Each year brings its own lot. It will be so too for 2012. Last week, we drew attention to the generally weak stance of global economic and political management. This has landed us in a period of great uncertainty that will no doubt impact on the outlook of Mauritius next year.
Despite the possibility of very slow growth, or even recession, showing up in some of the bigger markets of the world in 2012, the price of oil has soared and remains at a high level price of above 100 dollars a barrel. This will make it harder for the world economy to steer clear out of the present downturn. Should economic conditions continue to worsen – as can be presumed not only from the sagging economies in the West but as well from the emerging economies on which a lot of hope had rested for pulling out everybody from the prevailing gloom -, Mauritius will have to struggle against impending hardship. Economic difficulties will then get translated into some amount of social distress, especially among the most vulnerable.
Our exports of goods and services will face the pressure of falling demand in our traditional markets, given the current international perspective. There are signs already that the order book for our textile sector has thinned down in the foreseeable future. Tourists are still coming in sufficiently good numbers to Mauritius but there is no guarantee that the flow will continue in the same way during the rest of the year.
On the other hand, despite the atmosphere of instability nurtured by recurrent threats to drive out the most favourable clauses of the India-Mauritius double tax avoidance treaty, our financial sector has resisted so far. It has kept contributing its fair share to the economy. Dark clouds are again looming on this horizon and, at this stage, it is not quite clear whether Indian officials are still keen to undermine the very attractiveness of the treaty and thus dry up all the capital flows going to India through the Mauritius route. Mauritius has sustained this positive flow of capital to India over decades despite all the odds. By constantly putting the blame on Mauritius for having succeeded so well to send capital to India, seeds of instability have no doubt been sown already. Were good sense to prevail, finally, by respecting arrangements in place, our financial sector can look forward to continue doing what best it has been doing for so many years to the mutual benefit of the two countries.
There are dark clouds on different economic fronts. In spite of this situation, however, we should be able to preserve the momentum of growth and employment. The pace of consumption will have to slow down to acknowledge that we are no longer operating in the moods of euphoria that prevailed before 2007. We may also exploit the occasion to improve our productivity for global markets. Overall, we should put in place strategies to steer carefully through the foreseeable conditions of depressed demand for our goods and services.
No new sectors of activity have emerged during past years that could have helped us make good the slack affecting existing pillars of the economy beset by adverse developments in traditional markets. Our operators have not been able to build up enough ties with alternative regional markets so far. Some of these are still growing despite the persistence of the international crisis. We don’t appear to have given ourselves the opportunity to examine in depth and identify the factors that have kept us from tying up with them. Work needs to be done so as to overcome the constraints which stand in the way of enlarging concretely our economic space, by interacting more enduringly with nearby places that hold out a promise of further growth.
As we change the centre of gravity of our external market action, we should put ourselves in a position to generate enough scope to insulate the economy from its excessive, unipolar dependence on the West at the moment. There is an effort to make to reach out to new places and more products. Consider France Telecom’s highly profitable investment in our telecoms. It has been able to make this investment here because it has a technology edge over us. The French company is making money not only by providing our telecoms the technology it did not have; it may now be making even more money by selling other devices on our market that are more highly profitable. This became possible after it anchored itself in our milieu. In a similar fashion, we can explore other markets and products after developing this sort of technological edge and relationship.
Our teaching and training should give to our enterprises a similar cutting edge over others, in the manner of France Telecom. The education and training establishments will serve our objectives better if they could help bring up in Mauritius path-breaking down-to-earth patent seekers rather than merely more professors. A shift in this direction should extend our social and economic horizons beyond the present. We have been bringing up in this country quite a number of economists, managers, accountants and lawyers on the workplace. So far so good – but we need to get out of them a critical mass of deep thinkers who can form part of strategic teams to push out the production potential of our economy. The quicker we address this deficit, the more our workforce is likely to remain focused at a deeper level so as to drive our development in time to come. Future progress on all points will depend on the extent to which all can transcend the threshold of banality which appears to have seized a good part of the population. Much of the population’s daily discourse points to the prevalence of this kind of banality across the board. There are heated discussions every day on diverse topics, a lot of them concerning political positioning, but they nearly always end up short of finding a way out of the rut of low performance. A number of reports on different subjects are produced, but they give rise to no concrete action with enduring general benefits and a brighter future to look forward to.
Everyone wants to become richer or go higher up in social rank as fast as possible but by exerting the minimum effort, such as by winning at lotteries. Everyone wants to get one step ahead of the other one, irrespective of whether such one-upmanship is based at all on one’s intrinsic merits. As values are eroded in the process, this cheap attitude will continue to undermine men and institutions. We have to act before this tendency develops into a dangerous culture of least effort across the spectrum.
An intelligent, loyal and deeply motivated public administration proved to be the bedrock on which overhauling critical improvements to our society and its production structures have been founded since after independence. The public servants who were then in charge were committed to progress; they were disciplined, outspoken and they operated with a deep sense of duty that knew no bounds. They wanted to excel in all they undertook. They identified goals to be achieved with a lot of wisdom. They acted in concert with each other and implemented well thought-out long-haul initiatives for the good of the country as a whole and not for wasting public resources, by reversing the day before’s decisions the next day if this was warranted. Not surprisingly, it is they who launched several new development ideas, even if that also meant challenging the set views of the politicians of those times.
Most of the dedicated public administrators of this period have left the service and their successors have not been up to the level to deliver to the country what it needed as the situation changed. This is partly the consequence of political and socio-cultural meddling, serving to dilute sharply the sense of mission that the public service initially had. It is not surprising that strategic public sector decisions have not been forthcoming for so many years. We can get back a breed of risk-taking public administrators, working in broad cohesion with each other by the force of ideas, only if this sort of wasteful meddling of putting square pegs in round holes were to stop altogether. There is an urgency to act on this front; the sooner this is attended to, the more quickly there will come a public administration team having the intellectual capacity to drive out perfectly adapted concrete agendas for the future.
In its relatively short history, Mauritius has shown that it has the potential to overcome its worst handicaps. The country has a rule-of-law environment and some of its institutions will not allow themselves to be led astray by personal interests. This is a strength on which we can build up more effectively in these difficult times – provided there is support at the highest levels, such support being based on a sense of shared values, common vision and destiny. There is no doubt that we are beset by an unfavourable external environment. Complaining about it will not take us too far. We ought to be doing more. We ought to be raising our sights beyond daily palavers and trivia. We ought to be opening up further and entrusting responsibility to those most capable and genuinely committed to bringing back the optimism that used to be ours not too far back. Mauritius can do much better than what it has done so far, no matter how daunting the current situation. Let us have faith in our own abilities to begin with.
* Published in print edition on 31 December 2011