A Tale of Two Cultures

It will be difficult to shed all the deadweight that has thus settled into the system. But shed we should,
in favour of a better performing culture

 

In an interview to Mauritius Times last week, Nikhil Treebhoohun of Oxford International Consultants (Mauritius), in answer to a question, gave a punch line: ‘We need a cultural revolution.’

The expression ‘cultural revolution’ brings back to mind all the economic and political instabilities which sprang up in the wake of a similarly named revolution launched by Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong way back in China in 1966. I am sure Nikhil Treebhoohun is not referring to a revolution of the sort, from whose setbacks to the country and to the economy Den Xiaoping had to strenuously labour as from 1976 to put China on a more balanced successful open course subsequently. The expression looks more like we’ve got an urgent need to change our course from a not-so-positive trend we’ve set ourselves on.

Despite having little or no natural resources, Mauritius successfully broke off from a past of economic apathy and social vulnerability. This transformation happened by dint of discipline, hard work and perseverance and also by luck when the global economy opened up to our international trade. An earnest culture of relentless endeavour in the face of constraints to our further development took firm roots in almost all compartments of our economic life. Public institutions led the way; the private sector took advantage of opportunities created. That, however, was to change course – for the worse.

At some stage, even as the economy was taking off, this kind of focus on well-set objectives and how to get to them started being diluted. The focus shifted towards more self-seeking, especially by those in power. After all, they needed to demonstrate that they controlled everything as from now. A ‘cultural revolution’ in reverse was taking hold of the country. As cronies started getting increasingly appointed to positions of responsibility, the standards of public institutions and their powers of enforcement upon those coming under their oversight, declined. Public accountability started taking a back seat. If not so, what can explain so many public bodies whose latest official accounts today date back to three years (see list in appendix to the latest Report of the Director of Audit), in some cases even worse? When the requirement is to produce audited accounts each year? What kind of signal does this send to others, e.g., in the private sector?

In the worst cases, cronies who were appointed to top positions in parastatal bodies (in replacement of past cronies) would camouflage bad decisions taken to please political string pullers. It is thus that after years of accumulation of poor performance in certain state-controlled financial institutions, huge amounts of bad debts needing to be written off accumulated and would surface up suddenly only when the past bad decision-makers were no longer in office.

The habit to give ill-advised loans to please politicians in power, or even on the latter’s recommendation, should have punched big holes into the financial soundness of the DBM. Not surprisingly, its very role needs now to be changed, from that of a finance provider to that of up keeping and maintaining industrial space, as stated in this year’s budget speech. Maybe that was also the reason SBM had to recast correctly its past years’ accounts recently. But the pot of money was already gone! Air Mauritius was not diminished in a single day or during one year; it has a history of misappropriation of funds – to the benefit of politicians, of all types and colours, religious, socio-cultural groups, etc. — going back to the times it was a symbol of national achievement.

Thus, instead of remaining the instruments by which new inroads are made against constraints to our economic growth, public institutions were increasingly “instrumentalised” by political wire-pullers and their “appointees” in them. Not many disciplined public servants would defy the gales blowing from this direction in the name of rigour and duty.

It is not that succeeding generations of public servants have proved to be less competent than their predecessors. They have been “made” less competent by the operation of political forces forcing public establishments to bend rules, to please their cronies, to overcome resistance, if necessary, by jettisoning officers out of their jobs if they are not “accommodating” enough to comply with “orders from high up”. Some would, under this new culture, even voluntarily go out of the way and do inept things, even embarrassing the politicians themselves, so as to “be in the good books” of the latter. The concerned public officials quickly understood that they would personally succeed the most by flattering political bosses – who cares if the institution gets undermined in the process? That is how many public services were quickly filled by sycophants and under-performers.

It should not be surprising then that state lands were allocated according to political alignments of the beneficiaries. That allocations of authorisations/permits were accelerated in some cases. But held back for years in other cases on flimsy grounds. That all this has led to widespread inefficiency and short term horizons in the public service. The want of a long term vision and its non-implementation as such mirrored the paralysis public servants had to face from overbearing politicians.

In the process, many state-owned enterprises not only appointed the wrong people at the top. Several of them were over-manned to the point of “transforming” performing institutions into loss-making units. In other cases, socio-cultural organisations pressured political parties in power to appoint their preferred choices to key public positions, not according to merits but on account of their social affiliations. The consequent accumulation of inefficiencies due to such appointments has withered the output of public institutions and blunted the efficiency with which they used to open up economic opportunities for the country.

The question one is inclined to ask is: are the continuous usurpations of power here to stay and go on undermining the performance of public institutions and, par ricochet, stand in the way of the creation of a more dynamic private sector economic base for the country? It is evident that the old process cannot continue without deeply hurting our resilience in the face of so many external challenges. It will be difficult to shed all the deadweight that has thus settled into the system. But shed we should, in favour of a better performing culture.

If we successfully transition back to a framework devoid of all the bad manners that have grafted on into the system, there is a possibility we’ll make it more enduringly. If we don’t, the cracks in the system will take upper hand, if they haven’t made deep inroads already. A culture change would be in favour of the country.

 

* Published in print edition on 5 August 2016

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