Government of national unity: ‘A most indecent proposal’

Interview: Sheila Bunwaree

* ‘The middle class is rapidly thinning down. The low- or no-income group is also expanding, reflecting new forms of poverty and inequality’

* ‘The official policy stand of 5 credits constitutes yet another mechanism of exclusion. The thousands of children pushed to the margins of society represents a huge waste of our human capital’

Sheila Bunwaree, one of the MMM’s leading voices, responsible for coordinating their 2019 manifesto and a respected academic, needs no presentation. We thought it useful for our readers to get her articulate views on various topics of current interest and broader issues regarding our development during and post-pandemic, the pains and sufferings of the middle and lower income categories and the psyche of those running affairs of government on our behalf. She minces no words and should give readers food for thought.

Mauritius Times: In the midst of everything that was happening in the country these last few weeks, we have been served with a snapshot of the leaders of the MSM and Labour Party in conversation at a reception. This led to speculations about an imminent national unity government, which was subsequently rubbished by the leaders of the opposition. What’s your take on that?

Sheila Bunwaree: If people think that a snapshot is some kind of precursor to the formation of a national unity government, then we are really doomed. It reflects the paucity of thinking and the lack of political acumen within certain sections of society. What is more important to my mind, is to ask ourselves, why would anyone who commands self-respect and who is serious and sincere about his or her engagement in politics, wish to see and/or join a government of national unity, accommodating members of the current regime – a regime which is marked by ineptitude, scandals, multiple alleged cases of corruption, opacity, profligacy and arrogance.

How can one possibly envisage a government of national unity with people who refuse to understand the ins and outs of the growing polarisation of our society, who refuse to listen and to act when more than 150,000 people take to the streets. A government of national unity is a most indecent proposal in the current circumstances. To me, it is an unpalatable scenario and will only do more harm to the country.

* In light of the challenges facing the country due to the Covid pandemic, especially those on the economic front, wouldn’t a national unity government create the conditions for a less adversarial political climate, which would be necessary in the present circumstances for economic recovery?

It is true that a less adversarial climate can perhaps assist in creating more time and space to address the complex challenges we are confronted with. But with the personality types of a good number of those at the helm of the country, no serenity can be achieved by joining forces with them. Quite a few represent all that is reprehensible and unethical.

The critical juncture that the country is at right now, demands that we have a team which is truly concerned by the suffering of the people, which has the ability to propose and implement a new ‘projet de société’ — one which allows the nation to breathe on the social, political, cultural and economic front. History is replete with examples of national unity governments, with the latter often arising in times of war or in post-conflict societies, in search of some form of reconciliation. True, we are at war with the pandemic and its economic spillovers but it would be impossible to reinvent the economy by sitting at the same table with those very people who are insidiously perpetuating the war by the choice and adoption of wrong policies.

The war of the 70% or so, who did not vote this government, is a war against poverty, oppression, social injustice, gender inequality, the destruction of the environment, money politics, autocratic rule, institutional decay, waste and absence of meritocracy – in short, a war against bad governance.

Economic recovery requires that we take bold and courageous decisions and adopt a right policy mix to attract FDIs, encourage sound investments, the creation of productive and environment friendly jobs, addressing our rapidly growing public debt, put a brake to the erosion of our purchasing power, encourage export competitiveness and create genuine opportunities for small entrepreneurs.

There is enough evidence that the incumbent government is looking in a different direction altogether; so, forming a national unity government would mean legitimising the ongoing toxic politics. Mauritius deserves much better.

* The emergence of new strains of the coronavirus suggests that the current uncertainty about the pandemic might persist for quite some time and that it might continue to impact negatively on the economy. It would seem tourism is not, as it was expected, picking up and things do not look bright for other sectors as well. What are your feelings about what could be the most likely scenario over the short/medium term?

Our economy is in dire straits – a debt to GDP ratio well above the official figure of 95% according to a number of experts as well as a number of other macroeconomic fundamentals in the red. Given these conditions, there is no doubt that the emergence of new strains of the coronavirus will bring more uncertainty.

That said, we should not put all our economic distress on the pandemic’s back. The current regime’s inability to remove its blinkers, to shake off its complacency and to stop living in fantasy land is mind-boggling. No reasonable person with a minimal understanding of the tourism and travel industry in a context of a pandemic, would suggest that tourism will pick up fast enough to allow Mauritius to receive some 650,000 tourists in this financial year. Anyone with an iota of intelligence would know that it would take at least a couple of years for the tourism industry to go back to some kind of normality. So, you are right; tourism is not picking up. And sadly, other pillars of the economy are also paining to revive.

Getting off the FATF and EU grey list remains a challenge for the offshore and financial services sector. The blue economy remains underdeveloped. Efforts to redynamise our export competitiveness in the textile and other sectors remains thin; free trade areas such as the Africa continental free trade area, the Chinese free trade area and the CECPA- Mauritius-India trade agreements are not being optimised.

SMEs have taken a severe blow and very little is offered by way of genuine opportunities and this while the MIC continues to privilege a handful of cronies and others close to the corridors of power. Listening to the small planters makes one realise how alarming the situation is in the agricultural sector. Being heavily dependent on food imports with some 80% of our food requirements coming from overseas, raises important questions around food security. On the other hand, the pandemic has certainly shown us that ICT and digital technology will drive the economy of the future but we remain insufficiently prepared.

Sadly, the scenario for the short and medium term seems rather bleak. Economic recovery takes a long time and unless you have the right mindset and the predisposition to consult with relevant stakeholders, and the competence to formulate and implement the right policies, it would be impossible to see the economy grow to a reasonable level in the next couple of years.

* What is also a matter of concern is the direct impact of the pandemic on the cost of living for the middle- and low-income groups. Wage assistance and higher old-age pensions, courtesy of the Lepep government, have most probably mitigated its impact on most Mauritian households, but the former is almost over now. What’s going to happen to these people?

That the wage assistance scheme and higher old-age pensions acted as a buffer and helped a number of households cope with the immediate impacts of the pandemic cannot be denied. But what now?

The pains of a continuous rise in the cost of living are taking their toll on various segments of society. Those who were part of the upper middle class are beginning to swell the ranks of the lower middle and poorer classes. The middle class is rapidly thinning down. The low- or no-income group is also expanding, reflecting new forms of poverty and inequality. People are having to readjust their consumption patterns often at the cost of their health.

Some people have even reported eating only one meal a day and at times even going to bed hungry. Increasing numbers of people are bound to become victims to the violence of inequality and other poverty related problems. Many of those people will be left in the lurch.

* Speaking of old-age pensions, you would surely have learnt from social conversations that Mauritians across most social strata are looking forward to their Rs13,500 benefits as promised by the government. And that’s probably going to be a convincing argument for the “homo economicus” – who acts rationally and seeks to maximize personal satisfaction – when the time comes…

There is no space for the traditional economic man anymore- no economic modelling and rationality seems to work anymore. No economic pundit can claim to know what will happen exactly.

The idea that human beings are rational creatures and that daily living conditions can be assessed by the use of some mathematical formulas cannot be seen as acceptable any more. Economics need to be humanised. No argument can be convincing anymore.

We know too well that the Rs 13,500 promised to the elderly was an electoral bribe and where is the rationality in all of this when a mere Rs375 compensation could not be paid to the elderly? Whose personal satisfaction will we be able to address in the future seems like a legitimate question?

* On the education front, there has been much debate regarding SC results and the official policy stand of 5 credits. As an educationist, do you think this is truly good for our country and our children?

It makes no sense to reduce educational policy-making to the question of exams and results only. The official policy stand of 5 credits constitutes yet another mechanism of exclusion. The thousands of children pushed to the margins of society represents a huge waste of our human capital and therefore a big loss to the economy- an economy whose demographics are already showing us that the worker-pensioner ratio is on the decline. This coupled with a fall in fertility and the persistent brain drain does not augur well for the nation’s productivity.

Socially, we are sitting on a time bomb with so many young people disoriented and no jobs to go to. A thorough rethink of our education system is required for post pandemic Mauritius and the shaping of a ‘new normal’. The latter has to be built on greater inclusiveness, equity and social justice.

* We hear many people saying what’s the point of allowing the ‘weaker’ students with less than 5 credits to move on to HSC when the PSC’s minimum requirement for joining the public service is for 5 credits at SC with English and other qualifications. Should we lower the standard for the sake of those who do not make the effort or for one reason or the other are unable to make it?

It is important to remember that not everyone intends to join the public service but more importantly, isn’t it time to revisit the requirements needed by the PSC?

There are so many people with diverse talents which unfortunately go unrecognised. I do not wish to partake in this most illogical reasoning around the 5 credits issue and which is, for that matter, also void of any form of justice whatsoever.

The argument that the 5-credit bar is reflective of high standards and a culture of effort is nonsensical. Research shows that there are alternative ways of evaluating people than a mere 2-hour exams paper. True, there may be a few students making insufficient effort but we cannot penalise hundreds of others who are often the victims of a highly discriminatory and oppressive system of education.

* There is also the issue of so many of our students falling out of the system at an early age, and this raises the question of whether we are getting enough return on our investments in education and training. What do you think?

Investing time and money in education is an investment in human capital. But when we have a system which fails such a high percentage of our children, turning them into illiterates and/or young delinquents: we are certainly not getting adequate returns on our investments. The latter constitute a major chunk of our national budgets but any cost benefit analysis will show that the system remains highly inefficient.

We cannot go on with ‘business as usual’ with almost no accountability and no one to take responsibility for a system which is failing the nation. For all these reasons and what I evoked earlier, there is an urgent need for ‘les assises de l’education”

* Are the other pathways and opportunities created for those not performing well in the traditional exams sufficient?

Certain people argue that the polytechnics and MITD training centres constitute alternative pathways and opportunities for those who do not meet the minimum criteria set to access HSC. When we look at the numbers of places that exist in the polytechnics and the numbers that are pushed out of the mainstream system, there seems to be a disjuncture.

In addition to this problem, we must ask ourselves why is it that many of the young people do not see the alternative training and pathways offered as an opportunity? Is it a lack of appropriate communication about what is offered, do they feel ill-equipped to deal with subjects and fields that they have never been exposed to at schools, are they imbued with the idea that technical training and education is for second-class citizens, or are they simply aspiring to be part of an academic elite and think that given a chance, they will be able to make it through their HSC and attend a traditional university since university requirements across the world have relaxed entry requirements?

Are the technical schools/centres catering for the disabled who are not performing well in the traditional academic framework? Is there a gender dimension to the embracement of technical schooling? Judging by the huge gender gaps on the enrollment figures available for the MITD, one can easily conclude that there are important subtle discriminatory mechanisms which are stifling opportunity for girls.

There are so many more questions which remain unanswered. Sustainable Development Goal 4 of the 17 SDGs established by the United Nations speaks of ‘ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Are the so-called alternative pathways helping towards meeting this goal?

Clearly this is a sector which demands further research and from there on we can perhaps hone our educational/technical training policy making more effectively. But if we carry on investing in new technical institutions and developing legislative frameworks to justify their creation, we are simply putting the cart before the horse.

* Another major challenge is that as small highly vulnerable island state we will be increasingly subjected to climate change. Do you think our development paradigm will respond to the climate change challenge?

Based on ‘unsustainable’consumption and production practices, our current economic model is detrimental to the environment and ecology and therefore leaves little room for the curbing of climate change.

A few announcements have been made in the last budget as regards the green economy, and that coal would be phased out by 2030, that some 60% of the country’s energy requirements would supposedly come from renewables. That’s all very good. I cannot but wait to see all these measures being implemented.

Legal and regulatory frameworks such as the recent climate change bill, for instance, are not enough, there needs to be a change in mindset. The sustainability of the environment is too often mistakenly thought to compete with economic development and if that persists, we shall see the continued destruction of our forests, marine pollution, soil erosion, water stresses, etc., all of which exacerbating human induced climate change.

We also need to educate our citizens regarding sustainability and sustainable development, get them used to the 3 Rs- Reduce, Recycle and Reduce as well as know more about adaptation and mitigation measures. We should perhaps inspire ourselves from Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics model and Parta Dasgupta’s ‘economics of biodiversity’; only then will we be equipped to start embedding Nature in our development model and embrace a new paradigm. Another good starting point would be inscribing the Rights of Nature in our Constitution.

* Published in print edition on 27 August 2021

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