Several Haitian children show the wound a stray bullet caused during clashes between armed gangs and U.N. peace keepers at the slum of Cite Soleil, in Port-au-Prince (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa).
Several Haitian children show the wound a stray bullet caused during clashes between armed gangs and U.N. peace keepers at the slum of Cite Soleil, in Port-au-Prince (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa).

The problems of donor coordination and horizontal integration in Haiti are well documented. It probably goes without saying that ensuring coherence in a UN system which in Haiti is made up of nine UN agencies — FAO, OCHA, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, WFP, WHO/PAHO — as well as the UN Stabilisation Mission (MINUSTAH) is an immense challenge. When you add to the UN picture major bilateral donors like Canada, the United States, France, Brazil and Spain, as well as the second largest number of NGOs per capita in the world (Haiti has been called “the Republic of NGOs”), it is no wonder that the Haitian government has struggled to assert ownership over a peacebuilding process that is being pulled in many different directions at once.

Our project hopes to shed some light on an overlooked relationship between local, grassroots efforts at community violence reduction and a distinctly top-down, UN-led police reform process (itself a peacebuilding project on a country-wide scale). By increasing the scope and quantity of patrols and rebuilding the strained relationship between Haiti’s police and its citizens, police reform clearly plays a central role in reducing the level of violence in Haiti’s urban slums.

At the same time, grassroots community-level peacebuilding programs in Haiti’s urban slums have developed a much closer relationship to the communities they serve. They are often made up of members of the community and are seen to understand and respond to the needs of the community. Nevertheless, they remain small in scale, geographically limited and under-resourced. Our assumption is that neither process is sufficient on its own to bring about the kind of transformational change required to solve Haiti’s longstanding urban violence.

Despite the obvious complementarity of these two processes, they have tended to operate in isolation from one another. One example in particular stands out to me as exemplifying the need for a vertically integrated approach — the relationship between policing, street children and gangs.

Haiti’s street children have been described as “living in a culture of everyday violence." [1] Many of them have escaped domestic abuse only to end up in a social setting dominated by hunger, exclusion and danger. As one scholar puts it, “a child exposed to violence in his home will look first for refuge in his community. Many times negative home experiences can be mitigated by positive support at school, community groups, and other bodies.”[2] When no support can be found in these institutions, children often turn to gangs for a sense of inclusion, security and agency.

Peacebuilding strategies must address the issue of youth and gangs, but the problem is complex and involves economic, social and criminal factors. Reflecting the more social understanding of the causes of gang membership, peacebuilding programs initiated by NGOs and the United Nations have approached this problem by focusing on the root causes of community-level disintegration and vulnerability.

Policing, on the other hand, has a history of focusing on the criminality of the street children themselves. As Lunde puts it, “street children are criminalized as a group, and are perceived as a punishable category — guilty until proven innocent.”[3] After Aristide’s ouster in 2004, police used a strategy of mass arrests of street children. One senior Haitian National Police (HNP) official reminded me that in spite of the HNP’s improving image, many Haitians still fear interactions with the police. This must be especially true of street children whose fear of police brutality drives them towards the protection offered by gangs. The legacy of the hard line approach continues to undermine efforts to build trust between inhabitants of Haiti’s urban slums and the Haitian government.

The issue of street children is just one aspect of the problématique of urban violence, gangs and policing, but it illustrates the importance of vertical integration. When organizations conceive of a problem differently and have divergent strategies to change it, there will always be tension between incentives and repression, cooptation and confrontation.

Based on our field research, upcoming posts will examine efforts to link the top-down and bottom-up through mechanisms like disarmament and reintegration programs, community security fora, and community policing projects. 


[1] Lunde, Henriette (2012). “The violent lifeworlds of young Haitians: Gangs as livelihood in a Port-au-Prince ghetto.” FAFO.

[2] Marcelin and Willman (2010). “Youth and Violence in Cite Soleil, Haiti.” Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 38, No. 4, 515-531.

[3] Lunde, Henriette (2012). “The violent lifeworlds of young Haitians: Gangs as livelihood in a Port-au-Prince ghetto.” FAFO.

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