In these representations, the ongoing crises in Haiti are often attributed to isolated events, such as the 2010 earthquake, later natural and human-induced disasters, and recent political incidents like President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination in July 2021.

In reality, Haiti’s present situation results from various overlapping historical processes that have also shaped other countries in the Americas into the unequal, unjust, and racist societies we find today. Haiti’s 540-year-long history encompasses colonial pillage, oppression, and genocide of its native peoples; the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade and its enduring legacies of structural racism; bloody dictatorships; imperialism and direct US intervention; the imposition of international structural adjustment programs; myriad natural catastrophes and environmental degradation poorly addressed by our governments; and mass emigration

Critically analyzing international organizations’ understanding of root causes is crucial in Haiti. Because the Haitian state has long been characterized by corruption and an inability to deal with structural inequality (the urban/rural divide, land ownership, and wealth concentration), nongovernment actors, including religious organizations, for-profit businesses, and international and national nonprofits have long assumed the responsibility of providing public goods and social welfare services. For instance, following the 2010 earthquake, 10,000 NGOs operated in Haiti, with 8,000 more supporting from abroad. Most are foreign based, with goals and priorities designed primarily in the Global North. Haitians have largely been excluded from decision-making processes in international aid.

Causes and consequences of civil society organizations’ exclusion from international aid processes

In Haiti, like elsewhere, the aid system has been riddled with systemic injustices. These include inequitable power relations between foreign and local NGOs; white saviorism; racism; undemocratic dynamics between local and international staff within agencies; ineffective coordination; and the topic of this article: exclusion of the local organized civil society from decision-making processes. 

Western-based (so-called “international”) “competence,” expertise, and solutions have traditionally been valued over local expertise and experiential knowledge. They are frequently seen as universally applicable, despite significant differences in the social, cultural, and political contexts where they are implemented. In Haiti, this has resulted in the imposition of neoliberal (Washington Consensus–inspired) economic development agendas in the mid-1990s and post-2010 earthquake reconstruction efforts based on sweatshop labor. Post-2010 earthquake, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission that replaced the government was criticized for neglecting the participation of the Haitian population, replacing national institutions with highly bureaucratic structures, and prioritizing short-term projects over long-term structural transformations.

The case for shifting power to Haiti's civil society in its reconstruction

Haiti holds a significant place in Latin American history as the mother of the region's early nineteenth-century revolutions and one of the most outstanding regional examples of anti-colonialism, anti-slavery, and the struggle for people’s freedom. Slavery, poverty, violence, foreign interventions, and sanctions have always been accompanied by aspirations for freedom, quality, and universal democratic rights. To name only a few examples, marronage by runaway slaves formed cooperative communities in the Haitian mountains, creating a culture of resistance. Peasants have historically relied on economic mutual aid– like collective work groups (konbit), informal exchange of goods and services (twok), and the solidarity economy (Sol). In the wake of natural and human-induced disasters, such as the 2010 and 2021 earthquakes and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, rural communities, family members, neighbors, and strangers assumed the bulk of caregiving for survivors. 

Haitians’ preexisting solidarity, community-based practices, and creativity need to be incorporated into international aid agencies’ decision-making processes. Community-based organizations possess a deeper understanding of local realities because they are well-connected to the populations they work with culturally and linguistically. Supporting local solutions can help ensure resources and capacities remain in communities, increasing the likelihood that human rights progress will become self-sustaining. Haiti suffers from a longstanding and profound crisis of trust in the state. In this context, organized civil society can fulfill a critical role in building national cohesion, community, and solidarity.

In the past decades, many activists, organizations, academics, and foundations have demanded a Haitian-led solution. These efforts must address the legacies of racism, colonialism, and imperialism in international aid’s interventions; reevaluate knowledge production; redirect funding toward local and national organizations; and promote alternative narratives and solutions that have long been underrepresented or excluded. The “localization” and “decolonization” agendas (see the 2016 Grand Bargain and the 2022 Pledge for Change 2030), coupled with the insights from long-standing Latin American decolonial thinking and practice, offer guidance for development and humanitarian organizations to focus on the rights, challenges, and perspectives of Haitians in decision-making processes. This approach promotes Haitian-led solutions and reduces dependence on foreign aid, rather than imposing premade solutions. 

The framework, policies, and practices of international aid need to be transformed to center Haiti’s civil society leadership in decision-making, planning, and implementation processes. This paradigm shift would enable responses that are fairer, more just, and inclusive of the Haitian peoples—and therefore aimed toward liberation.

Acknowledgments: The author would like to express gratitude to Profs. Paulo Henrique Rodrigues Pereira and Guilherme Dantas Nogueira from the Certificate of Afro-Latin American Studies (Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University) for their encouragement, as well as Jessica Hsu for her valuable feedback on previous versions of this article.