No Easy Solutions: Understanding the Scale of the Humanitarian Crisis in Haiti

There are no simple answers to what should happen next in Haiti. As humanitarian conditions deteriorate and security challenges mount, neither local actors nor international ones can agree on a single path forward. Nonetheless, it is important to understand why Haitians are facing such acute levels of insecurity, and why it is critical to support them to get through this crisis.

Q1: How has the international community sought to address the current crisis in Haiti?

A1: On October 2, the United Nations Security Council approved the deployment of a multinational force—led by 1,000 Kenyan police officers—to Haiti with the goal of training Haitian police to quell widespread gang violence, reassert civil order, and restore overall security. A month prior, recognizing the complex and deteriorating conditions of the island nation, the Biden administration pledged $100 million to support the forces with medical supplies, and transport and communication logistics. A State Department communiqué suggests that the Department of Defense could also contribute $100 million in enabling support.

While the UN deployment has been approved for more than a month, it is unclear if and when the Kenyan-led force will make it to Haiti. The Kenyan Supreme Court has delayed ruling on a case brought by a former presidential candidate on the constitutionality of the intervention. Even if Kenya’s participation is secured, it is hard to imagine how 1,000 officers will be able to train a decimated Haitian police and secure the entire country.

Q2: How has the situation in Haiti become a complex humanitarian emergency?

A2: In the past four years, Haitians have endured successive tropical storms, flooding, an earthquake, a pandemic, widespread political protests followed by a presidential assassination, and organized gang violence. These have all weakened an already fragile state, leaving nearly half the population (5.2 million) in need of humanitarian assistance as of June this year.

Gang violence is not new to Haiti, but it has steadily worsened since Jovenel Moïse’s election in 2017. Initially limited to Port-au-Prince and its surrounding areas, over the past several months, the cities of Gonaives and Cap-Haitien have seen a significant increase in murder, kidnapping, and sexual violence. In May 2023, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Human Response Plan noted that 1.9 million people were in need of protection from gangs. To complicate the crisis of violence, those in need of protection also require food, shelter, water, sanitation, and hygiene assistance. Sadly, as political violence and threats against health, aid, and educational workers have grown, fewer skilled Haitian professionals are now able to provide these desperately needed services.

Q3: What is the status of food and water security in Haiti?

A3: More than a third of Haitians—4.35 million people—are extremely food insecure, facing a crisis or emergency level of food insecurity. Over the last months, violence has escalated in Artibonite, the primary rice producing region in Haiti, while a temporary closure of the northern border with the Dominican Republic left valuable food supplies stranded. As gang violence has spread and escalated, fewer Haitians are now able to safely work and earn a living. At the same time, the confluence of a global rise in food prices, depreciation of the local currency, and restrictions on internal transport have made food both scarce and unaffordable.

Across Haiti, hard-fought gains to improve access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene have regressed because of security concerns and a lack of funds for maintenance and operational needs. For example, two of the three water treatment plants in Artibonite have recently been shut down in response to local violence. The third is only semi-operational. Haiti also lacks a sewage network, with all toilets connected to onsite tanks or discharged directly into nearby areas. Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city, relies on a single nongovernmental provider of safe sanitation services. The combination of poor sanitation and unreliable water supply has led to return of cholera, which had been eliminated in 2022. As of September of this year, there have been 61,770 suspected cases of cholera, which resulted in 855 reported deaths. The combination of malnutrition and diarrheal disease is lethal, especially for children. The entire country is affected by the epidemic, with over 75 percent of communes reporting at least one case, and the spread of violence has made it more difficult for humanitarian workers to reach cholera hotspots.

Q4: What should the U.S. role be in Haiti?

A4: Given the severity of the situation in Haiti, development actors find themselves in a very difficult position. In July, the State Department required all U.S. families and nonessential personnel to leave Haiti and issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory for U.S. citizens. Since October 2022, bilateral and multilateral assistance, including from USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance, has focused on ensuring the distribution of food, medicine, shelter, water purifying tablets, and sanitation kits. Community groups and NGOs who have continued to work have done so while facing daily threats of violence. Some with roots in the United States, such as Partners in Health, SOIL-Haiti, and the Centre Haitien du Leadership et d’Excellence, still provide essential health, education, business, and sanitation services—in part because their staff have years of experience with overlapping crises. In a world where complex humanitarian crises are becoming more common, it will become critical to strengthen and support local organizations who are the first to respond to emergencies and committed to rebuilding their communities. 

Q5: Why should the United States care about the situation in Haiti?

A5: The United States has a troubling history of interventions in Haiti, and there are compelling moral and practical reasons for the United States to care about its neighbor. For decades, the United States has been directly or indirectly involved in ensuring the tenure of Haitian presidents, from the Duvaliers to Moïse, whose assassination in July 2021 was one of the triggers of recent protests and violence. The United States has also been criticized for propping up the de-facto prime minister Ariel Henry, who has been accused of sidelining locally led governance alternatives.

In recent years, the goal of preventing mass migration appears to have shaped U.S. policy toward Haiti. The USAID Strategic Framework for Haiti, for example, points to “irregular migration and exacerbating illegal trafficking in persons (TIP), substances, and wildlife” as compelling reasons to support Haiti to become more self-reliant and democratic. Today, Haitians who have a vetted financial sponsor in the United States can apply to enter and stay in the country under the Humanitarian Parole Program. As of July 2023, 63,000 Haitians had been vetted and approved for travel to the United States and more than 50,000 have already arrived. But this is a fraction of the more than 580,000 Haitians who are waiting to be processed under the program.

Now, as the humanitarian emergency deepens across Haiti, U.S. policy needs to extend beyond simply controlling migration. Throughout history, Haitians have shown themselves to be resilient and resourceful. USAID has an obligation to honor its commitment to localization by working with partners who have earned the trust of their communities, and the U.S. government should begin the difficult work of supporting a democratic and just transition in Haiti.

Tanvi Nagpal is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Senior Associate (Non-resident), Global Food and Water Security Program