James Alix Michel is the third President of the Republic of Seychelles, having been elected to OFFICE in July 2006 and re-elected for a second term in May 2011. A keen educationalist, President Michel was directly involved in the creation of the University of Seychelles.
At the ESTABLISHMENT of the university on 17th September 2009, he was named its chancellor. One of his greatest achievements as President has been the revitalization and reform of the Seychelles economy. In October 2008 he embarked on an economic reform programme, undertaken with vigor and far-reaching impact, unprecedented in Seychelles history. As President, Mr. Michel has expanded the Seychelles protected areas to more than 50% of the country’s land territory, making Seychelles the first country in the world to do so. As co-chair and founder of the Global Island Partnership, he is an active advocate of sustainable development and the leadership role of islands at the global level. President Michel is the recipient of several international awards and decorations, including the UNESCO Gold Medal of the Five Continents in recognition of his work to promote the ideals of peace, tolerance and his work to sensitize the international community about the vulnerability of Small Island Developing States, the Sustainable Leadership Award of the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2013, the Most Innovative People Award (for Natural Innovation) and a Honorary Doctorate from TERI University.
Three years into your second elected term in OFFICE. How would you compare the Seychelles of today with the Seychelles of 2004 when you first took office? what was your first priority when you assumed office?
We are striving to build a New Seychelles. This is my rallying call to the nation. It is with humility that I make a few comparisons. In 2004 Seychelles was emerging from 25 years of heavy investments in the social sector and infrastructure. At the same time we were consolidating our multi-party democracy following the re-introduction of political pluralism. Not all of our FOREIGN EXCHANGE earnings were reaching the commercial banks. This caused shortages — and we are a nation of imports. We had accumulated foreign debt because of the expenditures in the future of our newly independent nation. I said in my inauguration speech in April 2004 that I had confidence in the great potential of our country and its people. We had reached a stage in the development of our small republic. We now have to climb new steps. There was the need to work together to harness this potential. We wanted to realise great things for Seychelles. My first priority when I assumed office was to meet with the various stakeholders in our society, among them the economic operators, the non-governmental organisations, youth leaders, the churches and the opposition political parties. I also travelled around the country told hold consultative town-hall meetings with the grassroots. It was important to bring our people together to work for unity, peace, harmony, stability and prosperity. I had to reassure our people that my government would work to preserve the valuable socio-economic foundation we laid during the first two decades of independence. I needed the support of all to steer Seychelles to a new phase of development, where the private sector creates the country’s economic wealth; where all who is able is productive contributes and benefits. Eight years later Seychelles is not experiencing shortages of goods. The parallel foreign exchange market is the past. Seychelles has its own university. The entrepreneurial spirit is blossoming. The economy is growing at 3% per annum. We have restructured major State-owned enterprises and continue with the privatization programme. We have a policy of zero-tolerance of corruption. Seychelles is extending its cooperation and friendship network worldwide with its active-diplomacy initiative. This provided us enormous international support during our economic reform undertaking. We have greater fiscal discipline. After the vast investments in social sector and infrastructure in order to render our independence successful, and now with the achievements of the economic reform programme and more educated workers joining the many employment opportunities, I see the realization of the New Seychelles.
You have spoken about the need to empower the people of your country. How did you try to do this? Have you been able to achieve this?
The basis of empowerment is the education of our people. For a long time education took the lion’s share of the national budget. Through universal education we give equal access to the opportunities of a better life. It is the first big step in empowerment. Now we want our educated people to seize the many opportunities in life. There are many. Government is facilitating access to CREDIT to help people to start small businesses. We also want to help them to grow. Employment possibilities abound. We want our own people to be responsible for their lives, to do productive work, to create wealth and fill the many posts that are now occupied by expatriates. We want all our people to become the real owners of their country’s development. It is happening in the tourism industry. The New Seychelles we are building fosters participation by all citizens in the development. It is empowerment when government offers shares to the staff members and ordinary citizens during the privatization process of a parastatal. That is why we are successful. We are enhancing the community spirit through support we give to NGOs, in order to facilitate their work. We are boosting the culture volunteerism, which empowers people to care for one another, and to give a helping hand in building a better. Perhaps the biggest empowerment project, ongoing now, is giving the people in the districts more say in running the affairs of their communities. It is based on a local government model. I believe that people in the districts know their neighbourhoods better, and they are the ones who can make good decisions on behalf of their communities. Empowerment has many facets. It is a tool to develop a strong sense of belonging, to foster unity, build a caring society and boost our productive capacity.
Your Excellency, you have been recognized by UNESCO and other international institutions for your contributions towards sustainability and environmental conservation of your country. Indeed Seychelles is said to be a world leader environmental protection. What can other countries learn from the Seychelles example?
The ENVIRONMENT is the giver of life, wherever we may be living on our planet. That is why it is of utmost importance that we value the ENVIRONMENT and fit our development into it. Although Seychelles is a fast developing country, and very small in land area, almost half of our territory, including whole islands, is preserved. We have strict environmental guidelines for development. We are happy we have been able to keep the greenery of our mountains, the whiteness of our sandy beaches and the turquoise colour of our sea. We feel our future, and that of our children and grandchildren, are more secure. From our example, other countries can learn that although environmental protection costs, it is the price we pay for our very existence. There is no free lunch for human beings. Environment is a great asset. The more we invest in its protection, the more we will derive from it for generations to come. We must also involve all the people. We have environmental impact meetings with the residents in communities to host a major development project. Fishermen are involved in the monitoring of species under threat. All countries can find the balance between development and environmental protection. We need to be courageous and convincing in our approach. Local knowledge, local feelings, play a crucial role.
You have championed the causes of Small Island Developing States during your tenure. Is the world listening to the islands and their challenges, especially in the case of climate change? What more can be done?
I’m not sure if the world is paying enough attention to the plight of small island developing states. What I know is that Seychelles and SIDS will continue to speak loud about the climate change challenges we face. Seychelles has appointed a climate change ambassador at the United Nations to make our voice heard. For as long as there is no reduction in pollution emissions, we may say the world is not listening. The life-giving reef systems in the world are depleting. Weather patterns are changing. Islands do not have the hinterland to save our nations from coastal erosion and rising sea level. Still I am optimistic. The world community needs to strengthen international cooperation and expertise in order to understand and reduce loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change. Elsewhere we read that the demand for fossil fuels is reducing, and that there is competition in tapping renewable energy sources. More can be done. We need faster actions. We have to admit that our pollution is affecting the environment. Big polluters should take responsibility for endangering the habitats of island nations. We in Seychelles know it is possible to sustain a high standard of living without affecting the environment. The world needs to adapt, fast, to an environment friendly type of development.
You have won two elections, will you be aiming for a third one in 2016? How do you wish your people to remember your legacy?
The constitution of the Republic of Seychelles allows for a person to serve up to three terms as President. The New Seychelles — a country with a modern economy, a hardworking people, with a compassionate society and a united people — is taking shape. This is what I pledged I would be doing for the Seychellois people when I first assumed office as President in April 2004. Is the WORK accomplished? It will be up to the people and party to decide when the time comes. In 2020 we will celebrate 250 years of human settlement in Seychelles. What I also told the people is that when we mark the anniversary we want to celebrate it as a people who have achieved progress in all aspects; as a people who have made economic and material progress, and also social and spiritual progress; as a united people who are prosperous and happy, who are a true example to the world. This is the legacy I wish to leave behind with the Seychellois people.
Finally, what do you believe is the most important quality that a leader of a nation needs to possess in order to be successful?
The leader of a nation has to have firm belief in the potentials of his people, accept that all members of the nation matter equally, listen to them and involve them in decision-making and development. The leader has to make available the space for people to realize their full potentials in nation-building.