Bringing back the “Sustainable” in the “Development” narrative

2015 has been marked by a reckless obsession with economic growth, mega-projects, unrealistic job creation targets and a get-rich quickly philosophy. As a result, government policies have been characterised by narrowly-focused, incremental, management-by-crisis, and disjointed development approaches. They are totally incompatible with effective sustainable development policies based on low-carbon climate resilient strategies that take into account economic objectives as well as environmental and social imperatives.

Agreed: we have to admit that sustainable development is easier defined than implemented. The translation of sustainability principles into specific environmental management objectives still remains fraught with theoretical and practical problems, despite more than three decades of international summits, meetings, conventions, agreements and protocols. But, following worldwide trends and pressure from the international community, the concept of sustainable development had started to make noticeable inroads into our national development policy-making process.

We were slowly learning to overcome the theoretical and practical problems hindering the translation of sustainability principles into specific sustainable development objectives. Parliamentarians, in particular, were trying to become more focused in their efforts to do what is right for the environment. In fact, under the previous regime, the government put in place a “Maurice Ile Durable” project that was aimed at changing the way we do business. It did not, unfortunately, move beyond sloganeering due to weak leadership and poor capacity.

Rather than improving upon something that was already acquired, this government decided to dismantle the whole apparatus (while maintaining the carbon tax which has been conveniently filling up the coffers). No attempt was made to replace it with a more effective mechanism.

2015 has, thus, seen a very confused lot taking charge of the destiny of our nation. Our Labour Minister wants to shut out foreign workers from the IT sector in the short-term, but our own Mr Smart City wants to bring in 200, 000 foreigners to fill up “cities” that are meant to act smart with the help of technology.

On the one hand, a half-baked “smart city” scheme has witnessed the mushrooming of projects (17 at the last count) as if we had unlimited land resources while, on the other hand, we are begging the international community to recognise our vulnerable “small state” status and to grant privileges accordingly (including a whopping USD 5.5 billion to help adapt to, and mitigate, climate change).

This was bound to happen because government not only decided to over-rely on a couple of “super-advisers” but also put the private sector in the driver’s seat of national development planning. Are you therefore still wondering why now we are being told that we have to think in terms of “Smart Mauritius” or why there should be a rapid bus transit route serving Port Louis-Ebene-St Pierre corridor?

Political imperatives will surely continue to determine the development agenda to a large extent in 2016. However, some serious course-correction will have to be effected urgently, and the sooner the better for various and obvious reasons.

Mauritius, by virtue of its size, geography and history, is considered extremely vulnerable to climate change, and has thus acknowledged climate change as the greatest threat to its development potential. It has, therefore, firmly committed itself to adapt to, and mitigate, the impacts of changing climate. The days of empty promises are gone and the Paris Agreement holds nations more accountable and, when it comes into force, there will be a reporting system in place that will help to monitor each country’s efforts to stick to its promised reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

The government will also have to reckon with an increased wave of environmental awareness taking root in Mauritius, as the signs of environmental crises become more visible. If government does not change its course, then hopefully public pressure will become so intense as to force government to bring about the paradigm shift we have all been waiting for.

To enable this paradigm shift to occur, government must reclaim the vital functions that it has abdicated to the powerful industrial-business-land developer lobby. Big landowners and property developers constitute key partners in development, but should not become the drivers. Only government can safeguard the national stock of “environmental goods” as neither business nor personal interests can effectively ensure the sustainable use of resources.

Furthermore, only government can arbitrate the conflicts that arise between economic growth and the need to preserve resources for the common good. In the process of arbitration, only government, not the private sector, can ensure a fair participation of all stakeholders in the decision-making process that determines trade-offs between one set of goals and another, bearing in mind that the environment is a resource that belongs to all of us and to present and future generations.

Should the use of a beach (as a scare resource) continue to be determined by the political apparatus, parties lobbying for vested interests and government bureaucracy, or should it be preserved because of its greater material value to society at large? Decisions regarding trade-offs between private gains and greater public good should involve all stakeholders.

To be able to usher in an era of “inclusive” growth, government will have to do away with its over-reliance on a few “super advisers”. There are lots of qualified people around who are all too willing to help in making Mauritius a better place to live. They should not be shunned. They constitute essential capacity that will help Government to bring back the “sustainable” in its development agenda. 2015 has witnessed the spread of mediocrity in much of the public sector, The promotion of one-stop shops has not helped either: these have reduced the professional to a mere rubber-stamp as s/he is unable to undertake vital due-diligence that feeds into good decision-making.

Let’s hope 2016 will inspire government and the public sector to reclaim their vital roles in the sustainable development of the country.

 

* Published in print edition on 15 January 2016

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