Advocacy International in Haiti: defending and strengthening local democracy

Date: June 2010, July 2011
Team: Jeremy Smith
Areas of expertise: Policy

In early June 2010, Jeremy Smith took part in an international local government mission, at the invitation of by Haiti’s Minister of the Interior and Territorial Authorities, Paul Antoine Bien-Aimé, to help reconstruct a functioning local government system in areas badly hit by the January 2010 earthquake.  Ai was proud to have played a small part at this difficult, crucial time for Haiti. Jeremy represented Ai’s Dutch colleagues at VNG International.

The objectives

The plan was to help (re)develop local government and infrastructure in a combined 4-commune area, serving some 300,000 inhabitants in Léogane, Petit Goâve, Grand Goâve and Gressier.  These towns were at the epicentre of the earthquake.

Jeremy participated in a one-week “scoping mission” to kick-start this initiative, which was organised by local government associations from Canada, France and the Netherlands.  The mission had three objectives:

•    to analyse the situation in the four communes (which have a mix of urban and rural communities, and to reach conclusions on short and medium term steps to rebuild a functioning local government system
•    to meet the nascent national local government associations, with a view to helping them become effective organisations, able to work with the central government to make decentralisation work for the country
•    to look into the needs of and potential support for the capital city, Port-au-Prince (this involved colleagues from major cities like Montreal and Barcelona).

Assessing the problems

Jeremy was asked to take part mainly on the second objective – to assess the scope for future work with and for the national associations of Haiti.  As part of the scoping mission, he visited Léogane and Gressier and met with the mayors, vice-mayors and community leaders from all four communes.  The physical damage, four months on, was still overwhelming.

Thousands and thousands of people were huddled together in vast tent cities in the centre and across the town, and in hundreds of smaller groupings in the countryside.  There was hardly any functioning local government in the towns and little obvious evidence of national government presence.  The town halls were either damaged beyond use or completely destroyed. Hardly any employees remained – in part because outside NGOs had lured competent staff away by paying higher salaries.

The local leaders were quite upset that these NGOs have landed in their towns and started acting in their area without any reference to them.  This was undermining the government’s ability to function at the local and national levels; a stark precondition for Haiti to work as an orderly independent society in the future. Adding to these difficulties, there was a pressure and sense of urgency to rebuild as fast as possible before the rainy season arrived.

First conclusions

The conclusions reached at the end of the scoping mission involved firstly the task of establishing a physical base and local government presence in the towns, as well as providing a regional office to deal with issues common to the whole 4 commune area. The purpose was to show that local government was starting to provide public services, however modestly at the outset.

Return to Haiti

A year later, Jeremy returned to Haiti for a 2 week programme of capacity building and advocacy support work, with the two national associations of local authorities, representing the country’s Communes (FENAMH) and Communal Sections (FENACAH). The programme was organised by the local government associations of Canada  (FCM, UMQ) and the Netherlands.

On the ground, nothing much had changed.  The tent cities were as prevalent as before, and whilst there was less earthquake rubble in the streets, not much rebuilding had taken place in Port au Prince. However, the 25 mayors and elected representatives that Jeremy’s team worked with were committed to achieving positive change – which in their view can only come through a real process of decentralisation.

On paper, Haiti does have a system of local democracy. At the most local level, the country has around 140 communes, mainly covering an urban centre and surrounding villages.  Each commune is then divided into Communal Sections, of which there are over 500.

The problem was that the respective roles of Commune and Communal Section are not clearly defined, their finances are minimal, and there have been some tensions between the two.  Some see this as deliberate ‘divide and rule’ by the central government.  On the other hand, the Ministry of the Interior and Local Authorities has in recent years been a firm supporter of a more effective system of local democracy, so if this continues under the new government, there is some hope of real progress.  But as we found out, there are also some pressing existential threats

Towards strengthened local government

The VNG International team with Canadian colleagues helped to establish a local government support programme, mainly geared to helping rebuild a basic system around Léogane.

Jeremy’s specific role was to help build the capacity of FENAMH and FENACAH to act as effective representative national associations, as local partners with the central government.

The team organised a joint workshop at a hotel in Carrefour, a very poor suburb of Port au Prince, in which Jeremy and colleagues worked with the Haitian mayors and leaders to carry out a SWOT analysis of the current political and legal environment.  The 25 local leaders present, who had come from all over the country, agreed on a significant common set of priorities. The following days were spent working individually with each association, to develop their own one year and 3 year strategic action plans and outline work plans.  A major problem at the time was that the local government elections kept being pushed back, and there was uncertainty whether the new President Martelly would authorize them at all. [In fact, they were delayed and (June 2013) have not yet been held, but should now take place before the end of this year.]


Leogane Town Hall

Open air meeting with the Mayor of Gressier

Haiti hillside

"Tent City" - Port Au Prince

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