The Biden administration has a new tool for – it claims – more effectively addressing fragility around the globe through transforming past U.S. policy approaches: the Global Fragility Act (GFA).[1] Haiti, which has long been the subject of U.S. engagement, often with deeply harmful outcomes, will be among the first five partner countries to experience this new approach. And U.S. policy in Haiti is, without question, in need of drastic improvement. But whether the GFA will result in something better will depend on whether the U.S. government is serious about its stated GFA intentions and actually lets Haitians control their own governance.

The GFA directs the U.S. government to undertake a 10-year effort to stabilize conflict-affected areas by addressing long-term causes of fragility and violence in a comprehensive and integrated manner. It appropriates a respectable $1.15 billion over the next five years towards that goal for five pilot partners: Haiti, Libya, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, and the coastal West Africa region (Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo). The framework for addressing fragility presented in the administration’s long-awaited strategy for implementing the GFA “elevates prevention, addresses the political drivers of fragility, and supports locally driven solutions.” The administration sets out four guiding goals to that end, which include uplifting the advancement of human rights, including socio-economic needs, as a critical element of prevention; and recognizing inclusive and participatory political processes as the path to stabilization. Throughout, the GFA and its implementation strategy emphasize the importance of protecting, promoting, and strengthening local civil society – especially traditionally marginalized and under-represented populations.

The administration explicitly frames its GFA strategy as an effort to avoid “past mistakes.”  President Biden personally committed to humbly learn from “costly and painful lessons” of the past. And, on paper, the GFA and the administration’s strategy sound like a thoughtful answer to past criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and assistance, especially when it comes to Haiti. The GFA’s offer of funding and cross-sectoral capacity-building that is responsive to locally identified needs and to locally led, participatory, and inclusive political processes is squarely in line with the type of assistance many Haitians view as appropriate for supporting their own efforts to address Haiti’s fragility. Further, the strategy seems to indicate that the U.S. government is explicitly recognizing Haitians as effective partners in reclaiming their democracy and promoting a stable and peaceful society even as they face serious challenges. This is because the strategy specifically sets out as selection criteria for pilot partnerships both fragility needs and collaboration capacity.

But whether the U.S. government actually treats Haitians as empowered partners and transforms its policy in line with the GFA’s laudable parameters remains to be seen. The Biden administration’s current policies in Haiti inspire little confidence.

Haiti’s fragility results from a complicated history of enslavement, colonialism, and foreign intervention – especially by the United States. It has been further aggravated by corruption, repression, and mismanagement by Haitian elites, most recently from administrations associated with the Pati Ayisyen Tèt Kale (PHTK) political party, which have controlled Haiti for 10 of the past 11 years. Policies by these administrations can be directly linked to Haiti’s deteriorating security situation and weakened democratic institutions.

The U.S. government has nevertheless steadfastly supported the PHTK and its allies. Most recently, the Biden administration helped to install and then stubbornly maintained U.S. support for Haiti’s de facto Prime Minister, Dr. Ariel Henry. The administration’s support is propping up an illegitimate de facto leader who had served in previous corrupt, repressive PHTK governments, lacks constitutional authority for holding office, and has been personally implicated in last July’s assassination of Haiti’s beleaguered President Jovenel Moïse. It is hard to recognize in this policy the Biden administration’s stated commitment to “Haitian-led solutions” or to democracy and human rights more generally. Instead, the current policy is yet more interference that fundamentally disregards the rights, agency, and laws of the Haitian people.

The United States has pursued these heavy-handed policies even as a diverse convening of Haiti’s civil society put forward a heavily negotiated agreement for a democratic transition back to elected government and for addressing the structural drivers of instability and injustice in Haiti. That agreement – subsequently modified to bring in additional political and social groups in Haiti – is popularly known as the Montana Accord for the hotel where it was initially signed in August 2021, shortly after the assassination of Moïse, although related discussions had started as early as March, prior to his death. Henry hastily issued his own agreement with several political allies in September. Henry’s accord has limited support in Haiti, and would likely further entrench power in PHTK hands. These are the same hands that have dismantled Haiti’s democratic institutions, entrenched impunity, perpetrated mass corruption, and enabled catastrophic insecurity.

After resigning his role as the State Department’s Special Envoy to Haiti in September 2021 to protest U.S. policies on Haiti, Ambassador Daniel Foote acknowledged that the PHTK would not remain in power without U.S. support. In his resignation, Foote characterized the U.S. approach to Haiti’s political crisis as “puppeteering.” The U.S. government talking points about a Haitian-led solution followed.

In recent months, the Biden administration has been urging all parties in Haiti to dialogue. This may sound reasonable and even consistent with the notion of the path forward being “Haitian-led.” But while it urges all parties to negotiate, the U.S. government is in reality still mandating that one particular party – the de facto government – be part of any negotiated solution. This gives Henry an effective veto and no incentive to compromise or to give up power, which he and the PHTK cannot hope to maintain in fair elections. Henry has wielded his U.S.-given veto to refuse meaningful concessions and to maintain the status quo, which has left Haitians under siege and has further dismantled Haiti’s democratic institutions, especially its justice sector.

Intentional U.S. government complicity in this dynamic – in direct contravention of its Haiti-led solutions rhetoric – is illustrated by recent comments by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols. He asserted that “[n]egotiations are not going to result in a completely new government, they’re going to result in a path forward towards elections . . . ,” adding that civil society would “have to come together around” electoral council names Henry has been floating. “We can’t force this on [Haiti’s civil society],” Nichols went on, but then made clear that the United States would nevertheless be “deploying resources” and “putting pressure” on Haitian actors to bring them together around this vision. This still sounds like interference and, at minimum, is an approach that ignores Henry’s total lack of constitutional authority to appoint electoral authorities, popular legitimacy justifying his doing so anyway, or credibility for putting together fair and credible elections. It also makes a mockery of U.S. claims that it supports democracy, the rule of law, and Haitian agency.

In recent days, Henry held two meetings with one of the Montana Accord leaders. Whether this is a sign of meaningful progress towards a political resolution to Haiti’s crisis remains to be seen. There is speculation as to whether the meeting is a response to a shift in U.S. policy resulting in new pressure from the U.S. government on Henry – and not just on civil society for once – or an effort by one or multiple parties to shift perceptions in advance of the forthcoming Summit of the Americas. Or, perhaps, the meetings are a successful outcome of sustained and thoughtful advocacy by Haitians trying to reclaim their democracy. Nevertheless, for as long as the United States continues to treat Henry as an indispensable party or to presume that it can determine who must engage in dialogue and how, he – and the United States – will hold Haiti’s democracy hostage.

The GFA framework seems to acknowledge as profoundly counter-productive this type of external pressure to accept a status quo actor in spite of his lack of popular or institutional legitimacy and fraught human rights record. Indeed, this seems to be exactly the type of “costly and painful” policy mistake the GFA is designed to avoid. That design is a good thing. But to effectuate it, the Biden administration needs to stop propping up Henry and the PHTK, dismissing concerns about competence and criminality, and ignoring local efforts towards a participatory political process. Instead, it needs to honor its own (GFA) assessment that such inclusive and participatory political processes are necessary to address fragility.

Whether the U.S. government steps away from its stubborn and increasingly shameful support for Haiti’s de facto government will be the primary barometer of whether the GFA represents an actual policy transformation.

Another, more technical, test will be whether the Biden administration is, in fact, serious about promoting local ownership and perspectives, especially by and from those from “traditionally marginalized and under-represented population[s].” Past efforts at democratization in Haiti have failed precisely because the poor, vulnerable majority was excluded from decision-making and ultimate control of government, even as the United States propped up those local political and economic elites who were most willing to align themselves with U.S. interests.

For the GFA commitment to integrating local viewpoints to be substantive, the U.S. government’s interagency taskforce cannot simply hold consultations that are box-checking exercises. At best, that would amount to a fig leaf for more intervention that wastes the time of Haitian civil society activists while their input is ignored. At worst, requiring dialogue and input without a meaningful path for addressing and confronting power disparities and marginalization among Haitians, and as between Haitians and the international community, will breed mistrust and resentment, turn dialogue into a perceived tool of oppression, and ultimately undermine social stability. The United States must actually incorporate the perspectives it gathers from Haitians into its GFA programming, especially those inputs that come from marginalized communities. Moreover, the United States must deliberately and systematically avoid falling into the ruts of harmful past practices, including giving excess weight to the preferences of Haitian elites. It must instead listen to ordinary Haitians when they explain that transcending Haiti’s fragility requires a redistribution of power and access.

Finally, Congress will need to play an active role in demanding transparency and accountability to GFA principles as it is implemented. The act itself only requires reports every two years. Congressional committees may request briefings at will. While burdensome reporting requirements can impede effective programmatic work, it will be important to establish mechanisms – ones that cannot easily be unmade by partisan shifts in committee leadership – for holding the U.S. government accountable to GFA principles.

The GFA’s implementation can be an opportunity for the United States to have a better Haiti policy and to sustainably reduce fragility in Haiti and elsewhere. Haitians have been waiting for this moment and have tremendous experience and human resources to bring to the table, if only the table is truly there. But seizing this opportunity requires more than rhetoric. It requires rigorously confronting both past and current harmful policies. The administration can start right now by dropping its support for Henry’s corrupt, repressive regime and allowing Haitians to take control of their own democratic transition.

[1] Basic overviews with useful links have been published by the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Mercy Corps, which co-led civil society lobbying efforts for the GFA.

IMAGE: A woman casts her ballot at a polling station at the Canape Vert market, in the Haitian Capital of Port-au-Prince, on January 29, 2017 during the local and legislative elections.