Opinion: As chaos descends on Haiti, Canada’s values are being tested

We have a long history of providing assistance, but to put it bluntly, our efforts have not been good or effective enough.

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There are no two ways about it: Haiti is in a dire place.

Gangs now control more than 80 per cent of the capital, having killed 1,200 people and injuring nearly 700 more in 2024 alone. More than 362,000 people have been internally displaced. Millions need humanitarian aid. Rates of food insecurity are among the worst in the world.

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Now, the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry begs the question of what comes next. Echoes of the same question reverberate here in Canada — Haiti’s second-largest bilateral donor after the United States.

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Canada has a long history of investing in Haiti, providing more than $1.87 billion in funding since the 2010 earthquake, including $100 million in international assistance just last year. Focus areas have spanned from education to gender-based violence, to nutrition and beyond — all closely aligned with Canada’s international assistance priorities.

These investments have not been for naught. When support is delivered through local partners, focused on local priorities, the outcomes are both transformative and lifesaving. Funds like these offer pathways to dignity, and uplift communities where hope is a rare commodity.

But to put it bluntly, our efforts haven’t been good enough, or effective enough. The need in Haiti has far outweighed the level and type of support to date — support that has actually declined compared to pre-2010 earthquake levels.

This comes as no surprise to the international co-operation sector, where ties to Haiti run deep.

One of those organizations, Partners In Health (PIH), was founded in Haiti nearly four decades ago. Known as Zanmi Lasante in Haiti, PIH is the country’s largest health care provider after the Ministry of Health, with its 6,300 Haitian staff now living the crisis and responding in real time — knowing the instability is making people sicker, and more in need of care, while the broader health system collapses.

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PIH’s late co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer often spoke of “pragmatic solidarity.” He believed in taking practical steps to address the immediate material needs of the most vulnerable, while also attacking root causes of poverty and disease rather than being consumed by them.

Pragmatic solidarity is a sound approach for what should come next from Canada.

We categorically reject suggestions that Canada should stand aside while the country burns. We reject the low ambitions of Band-Aid solutions and the hubris of outside-imposed masterplans that have failed Haiti for decades.

Pragmatic solidarity calls for a robust humanitarian response. It requires strengthening Haitian social safety nets with a generational partnership commitment to support the capacity building of Haitian institutions, led by Haitians. The first step must be to help stop the violence.

None of this will be easy, and it won’t come quickly. But alongside necessary security investments and political reform, a long-term focus on addressing immediate material needs — health care, education, food security — is essential. Without it, millions of people will have no chance of lifting themselves out of poverty, and the cycles of instability will continue.

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UN support is equally paramount. Canada should leverage its influence to encourage increased international assistance. However, we must also make a concerted effort to use assistance funds more efficiently. For far too long, donor countries have used political instability as an excuse to undermine national institutions rather than support them through mutual accountability frameworks.

By making a generational commitment of 20 years, Canada can set a new standard for meaningful long-term partnership. This commitment should be accompanied by a programming strategy concentrated on a select group of development partners with a profound grasp of Haiti’s unique challenges.

The time for the sympathetic status-quo is long behind us. For Canada to live the values it champions, we need to move beyond compassion. It’s time to get unapologetically practical.

Julia Anderson is the CEO of the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health. She lives in Peterborough, Ont. Mark Brender is the national director of Partners In Health Canada. He lives in Toronto.

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