Q&A: LDC Independent Expert Group chair on the SDGs and tackling inequality

Former Prime Minister of Haiti Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis discusses the challenges of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals and reducing inequalities related to gender, trade and climate change in Haiti.

In 2010 a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti. Six years later, there has been progress in rebuilding, but much remains to be done (Photo: iolanda, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Haiti is a fragile state: one of the world's Least Developed Countries, and one of the world's most unequal nations.

Six years ago, the capital city of Port-au-Prince saw major destruction in an earthquake that killed thousands. Today, although most of the population has been resettled, challenges persist. About 2.5 million people (around a quarter of the population) are unable to cover their basic food needs, according to the United Nations, and inequality is growing, especially between Port-au-Prince and rural areas.

There has been some progress. Extreme poverty in Haiti declined from 31 to 24 per cent between 2000 and 2014, according to the World Bank, while a 2014 UNDP report showed that Haitian women occupied 20 per cent of government positions, showing some progress in gender equality. Some 19,000 hectares of forest have also been planted in pursuit of environmental sustainability.

But Haiti still relies heavily on donor funding for the national budget. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) present an opportunity to achieve changes and tackle inequality.

Haitian journalist Jean Pharès Jerome spoke to Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis, former Prime Minister of Haiti, civil society activist and chair of the Least Developed Countries Independent Expert Group ahead of a dialogue event on Monday, 13 June. The event, entitled, 'Reimagining development in the LDCs: what role for the SDGs?', is being organised by LDC IEG, IIED and the ESRC's STEPS Centre.

JPJ: Haiti is among the countries with the most glaring inequalities. What are your views on inequality in Haiti today?

MDPL: The great paradox is that our Haitian revolution was based on liberty and equality, but inequalities have grown instead of diminishing.

There have been some attempts to remedy this in our history, but with the population rising from half a million 200 years ago to 10-11 million today, the gap between haves and have-nots is widening.

The inequalities in wealth and education and in access to health are such that we can’t even talk about "rights"; it is a question of access to the basics of normal life. This is why people don't even want to stay in the country.

JPJ: How will the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) bring changes?

MDPL: I was invited to join the Least Developed Countries Independent Expert Group. This group was set up because when the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were formulated, the LDCs did not even participate in the debate.

The MDG results were not very impressive, so the LDC group urged that the same thing shouldn't happen again with the SDGs. The group formed by IIED set out to include LDCs in the conversation and in the setting of goals, and we were invited because Haiti is the only LDC in the Western Hemisphere. I have participated in many debates on this issue, in Benin and at the UN. Now we just have to wait for the results.

Given the limited results achieved with the MDGs, will the SDGs actually be able to make a difference? The problem with the UN is that it passes good resolutions but they are not binding. It is up to us now to see if the politicians who are concerned with these very ambitious ideals can be brought down to earth and change things on the ground. There are good proposals, but do we have the capacity to implement them?

JPJ: How does inequality within LDCs impact women and marginalised groups, and how can these challenges be tackled to ensure sustainable development?

MDPL: Inequality mainly affects the populations that have historically been marginalised – people living in the countryside, the Haitian peasantry, and people with low incomes. But when it comes to gender there is a double inequality, in terms of women's rights and women's living conditions.

That's why in the SDGs there is so much emphasis on gender equity. For us here, this has been a long struggle. We should congratulate the women's and feminist organisations in Haiti for their work, but there are still many achievements that we need to fight for. 

JPJ: How can inequality in cities be addressed?

MDPL: This is an interesting question and quite a recent one for us. According to the Haitian Institute of Statistics (IHSI) (French language site), since 2008-09 Haiti has become a predominantly urban country, even though we still have the largest rural population in our region.

The majority of our fellow citizens are living in cities, but most of them are in poor and insecure neighbourhoods. One study shows there are more than 310 slums in the eight municipalities of the metropolitan area of Haiti. Of the 2.5 million inhabitants of the metropolitan area, 1.8 million live in these poor neighbourhoods. There you have the actual portrait of inequality here.

It is strange. The entire history of our country is marked by rural-urban contradictions. But when a new constitution was adopted in 1987, the word "city" did not appear anywhere in the text!

I think that today, when the majority of our people live in cities, we have to recognise that urban life and urban development are fundamental; we have to find successful development models, working with people in so-called vulnerable neighbourhoods, and duplicate these in people's imaginations. 

The question of inequality in cities, in Port-au-Prince and in other cities, will continue to arise given that there is very little investment in agriculture in the countryside. According to the International Monetary Fund, only 0.5 per cent of all the investment in the country goes into agriculture.

People will continue to leave the countryside. We have to make sure these fundamental questions are addressed and decisions are made to change the situation of the country. 

JPJ: On the global scale, how can we ensure equitable international trade regimes and greater representation of developing countries including LDCs in the governance of international finance institutions? 

MDPL: The Least Developed Countries don't know each other well. Most are in Africa and Asia; we are on our own in America. This was part of the idea behind creating this experts' group, as a platform for us to meet and start asking the questions that concern us.

But we still have a long way to go. We need to work on all the national, regional and international levels so that we can properly influence discussions on trade issues. There are interesting experiments in fair trade, for us mainly in coffee, cocoa, maybe a bit of mango and plantain. We need to ensure that buyers from the rich American and European markets purchase the products of developing countries at prices that will allow these producers to have better incomes.

There are some possibilities, but many decisions can only be made by governments; and we know that governments in the LDCs have huge deficiencies because of corruption. So it is really difficult even to raise these issues of inequality, and a lot still needs to be done.

JPJ: How do we achieve more equitable relations between countries and greater respect for the national sovereignty of LDCs?

MDPL: National sovereignty…! You know, that is a phrase that is very precious to us Haitians and to the heroes of our independence. Today, we have to ask what is left of our sovereignty here in Haiti, with the presence of MINUSTAH (Mission des Nations pour la stabilité en Haïti) and so on. What is left of it in our imagination?

Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis is interviewed by Haitian journalist Jean Pharès Jerome (French language)

We will have to campaign at inter-governmental level on the issue of sovereignty. Since colonialisation, these exchanges have been asymmetrical and unequal. I don't think this question can be reduced to slogans, we need to find mechanisms to work on the real issues, and to realise that acting collectively is the only way forward.

JPJ: Many LDCs have indicated their strong interest in low carbon development. What would these new economies look like and what investments would they require?

MDPL: This is one of the great issues of the series of UNFCCC conferences of parties (COP) like the one in Paris on December 2015. We are not an industrialised country. We are not a major polluter — we are affected by pollution created elsewhere.

We are a victim of climate change, because the greenhouse effect is a consequence of industrialisation in developed countries. We live in a globalised world, so the consequences of this excessive production impact countries like Haiti.

The question is about arguments that can persuade industrialised countries, who have been the main contributors, to propose measures to help us to manage our environmental problems. Regarding environmental deterioration, for example deforestation in Haiti, of course we are at responsible some point; but we are not the only ones, and we are suffering the most, so we need help.