Is Haiti really ‘ungovernable’?

The assassination of the country’s president adds to an impression of troubled places inherently unstable. Yet peacemakers have learned that self-governance can exist in the most chaotic nations.

Protesters in Haiti hold signs against escalating gang violence last year.

The assassination of Haiti’s president on Wednesday seemed to confirm the worst about the impoverished Caribbean nation – that it is ungovernable from within and unfixable from the outside. Even the embattled president, Jovenel Moïse, often said his country of 11 million was ungovernable. Yet Haiti is not alone in stoking an impression of chronic instability and potential collapse.

On Tuesday, Lebanon’s prime minister warned that the Middle East country is days away from a “social explosion,” caused by a deep political and economic crisis. In Afghanistan, the pullout of American troops and the military advances of the Taliban have led to predictions of civil war. In Myanmar, a military coup in February has led to what the United Nations calls a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe.” From Ethiopia to Yemen to tiny Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), news headlines create a global image of myriad ungoverned spaces.

What’s often overlooked, however, are the many successes of failed or failing states being patched back together. Since World War II, the world has built up international institutions that bring a collective wisdom on when and how to intervene in a troubled country. Each victory, even small ones, provides critical lessons often applicable to other hot spots.

In Libya, for example, a decade of near-chaos appears closer to an end, a result of careful, U.N.-led negotiations and war fatigue among big powers meddling in that country. Talks to end Yemen’s long civil war also have some traction with help from astute mediation by Oman. In the Central African Republic, an armed rebellion that might have led to state failure was prevented earlier this year by troops from neighboring Rwanda, which did not want to see a genocide like it experienced nearly three decades ago.

One recent success was the ouster of Islamic State’s caliphate from Iraq by international forces. ISIS’s success in exploiting religious differences in Iraq helped in bringing some unity to Iraq. Youthful, pro-democracy protests there have led to the recent selection of a reformist prime minister.

A key lesson from such successes is that even countries in chaos still have communities that rely on local norms of self-governance. These communities often have rules for inclusion. They allow people the independence to present ideas and organize. They set informal boundaries on authority. Peace-makers have learned to tap these wells of self-governance to put a country back together.

That peace tactic builds on the work of the late Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel prize winner in economics. She challenged the assumption that humans are inherently selfish, or what is called “the tragedy of the commons.” In her field work, she proved that many societies have deep traditions of local groups developing shared ideals and cooperative norms.

The difficulty for outside powers lies in identifying those groups and playing to their ideals and norms. After the assassination in Haiti, that process will begin anew. Haiti is not really ungovernable. It just needs help in bringing forth the people and places where self-governance already exists.

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