Demonstrators filled the streets in Port-au-Prince last month, denouncing corruption in their government and calling for President Jovenel Moïse to resign. Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo

Haiti crisis highlights the need for a strong civil service

For several weeks, Haiti has been struggling with a new political crisis, one that has its roots in an old problem.

The trigger this time was the rise in fuel prices. But the demonstrators who have filled the streets for weeks are mainly denouncing the corruption that has plagued the mandate of President Jovenel Moïse. The protesters are demanding his resignation.

President Jovenel Moïse walks with his wife Martine after laying flowers to mark the anniversary of the death of revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines in Port-au-Prince. AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

Corruption is nothing new in Haiti. Although the political situation was much more stable during the reign of Michel Martelly between 2011 and 2016 — partly due to the influx of international aid and support from Western powers that no longer exists today — corruption was still present.

Why is it that the Haitian political regime is unable to get rid of this scourge?

From 2010 to 2015, the École Nationale d'Administration Publique offered a master’s degree program for managers in Haiti as part of a Canadian federal government project to strengthen the capacity of the Haitian civil service. In this context, I was able to go to Haiti three times to give training. By working closely with Haitian officials in this way, I was able to observe the difficulties in implementing policy.

The two doctoral students who co-author this article, Emmanuel Saël and Joseph Jr Clorméus, both worked as civil servants in the Haitian public administration for eight and seven years respectively. The analyses and conclusions we present are based on our professional experiences and research.


Read more: What's going on in South America? Understanding the wave of protests


The poisoned legacy of the Duvaliers

To return to the original question: How do we explain this endemic corruption in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas (and among the poorest in the world), with 80 per cent of its population living below the poverty line of $2 a day?

The answer is both simple and complex.

Let’s start with the simple answer. In their book Why Nations Fail, published in 2012, authors Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson explain that states fail when their formal institutions are too weak, thus opening the door to informal institutions.

In the case of Haiti, this idea is easy to understand. From Duvalier père (François) to Duvalier fils (Jean-Claude), the political system of the time was essentially based on informal institutions created from scratch by François Duvalier.

These institutions are governed by unofficial and generally unspoken rules, which result in some form of sanction for those who do not respect them. Individuals seek to comply with these rules in order to do “like others” and avoid the sanctions that result from non-compliance with informal rules.

After coming to power in 1957, François Duvalier quietly weakened the country’s formal institutions and strengthened informal institutions that had specific objectives to keep him in power. He used a three-step strategy: keeping his people under-educated, strengthening his power through voodoo beliefs and eliminating opponents.

A voodoo priest performs a so-called cleansing on a woman during the annual voodoo festival of the Gede in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. One of Duvalier’s strategies to stay in power was to promote voodoo beliefs. AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery

In addition to the wealth accumulated by Duvalier through the misappropriation of public funds, Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited informal institutions and practices set up by his father in 1971.

When the son was forced into exile in 1986, he left behind a country with no real public institutions and very few financial resources. Its funds had either been squandered or diverted. To stay in power for so long, the Duvaliers also had implemented a system of rewarding the “friends” of the system, which we now call corruption.

In the absence of strong formal institutions, informal institutions have established themselves in the Haitian state regime, elevating corruption to the forefront of the country’s operating practices. Indeed, no president has been able to weaken corruption so far, often because it allows these same presidents to rise to power.

Creating an accountable public service

Let us now continue with the complex answer. If we accept that the weakness of formal institutions in the Haitian political system explains the strength of corruption, then how can we weaken these informal institutions in favour of formal institutions that benefit the people?

It would be an illusion to think that a single solution can put an end to corruption in Haiti. But we still argue that the fight must begin with the creation of a new public management system. Its implementation requires the modernization of the political-administrative apparatus — a new way of doing things that is based on meritocracy instead of sponsorship and transparency rather than the opacity that characterizes the overall functioning of the Haitian public administration.

But there are several obstacles to such a change.

First, accountability, essential in public administrations and in the fight against corruption, is absent.

Haitian legislation makes ministers, secretaries of state and directors general (in Québec and Canada, the latter are called deputy ministers) the sole authorizing officers for public decisions. It thus makes civil servants mere executors, as can be seen in Haiti’s Decree on the Central Administration of the State, adopted in 2005.

Demonstrators set up a barricade in Port-au-Prince during a march by health workers to demand better working conditions and the resignation of President Jovenel Moise. AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery

In other words, Haitian government directors, managers and other officials are not subject to any accountability rules, which encourages patronage and, possibly, corruption. What’s more, the legal and regulatory framework does not provide for any other form of accountability of public administration officials, particularly to civil society.

Redesigning reality

Transparency and information dissemination is another mechanism to fight corruption. Unfortunately, in Haiti, the dissemination of information, particularly financial information, outside of audit or control procedures laid out by law is not an obligation for public entities.

For example, the official budget document, which is generally published on the website of the Ministry of the Economy and Finance, presents a forecast that differs greatly from reality, since it is often subject to reorganization in its implementation. This means that in practice, the operations carried out do not correspond to the information disseminated by the government.

However, efforts to strengthen the accountability system have nevertheless been made as part of recent administrative reforms in Haiti.

In this context, over the past 15 years, successive governments have created several control, monitoring, investigation and audit bodies. This is important to facilitate the culture of accountability.

Nevertheless, it will also be important to strengthen the accountability framework by making public servants more accountable. They must be given more freedom of action, but they must also be directly and publicly accountable for their management.

This is the way to strengthen formal institutions in Haiti and weaken informal institutions — and corruption.

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This article was originally published in French