The UN’s Big Problem in Haiti

So far, a cholera epidemic in Haiti has killed nearly 1500 people and sickened about 60,000 others.  It is spreading fast.

With reason, many Haitians are blaming the UN for bringing this disease to their country.  The outbreak started down river from a Nepalese peacekeeping base, and shortly after the initial outbreak the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention affirmed that the Cholera strain matches a strain found in South Asia.  The UN and CDC are adamant that there is no hard evidence linking the Nepalese contingent to the current outbreak, but the perception that the UN is behind the cholera epidemic is now deeply embedded in the media narrative.

This is a very big problem–for the UN, for Haiti, and for the United States.

The UN’s main priority in Haiti is to support the Haitian government build the capacity to govern and provide security on its own.  This makes the UN and the Haitian government partners and allies. The UN depends on the Haitian government to give its consent for the mission; the Haitian government depends on the UN to provide security, help train its police, and support nascent government institutions.

Ultimately, what makes this partnership work is popular support for both the government and the UN.  If the UN falls out of grace with the public, it becomes politically untenable for the government to maintain its support for the UN.

This is why the question of who or what is to blame for the current outbreak is so politically sensitive. To the extent that Haitians believe the United Nations is responsible for Cholera, they might make it politically impossible for the Haitian government to maintain its consent for MINUSTAH. But should the Haitian government kick out MINUSTAH, you could expect any of the relief agencies fighting Cholera would follow. International donors might also think twice about investing in reconstruction problems without the kinds of medium term security guarantees provided by UN peacekeepers.

This is the crux of the problem. If anti-UN sentiment reaches the point where it become impossible to sustain the mission, Haiti will only plunge deeper into crisis.

It is in American, Haitian and the UN’s strategic interest to prevent the UN from become politically toxic.  For now, that means not dwelling on who or what might have brought the Cholera to Haiti in the first place, but demonstrating results in the fight to contain the epidemic.