With the best of goodwill and solidarity, we should be able once again to make it to another round of economic and social progress. It’s in everybody’s interest
Compared with quite some countries which became independent around the same time, Mauritius has evolved positively during the past several decades. At the time of independence, we had to cope with a situation of nearly one in four working age population being unemployed.
Our range of economic production was very limited. Living conditions, including housing, were at a very elementary level for the majority of the population. Average working skills were rudimentary. The physical infrastructure (buildings, public roads, electricity, water supply) was good enough but not sufficiently strong to support the sustained expansion of the economy.
All this has improved considerably over the past five decades. Only roughly one out of ten working age population is unemployed today. The economy has diversified. Instead of the commonly thatched habitations of those olden days, most people live in better-conditioned concrete houses today. Numerous households members have pursued tertiary education, with quite some of them in the science and technology fields. Roads, telecoms, technology equipment and cars have invaded almost every nook and corner of the island. Our GDP has multiplied three to four hundred fold in nominal terms what it was in the beginning and has been growing positively, albeit at a slower pace over the last decade.
In simple words, there has taken place a dramatic improvement in our economic and social outlook. We are a modern society and hold an ambition to be seen as a progressive society at the global level. There’s not an iota of doubt that this positive transformation is the result of a careful, poised and forward-looking leadership of the country.
An example of successful leadership
When new projects come to life, the public is seen singing praise in favour of politicians without whom, it is said, the projects would not have come to fruition. Politicians tend to be glorified for whatever little or major progress we make on one front or another. No doubt, they deserve some credit for such projects having come to life but a number of other contributors bring their own inputs into the edifice.
When the challenge looked almost insuperable – such as in the immediate post-independence days – there emerged a generation of decision-makers (leaders) who made the transformation of Mauritius possible. Not only there emerged strong political leaders who were true ‘conviction politicians’ matching in their drive, imagination and committed endeavours the challenge imposed by conditions at that time. There also emerged administrators of the highest calibre who did not leave a stone unturned to improve the state of the country with whatever limited means they had at hand. They employed their skills to maximize the state’s contribution to social and economic progress by efficiently allocating the little amount of resources we had at our disposal.
The administrators were joined by economic entrepreneurs who had faith enough in the future of the country to invest in challenging new projects. Social leaders (including those who were our teachers), who had learnt from the experience of other countries, also inspired the people to ride over the low tide which was our lot at the time. The politician and the social worker often combined to get to the desired good outcome for all. Opportunities multiplied.
All leaders of society bounced ideas together to lift us up in one common effort, despite persistent political, ideological and cultural differences of distinct members of our society. It is the collective effort of all of these – the political, economic, administrative (of which the judiciary is but one part) and social leadership which have come together all the way to shape and hold up our prospects for the future. All these forces have collectively constituted the true leadership of the country. So, what we are today is the result of this collective leadership – good at times and not so good at others, but overall progressive.
An example of unsuccessful leadership
A counter-example of bad leadership in the current world is obtained from what were called the Arab Spring – people wanting to free themselves from the grips of long-standing dictators – involving a revolution without leadership. Everybody can see the chaos it has brought about, even pitching at the end of the day, the world’s most powerful countries against each other in some sort of an undeclared and insidious war.
A similar state of confusion has the last week gripped economies the world over with growing fears the world economy might tip into another severe downturn, worse than what we saw in 2008. This time with China not in the role of a potential saviour of the world economy as was then the case, but as a trigger of a new wave of instability in global economic conditions, possibly involving unmanageable indebtedness of domestic borrowers.
The latest manifestation of this phenomenon has been the New Year’s disruption of financial markets, starting with steep falls in stock prices in Shanghai. The panic caused by Chinese slowdown, and the uncertain pickup of economies in the West, have spread out to other global markets. It is estimated to have wiped out over 4 trillion dollars in the past year from global share values – and not yet finished. Competitive currency devaluations and potential disinflation (inflation going into negative territory) have made their appearance as the new threats to global economic stability.
Let alone the social instability springing out of the current Middle East crisis, showing up in mass migration at the risk of life of the migrants towards the calmer shores of Europe. Global leadership at both the political and economic levels has been so lacking in consistency that hardly anyone appears to have a clue today how and when the world will get out of such man-made instability embracing so many nations all at once.
Options for Mauritius
As an open economy, all this global instability increases our economic vulnerability. But we have a track record of having overcome hurdles standing in the way of our economic well-being in the past.
In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a national consensus to the structural economic and social transformation that was to be our new berth. Politicians may have shouted adverse slogans but, at the end of the day, they did not deny rallying around the realism of the global order. Solutions to our problems were innovative and imaginative. Institutions were allowed to work with the best of skills we had at the time. Administrators not only emulated the best among the lot – and there was no dearth of brilliant public servants from within the Establishment. They were also dispassionate enough to pursue superior goals without diluting them for personal security.
At the political level, the focus was not on bringing down political rivals, but to join efforts to drive up excellent diplomatic outcomes for our collective economic betterment. We got the markets. We got the products to ship to them. We maintained productivity and competitiveness. We earned – not detracted from – international respect for ourselves as we succeeded in that uphill battle.
That’s how our economic scope was expanded, a foundation for social stability and political development. We didn’t look to our law courts to find solutions to never-ending disputes. We didn’t see in the judiciary the main lever of power; there were several other important decision centres to take the country forward. Nor did we find all wrong on either side of the political fence. Political leaders proved dignified, compromising and resourceful. There was no such craving for one-upmanship. We could renew with this dignified pursuit instead of trivializing politics – and, with it, the uplift of the social, economic and administrative Establishment.
Even if we don’t currently have all the resources, we could aim to prioritize the longer term as from now. Some sort of a pragmatism managing the national agenda in a world which is at competition with us is needed – with leaders who produce real outcomes and communicate not so as to belittle others but rather to rally around them the brightest of talent and motivation we could garner. This is going to be a daunting task for a country like Mauritius which is lagging behind on several fronts, one of which is applied technology, another the lack of definition of an optimal use of our lands to safeguard a food self-sufficiency objective for the country.
With the best of goodwill and solidarity, we should be able once again to ride over our accumulated shortcomings and make it to another round of economic and social progress. It’s in everybody’s interest.
* Published in print edition on 15 January 2016