Kolbe: Political and Social Marginalization Behind Increases in Crime

March 22, 2012

In early March, social scientists Athena Kolbe and Robert Muggah released a study, backed by Canada’s International Development Research Centre and the Igarapé Institute of Brazil, showing increasing crime rates in the capital of Port-au-Prince. Based on household surveys, the authors found that “[f]or the first time since 2007, the incidence of violent crime and victimization has shown a consistent increase”. While the homicide rate in Haiti’s capital is lower than in many other Caribbean cities, the authors note the current rate in Haiti makes it one of the highest recorded rates since the post-coup period of 2004. At the same time, the authors found a reversal in citizens’ support for the Haitian National Police.

In an interview with HRRW, Kolbe, a clinical social worker affiliated with the University of Michigan, explains the social context of the current study and explores some of the causes and implications of the results. Kolbe finds that most of the victims of violence and criminal activities were residents of low-income neighborhoods where the population has experienced “social and political marginalization.” The ending of aid programs has also had a “profound impact on the people who need the services the most.” Kolbe notes that the bypassing of the Haitian government by NGOs and donor governments has created a situation where these entities and not the Haitian state “provide basic social and municipal services.” With a government that cannot guarantee its citizens access to services, Kolbe notes that “simply increasing the number of police on the street isn’t going to solve Haiti’s crime problem.” What is needed is to “focus efforts on improving the conditions in society that create the climate where crime is a viable option.”

Read more for the full interview:

HRRW: You have been conducting household surveys in Haiti for many years now, could you discuss the most recent findings in relation to the previous studies you have undertaken? For instance, how do the current levels of crime compare to the post-2004 coup time period? Do you see any similarities?

AK: In the 22 months after President Aristide was forced from the country in 2004 we saw a great deal of crime and violence in Haiti. At that time the murder rate for Port-au-Prince was 219 per 100,000 per year. Beginning at the very end of 2006 and early 2007 we saw a decrease in crime in Haiti; this was a steady decrease both in the use of violence by armed political groups and state actors as well as a decrease in crime overall. There was a slight increase in property crime just after the earthquake but this decreased and through August 2011 we had a very low crime rate in Haiti.

In fact we can compare Port-au-Prince to Detroit, which is where I live when I’m not in Haiti. Since 2007 the crude rate of all forms of crime that we measure (assault, property crimes, murder, and illegal detention or kidnapping) was lower in Port-au-Prince than it was in Detroit.  This was very encouraging, but it has changed, which was what motivated our report. We see a lot more armed robberies and of course more murders, more than at any other time since the end of 2006.

HRRW: Do the survey results give an indication of who is committing the violent crime? And what groups have been the most affected?

AK: When we are trying to figure out if crime is politically motivated, we can look at who is doing the crime as well as who is being victimized. Unlike the 2004-2006 period there is little crime reported to have been perpetrated by armed political groups or police officers. The crimes that people have reported to us are primarily committed by criminals or unknown persons. And of course there are some crimes by neighbors, family members, friends and the like, which you would expect to see in a survey of crime victimization in any country.

People who live in popular zones – the densely populated poor areas in urban cities – are the most at risk to be a victim of a crime, particularly murder or armed robbery. Popular zone residents are in a unique and difficult situation. These areas have few social and municipal services. They often don’t have the same kind of physical access that other neighborhoods have. For instance, because these areas are so densely populated people live everywhere and thus, the “roads” are just corridors between homes.  This limits vehicle access to a lot of homes which impacts everything from providing access for disabled residents to adequate policing serves and even the access to water delivery trucks. (Truck water is a common way to get water to your home when you don’t have piped water and is markedly less expensive than buying water by the bucket at a water kiosk, which is the only other option for most popular zone residents).

Residents of popular zones also experience social and political marginalization. They’ve been demonized in the press as “chimeres.” They live in neighborhoods that are designated as “red zones” — the most dangerous areas of the city where some UN, embassy and NGO staffers are prohibited from traveling.  Even when crime was low last year and the property crime rate in Bel Air was less than that of Detroit, these areas still had such negative reputation that some NGOs wouldn’t enter to provide services to the residents.  A lot of popular zone residents feel a great deal of shame and embarrassment in admitting where they are from, and this is understandable as the attitude among some is that people from Martissant or Cité Soleil are less trustworthy, more violent, and less capable. People are rightly concerned that if they disclose they are from Cité Soleil that it will prevent them from getting a job or being respected and trusted by others.

HRRW: In a previous household survey, you found that violence, sexual violence and theft were all significantly higher in IDP camps. In the recent survey you also point to the declining aid services being offered as a factor in the increasing crime rate. Could you explain this relationship further?

AK: Over the past two decades, the emphasis on foreign aid disbursement in Haiti has been to divert aid funds to NGOs or other non-state partners rather than funding the Haitian government directly. This means that everything from loans to straight up foreign aid packages are often disseminated in a way that doesn’t directly give the money to the Haitian government. There are reasons for this policy, which are beyond the scope of what we have time to cover today, but suffice it to say that by giving foreign aid through NGOs, the donor governments have created a situation in which the Haitian people are relying on NGOs and international organizations like MINUSTAH to provide basic social and municipal services. So when the funding for post-earthquake relief within these organizations started to get used up and when, in the last quarter of 2011, organizations started to reduce or eliminate services in urban areas, it had a profound impact on the people who need the services the most.

There needs to be a delicate balance of both empowerment and accountability so that the Haitian government is able to develop the capacity to deliver services to its people and to assure that the services actually get delivered.  I don’t think anyone believes that Haiti will be in a good place if NGOs permanently replace the Haitian government in providing essential state services to the Haitian people.

We know that globally crime is tied to certain social and economic conditions; when quality of life improves and economic and political uncertainty decrease, crime also decreases. Simply increasing the number of police on the street isn’t going to solve Haiti’s crime problem, we need to also focus efforts on improving the conditions in society that create the climate where crime is a viable option.  MINUSTAH needs to invest in what is known to reduce crime, such as creating economic opportunity, promoting education, building infrastructure, improving municipal capacity, and the like.

HRRW: Both you and Mario Andersol, head of the HNP, cite political instability as a leading factor in the rising violence. Could you explain this relationship further and how does the previous election, which saw record low turnout, the exclusion of the largest political party and unprecedented international interference, play into this?

AK: We have a difficult situation in Haiti right now. [Fanmi] Lavalas, which some international actors had hoped would slowly fade away, continues to be an influential and popular political party, particularly amongst the poor majority. I’m not sure what people thought the outcome would be when Lavalas was excluded from the ballot. And the current administration is struggling in other ways as well; for instance the prime minister recently resigned after only four months in office. This is a time of political instability and when things are unstable people lose faith in state institutions. The way to rebuild this trust in the state is for those who lead the state to demonstrate significant progress towards a social contract that is inclusive of poor and historically marginalized populations.   Trust is rebuilt in a number of ways including fighting the culture of impunity by holding people – regardless of their power or wealth—responsible when they commit crimes, by giving low income neighborhoods access to municipal services like trash collection, and by directly and specifically acknowledging the need for improvement.

HRRW: Since at least the 2004 coup, HNP reform has been a stated priority of the U.S. government and other international donors, yet widespread problems with police competence and accountability remain, coupled with a poorly functioning judiciary. What do you think is needed for the HNP to actually become effective and accountable?

AK: The HNP has improved immensely since 2007. The Haitian government needs to continue this forward movement by holding police officers responsible when they act unprofessionally or unethically, by keeping the police independent so they aren’t controlled or used by politicians, by upholding high standards of behavior and for recruitment.  In the past people have been integrated into the Haitian National Police despite histories that included violence, crime, human rights violations, and involvement in coups. The police should not be politicized in this way.  No one who has committed human rights violations or been involved in a coup or an illegal armed group should become a police officer. For Haiti this is a sensitive matter and there needs to be a clear line drawn, at least for the time being.

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