When the Oxfam sex scandal erupted in Haiti in February 2018, the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, responded memorably. First came a statement most famous for its opening: “There is nothing more shameful than a sexual predator using the veil of catastrophe as a means to exploit the vulnerable in their most defenseless moments.” Arguably carrying more meaning, however, Moïse said: “Disasters may strike, but a people’s dignity and rights persist.” And he warned: “Let this be well understood by all agencies: if your staff exploits or harms our communities while ‘aiding’ them, we will not tolerate your particular brand of support.”
This was a clear signal that the Haitian government would not be passive in the face of the scandal. After years of being a donor recipient and perhaps not feeling empowered to stand up for itself too strongly, Haiti appeared to have found its voice.
This was evident in an article penned by the president, published in The Washington Post. He took the opportunity to emphasize Haiti’s self-determination. He condemned Oxfam staff for “treating Haiti as its personal illicit playground, committing sexual crimes,” and condemned the action wherein “those responsible were swiftly removed from the country without the Haitian police or social protection services — whose duty and absolute right it is to intervene in such situations — even being alerted.”
The president continued: “The abuse took place on Haitian soil, involved Haitian citizens, and it was Haitian law that was broken. It may surprise some to learn that, in such a case, Haitian authorities are in charge — even when the perpetrator is white and privileged, and the victim is black and disadvantaged.”
For those paying attention, in President Moïse, we were introduced to a new breed of outspoken Caribbean leader. He was neither docile nor belligerent. His words were measured but cutting and, in this case, difficult to argue with.
In the Post, he argued that the general developing country/aid paradigm is flawed. As he put it, “Our government is often sidestepped by aid agencies that refuse oversight as they pursue their own development and humanitarian agendas in our country … Under this current setup, billions of dollars in foreign aid are being wasted on development projects – both here and around the world – that are overpriced and inefficiently managed.”
He called for the government to move to the “driver’s seat” and insisted that for funds to be spent effectively, organizations should align projects with government priorities and implement them with government oversight. While talk like this has been whispered by presidents and ministers throughout the developing world, this was a bold demand – and directly from the president in the pages of a major U.S. daily.
The response to the Oxfam incident appeared to mark a new approach under the current president, as evidenced by similarly brazen actions just last week. In March, a dispute began between Haiti and the United Nations following comments made by the representative of the United Nations, Susan Page. Ms. Page released an unusual statement commending Haitian authorities for taking action on a judicial matter, while also calling on them to take action on a separate law and order matter. The tone was understandably interpreted in Haiti as chastising, but what appeared to be more bothersome to the Haitian leadership was that Ms. Page, in a position to have all of the information, got the facts about the second case wrong. She very publicly called on the Haitian authorities to begin proceedings on a controversial case of police violence and yet, by the time of her statement, the police officers were in jail and their case was working its way through the court system.
What ensued was a startlingly swift and strong response from the Haitians. Haiti’s U.N. ambassador was withdrawn, a move that prompted Susan Page being recalled. Following consultations and a period of calm, this week it was announced that the U.N. had formally reassigned Ms. Page. This is viewed by the diplomatic community as a victory for the Haitian government.
It is not unheard of for U.N. officials to misspeak. It is not unusual for international agencies to overstep, meddle in local affairs and miss the mark – that is not the story here. Interestingly, this situation relates to the broader context of the leadership style of Mr. Moïse and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, how it seems to be paying off.
In response to its Haiti debacle, Oxfam announced measures to strengthen prevention and handling of sexual abuse cases, no doubt primarily incentivized to do so by the threat of funding withdrawals. Yet it cannot be denied that this assertive Haitian president, in the wake of the incident, helped prevent Oxfam from sweeping the matter under the rug.
And now, in this apparent showdown with the U.N., it looks as though the Haitian government has come out on top.
Mr. Moïse has shown that he is a fighter, and that he is a president to watch.
Justin Amler is a noted commentator and analyst on the geopolitics of the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and the Americas. His opinions may be read in the Washington Times, Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Daily Caller, the American Thinker and other newspapers and media outlets.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.