Accountability or Impunity?

By Jan Arden

There are many legitimate policy and management reasons for a Ministry to devolve some specialised aspects within its overall ambit to detached structures, parastatal bodies or semi-independent authorities in the generic sense. Semi-independent, we say, because chairmen and most CEOs are handpicked by polity to ensure they toe the line, while the vast majority of board members, as ex-officio representatives of a variety of ministries, are always attuned to the desiderata of their patrons.

Without any checks and balances, with potential whistle-blowers running heavy risks, with some of the more sensitive such agencies shielded from the minimum of transparency that parliamentary questions or the annual Audit could afford, Mauritius Inc should consider whether this model can be seriously flawed and no longer adapted for widespread demands from society for greater transparency, responsibility and accountability as they are primarily handling public funds.

Several high-profile cases have hit the headlines in recent years, if only the ghastly affairs of St Louis gate at the CEB, which is still under investigation locally, and the no less obnoxious scandals at the STC. Beyond the firing of the former Minister of Commerce Yogida Sawmynaden and his chosen CEO last year, the population remains in the dark whether any investigations have been concluded and any firm disciplinary actions taken at either the State Trading Corporation or its parent Ministry.

This confers a debilitating sense of impunity for administrative high staffers, political appointees and boards that may have abysmally abdicated their primary duty of responsible management of public funds in favour of toeing the line. We have become accustomed that none of them, in the midst of harrowing revelations of potential fraud, corruption and influence peddling at STC, Health and Commerce, during the pandemic, have thought it fit and proper to submit their resignations and are still holding on to their perks and privileges.

Were this to be a generalized phenomenon across all sectors, some might be entitled to consider that our version of the Westminster model is closer to a banana republic. Fortunately, in the absence of essential information provided locally regarding any high-profile inquiries, if any, our main investigative and regulatory institutions (namely ICAC, FSC, FIU & BoM) will have the opportunity to present factual evidence of their credible investigative or regulatory actions and outcomes at the upcoming money-laundering and financial scams audit to be conducted by a FATF/ESAMLAG team. The pointed reminder that the Audit team will also be hearing prominent civil society voices and concerns should warn authorities that the report to the October FATF plenary may not be in the bag yet.

* * *

MIC: transparency and accountability

In a forthright interview granted to Mauritius Times and widely mentioned in the press, Lord Desai, the venerable and esteemed economics Professor, has provided key background information to the actions of the Ministry of Finance/BoM, with particular regard to the setting up of the MIC for channeling public reserves onto selected companies in an “unconventional” approach to maintain jobs and livelihoods.

His peremptory dismissal of FMI economists as being too corralled by orthodoxy in general and more particularly during the pandemic, echoing what other economists may well have said over the years, seem to have struck a receptive chord at the Central Bank and Min of Finance. Some may wonder whether, as an insular state with practically no resources and a massive debt, we have the leeway to do away with the recommendations of such a key partner.

In the context where transparency and accountability are rather threadbare, his reassurances that everything has been done methodically and the documentation would be available at the BoM’s convenience or at some future Audit, leaves us reassured but rather perplexed. He notes that the MIC he chairs has been undoubtedly working overtime to satisfy its objectives, and that some 60 applications have so far been approved for disbursement.

Surely our MPs and indeed the population at large would be happier if the Chairman of such vast expertise and international standing would acknowledge the necessity that even a periodic dashboard of key relevant information about the use being made by MIC of our national reserves be made public or at least submitted to our august National Assembly.

* * *

Runaway inflation & price subsidy

A side-effect of the forced ministerial exit of Yogida Sawmynaden is the absence of any full-time minister at a key function, that of Commerce and Consumer Protection, at a particularly volatile social juncture when a formidable array of Ministry of Finance taxation measures (cigarettes, alcohol, sugar derivatives, fuel oil, CSG, solidarity tax…) and complicit BoM policies with our national reserves have ended up devaluing our currency by 20% or more over the past two years. Couple this with increases in international commodity prices and air or maritime freight and the population, including the pensioners and more vulnerable, has to bear the brunt of a disastrous upward spiral of everyday prices including pharmaceuticals and finds itself with increasingly threadbare pockets.

With the threat of a unified opposition and consumer NGOs galvanised and threatening to take to the streets in a Tunisian style “Degage, Ben Ali!”, there was some urgency to the stop-gap measures announced by the PM personally this Friday, leaving the Ministers of Finance and Commerce sidelined.

Some seven commodities deemed essential to the ordinary Mauritian are being subsidized at Rs 500m from the public purse to importers in the hope to revert to January prices. The Contribution Sociale Généralisée (CSG), object of controversies and judicial challenge by the private sector since the mighty pen of the Finance Minister wrapped up our National Pensions Fund system in favour of that taxation scheme, we understand, is terminated and will be the subject of consultations before a proper legislation is introduced before Parliament. Whether those stop-gap measures are sufficient to assuage the population and derail the common front against runaway inflation and rupee devaluation remains to be seen over the coming weeks.

* * *

Whither Human Resource Development?

At a juncture when the Ministry of Education should have been usefully consulting with all stakeholders regarding the resumption of classroom training and the difficulties encountered by parents, teachers and children, it is bringing up to Parliament these days The Institute of Technical Education and Technology (ITET) Bill. Although the priorities of the pandemic conundrum in schools and education, with several units being closed for infection, should not debar from useful and necessary legislative work. What does this proposed Institute bring to advance the technical and vocational scene, address the skills shortages or mismatch and the absence of coherent policies in that domain?

We recall that the sector already comprised the Mauritius Polytechnics Ltd and the Mauritius Institute of Training and Development (MITD) as public providers of technical and vocational education pathways for post-secondary students from about the age of 16 onwards. We also recall that the quality assurance function and the associated national trade certification system was overseen by the Mauritius Qualifications Authority (MQA), with tertiary institutions being controlled by the quality assurance agency, which emerged from the now defunct Tertiary Education Commission.

We also note that in Parliament the Minister gave rousing commendations to both the newly created Polytechnics and the MITD (“…as for vocational training centres, they are under the MITD. They will get trained. The MITD is doing a wonderful job.”). There were no eyebrows raised either when the Skills Development Authority bill was enacted (2019) and the Minister referred to that Authority in equally glowing terms – “…the Skills Development Authority (SDA) will soon be set up. And the Skills Development Authority will have strategic policy objectives: the coordination and planning of the TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) sector, the identification of skills, sustainable financing mechanisms for TVET, regulation of skills development sector, improvement of partnership and coordination, amongst its stakeholders, that is, HRDC, MQA and the MITD.”

With the somewhat perplexing and unexpected separation of the Human Resource Development functions from Education, the ITET Bill now proposes nothing less than carving up the MITD into two halves, one under the purview of Education with six centers and the residual lot retained by Human Resource Development. The SDA one assumes is a now a lame duck, its functions being taken over effectively by ITET, creating another player in the somewhat congested field of post-secondary education and training. Is this new development conducive to greater coordination, planning and resource optimization in these days when greater fiscal responsibility rather than the mushrooming of Agencies and Institutions would be expected? We trust Ministers will clarify in the National Assembly.

* Published in print edition on 13 July 2021

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