How Haiti Became an Aid State: A new political history reveals the dark side of foreign assistance

By Benjamin Hebblethwaite, Foreign Policy, Feb. 24, 2024

Jake Johnston’s Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism, and the Battle to Control Haiti is an excellent debut about the social problems and distortions created by foreign aid. Readers who want a nuanced take on how foreign aid has hobbled Haiti for more than a century—and especially between the earthquake of January 12, 2010, and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7, 2021—will find an account that draws extensively from Haitians and foreigners in the main circles of money and power. Anyone who has visited or worked in Haiti over the past decades will find Johnston’s book to be of great value as he labors to unravel the country’s recent political miasma.

Johnston, a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., argues that the “aid state” is comprised of foreign and domestic elite who focus on pocketing project funds while delivering a bare minimum of services in a climate where accountability is lacking. The main players in Johnston’s muckraking political history are the Haitian government, U.S. institutions such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), international organizations such as the United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations including the Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam, and Doctors Without Borders.

Johnston especially probes ongoing neoliberal practices in the context of the U.S. government allocating public aid to private project management corporations. For readers who are only familiar with recent events in Haiti through short journalistic renderings or rumor, immersing in Johnston’s detailed interpretations helps to piece together the principal actors and policies that entrench Haitians’ dependency on foreign powers.

Aid State is built on interviews from foreign and Haitian sources, reflecting an impressive range of perspectives, professional roles, and social classes. Accounts of conversations with Johnston’s trusted moto guide, Ti Mo, who transported the author around Port-au-Prince to visit various political leaders, are one of many examples of Johnston skillfully including diverse sources. While the book, out of necessity, builds its main claims from interviews with the leading political and professional classes, it also takes into consideration the experiences of the working class—such as the 2,500 displaced Haitians who described the abuses they endured from U.N. troops. Some of Johnston’s observations derive from FOIA requests made to federal agencies such as USAID, providing glimpses into how these agencies have favored private project management companies while protecting them from serious accountability.

As a chronological political history, Aid State examines how, over the past 70 years, leading politicians in Haiti have sought the support of foreign political and financial sponsors for personal and nepotistic gain while paying lip service to the needs of the Haitian people. Johnston charts the policies of the recent presidents—including François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, René Préval, Michel Martelly, and Moïse—and he weighs how their political positions impacted the giving behavior of the foreigners entreated to finance Haiti’s aid state.

François Duvalier’s use of anti-communist Cold War rhetoric to acquire U.S. financial aid for his right-wing regime, as well as Aristide’s and Préval’s use of leftist rhetoric to obtain Venezuelan financing through the PetroCaribe project from the mid-2000s to 2015, show the foreign patronage relationships that Haitian leaders variously cultivate to fund their governments. This has been imperative, since the Haitian government collects less domestic tax revenue (14.5 percent of GDP in 2018) than most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (23 percent of GDP, on average) due to low tax rates, incompliance, and weak administration.


Johnston’s most sustained scrutiny is on the recent presidential terms of Préval (2006-2011), Martelly (2011-2016), and Moïse (2017-2021), their relationships with foreign donors and politicians, and the main political and social conflicts that shaped their periods of rule. The accounts include jaw-dropping whodunits that race down the rabbit hole of disappearing millions, hound the trails of money-laundering through Miami real estate schemes, expose the central role of drug trafficking in the economic and political elite, and, of course, chronicle the predator state’s oldest crime of all, land theft for boondoggle “development projects”—such as the so-called flagship Caracol Industrial Park, which displaced thousands of people who had farmed on the communal land where it was built.

Vast sums of money are doled out by agencies such as USAID, sometimes without competitive bidding or appropriate financial accountability for projects, extensions, or completion. The book details how Chemonics, one of the top 10 project management companies of what Johnston refers to as the “aid-industrial complex,” reaped more than $100 million as the largest single recipient of USAID funding in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Chemonics had already received more than $500 million from USAID for aid work in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, as well as $130 million after Haiti’s hurricanes of 2008. Citing an interview with an anonymous USAID official, Johnston explains how private companies spend significant sums on U.S. and foreign staff working in-country on aid projects (as much as $250,000 per worker for housing, security, and support plus $260 in daily per diems) and even spend aid money on Haitian politics.

Chemonics’s 2010 earthquake relief contract with USAID, which Johnston obtained after a multiyear FOIA request battle, was so heavily redacted that he could neither determine what the company was supposed to do in Haiti nor the amount of money it charges for overhead, “which is considered a protected trade secret.” Across the book’s 37 mentions of the for-profit company, however, there is no evidence of any attempt by Johnston to contact Chemonics directly with his questions, suggesting that much more work is required to fully understand how such project management companies operate.

One of many taxpayers’ nightmares is described in a chapter titled “The $80,000 House,” where Johnston examines a disastrous, 750-home earthquake relief construction project at the Caracol-EKAM village that Maryland-based CEEPCO Contracting was awarded to complete for USAID. Each home was supposed to be $8,000 in the budget proposed in 2013 but ultimately cost $88,000, of which 10 percent went to pay for repair work. Also undermining the project were problems resulting from the theft of funds by foreign contractors and local subcontractors, reliance on expensive foreign experts, the absence of community consultation, cheap materials, and building plans that ironically lacked a seismic design on land prone to earthquakes.A few of the accounts in the second half of Aid State stood out for their historical significance as revelatory analyses of otherwise murky events. The story of the foreign community’s interference in the 2010 runoff elections that advanced Mirlande Manigat and Martelly while jettisoning the leftist second-place winner, Jude Célestin, set into motion more than a decade of political unraveling now on tragic display. The Guatemalan diplomat who led the U.N. mission in Haiti, Edmond Mulet, insisted that the electoral authority exclude Célestin from the runoff vote because the “international community” would not accept him due to allegations that the outgoing president—a member of Célestin’s party—had rigged the election. Johnston pushes back on the idea that fraud was confined to the Célestin camp. Instead, he suggests that claims of fraud were hyperbolic attempts to rig the election. The United States, Johnston contends, did not want the leftist Célestin to compete.

Johnston also follows the crooked paths to electoral victory taken by Martelly in 2011 and his Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK) successor, Moïse, in 2016, including many accounts of unreceived voter ID cards, thuggish tactics such as armed men stuffing ballot boxes, keeping polling places closed, intimidating local election officials to authenticate falsified results, and generally manufacturing a climate of fear and voter suppression. The absurdly low voter turnouts—under 25 percent in 2011 and 18 percent in 2016 (compared to 59 percent in 2006)—discredited both elections in the eyes of a Haitian majority that did not participate in them.

And while Haiti’s foreign and domestic wardens got the business-friendly presidents they wanted after those charades, the illegitimacy of the elections and the corruption of the PHTK party that they rubber-stamped into power has led to the present situation in Haiti. It is one in which government has no authority, and where gangs and a kidnapping industry make it impossible for anyone to live remotely normally, including members of the aid state.

Johnston is consistently critical of both the global and Haitian elites, and he also sympathizes with the deprivations of the Haitian people. The contrasts in his depictions provide valuable insights into Haiti’s class conflicts. He rightly describes the Haitian Kreyòl-speaking people of Haiti as structurally excluded in an “apartheid state controlled by the political and economic elite,” with its foreign-created and -funded police force, troops from the United Nations, and mercenary groups becoming prime symbols of the extreme separation between the top caste and the masses.

Johnston’s apt apartheid metaphor, however, misses an important underlying structural commonality: The Afrikaners in apartheid South Africa imposed their minority language on masses of people who had nearly no access to it, a situation faced by millions of Haitians with respect to the French language.

While Aid State is a classic in the genre of books that deal with the dependencies wrought by foreign aid, it also lacks robust counterproposals. The book’s pessimism reaches a climax on the last page, in which Moïse’s assassination by foreign mercenaries is posited as the failed aid state’s “final act.”

Johnston affirms how important Kreyòl was for people such as former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten, members of the U.S. military, or the U.S. presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Joe Biden in 2016 and 2020 in Florida, and he peppers Kreyòl expressions on the pages of his book in an accurate portrait of the Haitian soundscape—yet he falls short of recognizing the role that favoring French over Kreyòl has had in erecting and reifying the apartheid state that he justly decries.

Haitian educational, professional, and elite aid state spaces, where French (as well as English or Spanish) is mandatory, contrast with the lived linguistic reality of the monolingual Haitian people who use Kreyòl for everything while investing their earnings in tuition so that their kids can learn French. Haiti’s Kreyòl-speaking majority struggles in Haiti’s Francophone school system, where only a tiny fraction of students who start school manage to graduate with a diploma. Mastery of the foreign French language is the foundation of social mobility in Haitian society; the practice of educating downtrodden people in a language that they cannot speak points at the selfishness and exclusivity of Haiti’s own post-independence system, one that conspires with the aid state to limit development.

Favoring a minority language such as French (or English) perennializes obfuscations and dependencies. The linguistic nationalization of Kreyòl and the decommissioning of French-language privilege represent potential legal developments that will reverse a structural feature of Haiti’s neocolonial apartheid state. The Soweto students who protested South Africa’s Afrikaner minority language policy in 1976 understood that their progress was rooted in their indigenous African languages and in their independence from the minority Afrikaans language and agenda. Independence from the worst aspects of the aid state requires a majority language policy that facilitates participation.

Johnston’s book is a must-read because it offers X-rays of the counterproductivity and corruption of many of the aid state’s agents. But he has also left underlying failures such as linguistic inequality—and supply chain dependencies, in a section on Haitian sweatshops—untouched. Without policies to nationalize the Kreyòl majority language and build Haitian supply chains that would operate as multipliers from seed to finished product, Haiti’s potential has not come close to being realized.


Posted Feb. 25, 2024