Identity Politics

Titbits

Any hopes for human improvement are better served by encouraging recognition of universal human interests than by pitting group against group in a zero-sum competition

Some years back, following a comment on the “rodère ek donère boute” syndrome present in our system, I had discussed the whole issue of identity politics. I wish to take up some of the arguments from that article which I consider relevant to this day because of the presence of an amalgam of the same factors: the explosive growth of social media and the increasing feeling of victimisation in a situation of rising inequality

Identity politics, which is altering the political discourse, has as its source the empowerment unleashed by the technologies of the 20th century: the liberalisation of the airways, for example, has given people a peep into others’ lives as well as other possibilities. People are fed up of accepting the choices made supposedly in their interest by those who are not one of theirs. In addition, the frustrations of a repressive working life fuel the need for a safety valve. People have become more socially conscious, and feel they have to refashion the democratic set-up their way. Instead of allowing social consensus to sustain its energy and develop as profoundly as it needs to, they find that the easiest way out is to fall back on themselves, or on the vested interest of various groups. Thereby they get trapped by the contradictions inherent in a plural society with its diverse communities.

These social tensions are shaping politics and we thus see the rise and consolidation of identity politics. Lucia Michelutti of the South Asia Centre calls it the “Vernacularisation of Democracy”, that is, identity or popular politics thrives when ideas and practices enter and transform domains of life like family life, caste, kinship, ethnicity and popular religion. Ethnic groups and castes increasingly become competitive, horizontal groups; their main demand is for social justice within the narrow terms of caste and community socio-economic uplift: Affirmative Action.

These new vernacular leaders often tend to pitch their message and policies and draw support from their own caste/communities rather than appeal across castes and communities. These groups use a variety of cultural resources such as the redefinition of their identity, myths of origin and heroic traditions to refashion their communities and reconfigure those who belong to their community. (All the inhabitants of an island cannot be considered as being of such a community; that will be cultural appropriation because that specific community had been redefined, with a grain of justification, in a specific rhetoric of frustrations and victimisation and uniquely entitled to reparation and redress.) The mobilisation strategies of rival groups contribute to competing ideas of social justice which create not only stronger caste and ethnic identities but legitimize low-level conflict and division.

Recently we have seen that the competition over State resources and for government posts has shaped what some groups think they are entitled to (their share of the gâteau national) and what they think other communities are having — a relatively greater share than what they deserve. Lies, damned lies and misleading statistics flourish. By focusing so much energy on a specific political agenda, practitioners of identity politics are just as closed-minded or exclusionary as those they claim are oppressing or marginalising their group. For example, the lack of opportunities and absence of mature meritocracy in both the public and private sectors should not be argued from the narrow perspective of communal or identity politics; but because it is the concern of every Mauritian we are allowing such an unfair and archaic system to continue.

The idea that an outsider could not possibly understand the problems or needs of a specific group creates more problems in the political arena and can take us to dangerous conclusions. The surprise is that we accept their vile ways, their hate mongering; we even encourage them by aligning ourselves with the group that most closely speaks for us. Francis Fukuyma (‘Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment’) argues that this is because in our multicultural cities of the 21st century we don’t live together, we live side-by-side, in neighbourhoods self-segregated by race, language, religion and ethnicity. Kwame Anthony Appiah (‘The lies that bind: Rethinking Identity’) explains it as such: “Identity is a lie that binds when we allow it to imprison us but equally it remains a lie when we suppose we’re free to choose our identities at will.” Both authors are convinced that any hopes for human improvement are better served by encouraging recognition of universal human interests than by pitting group against group in a zero-sum competition.

A structured process for nominating SOE boards

Effective corporate governance requires strong boards composed of qualified and competent members exercising objective and independent judgement to guide strategy development and monitor management. The key challenge in the nomination process of directors to State Owned Enterprises’ (SOEs’) boards is to prevent the process to degenerate into a situation characterized as “political influence interference”. The political interference goes either through the nomination process itself, involving a complex political negotiation among different government organs, or through direct nomination of political appointees. This is often identified as a main weakness of SOEs’ corporate governance, as too often boards are populated with people chosen for their political allegiance rather than business acumen.

The main way of restricting such governmental or political interference in the nomination of SOEs’ boards and increasing their independence and professionalism is to put in place a structured nomination process, making sure that the ultimate selection criterion is competency. Some countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Sweden, have set up such structured and clearly skill-based nomination systems. With or without a structured nomination process, a growing number of countries maintain databases of qualified candidates. They also increasingly rely on the professional services of recruitment agencies or on advisory bodies in government.

The key elements of a structured and transparent board nomination process of directors who are committed to the organization and possess skills, knowledge and other attributes needed in order for the board to effectively carry out its responsibilities include: 1. Professionalising the nomination process, 2. Developing clear selection criteria, and 3. Enhancing public scrutiny of results.

  1. Professionalising the nomination process

In many if not most countries, line ministries play a major role in the board nomination process. Many countries are taking steps to professionalise and streamline the nomination process to make it more merit-based by

(i)         Putting in place effective board recruitment and nominations process
(ii)        Involving an advisory body in the process
(iii)       Ensuring timely selection
(iv)       Issuing a letter of appointment
(v)        Organising orientation sessions

 

  1. Developing clear selection criteria

The board should link recruitment to its strategic plan. The strategic plan’s components are prioritised and the corresponding skills needs are identified. Thus by reviewing the organization’s strategic plan as well as the profile of current board’s strengths and weaknesses, the Nominations Committee identifies the gap between the skills and knowledge needed on the board, and what board directors currently possess. Based on this analysis, the Committee will have a skills profile for new directors. The Nominations Committee will then discuss the draft skills profile with the advisory body. Once the draft skills profile together with the position and person description are finalised and approved by the parent or shareholding Ministry, it will form the basis for a director search for board recruitment.

The advisory body will then take over and draw up an initial short-list of candidates by matching the requirements of the position with the skills and experience of the potential candidates from the pool of potential directors in its database, from the pool of private sector talent that can be tapped for SOE boards and from representatives of a wider range of stakeholder groups. It is from this list that the shareholding ministry will be recruiting the suitable candidate(s) for the SOE board.

  1. c) Ensuring public disclosure and scrutiny

Greater professionalism and transparency can be achieved by increasing public disclosure of the nomination process of the final appointments. Full disclosure on the website of the shareholding Ministries of the nominations procedure and the experience and background of selected candidates will allow the public and stakeholders to assess the suitability and independence of each candidate.

With this more professional approach in the nomination of SOE boards as established by this process which is supported and supervised by the advisory body, there is a greater possibility of achieving competent and qualified boards.

* * *

The Economic Development Board: Which role?

Some recent press reports have highlighted the teething problems the Economic Development Board (EDB) is facing to clearly define its role of strategic economic planning and economic policy formulation. Many countries have likewise set up EDBs to provide advice to their governments in the formulation of policies, programmes and projects for the country’s long-term development and economic transformation. The difference with the Mauritian EDB is that in these countries it is exclusively dedicated to supporting the country’s development strategy and policies, and is not an a mixed bag of various agencies involved in all sorts of promotion and facilitation activities. In our previous writings we had raised the issue of our hotchpotch EDB saddled with too many objectives.

The EDB should have opted either for investment promotion and facilitation or for national economic strategy and policy advice. Our idea of a more viable EDB was that of a dedicated broad-based Strategic Policy Unit (SPU), under the aegis of the Prime Minister’s office to support an independent Economic Advisory Council and an independent Business Consultative Group. The role and scope of the SPU was to be an effective strategic think thank that would provide leadership in the formulation and implementation of structural reform policies and programmes. The role of the SPU in strategic policy making was to be further reinforced by (a) tapping economic expertise from a broad cross-section of economic experts in academia, the private sector, and other independent institutions like the Bank Mauritius, and (b) engaging in a consultative process and a fruitful dialogue with business and the private sector on major economic and social issues.

The setting up of an independent Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister could serve objective (a) above – tapping economic expertise from various sources while an independent Business Consultative Group could support objective (b) above – engaging in a consultative process. The SPU would provide the secretariat to both bodies. Over the longer term, the SPU would have relied on more in-depth policy research and analysis. A specialised and independent think tank, such as a Centre for Development Policy, was to be established later to undertake fundamental research and analysis of economic and policy issues, funded by Government, Bank of Mauritius, and other specialized international agencies. An Economic Committee of the Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister, comprising key ministries such as Finance, Industry and Commerce, Trade, with the SPU acting as its secretariat, was also proposed to help in proper policy coordination and alignment of sectoral policies with national strategic goals.

Another similar proposal was an Economic Affairs Unit (EAU)

Economic Affairs Unit- Proposed Structure

The EAU was to be the “high-level think tank” of Government. It was expected to ensure horizontal policy coherence across Ministries/Departments and the private sector to achieve a nexus approach to development. The National Advisory Committee was to act as an independent consultative body with different stakeholders, including civil society. It would have served the objectives of tapping expertise from a broad cross-section of the Mauritian society by engaging in policy dialogues on current and emerging socio-economic-environmental issues.

The latter proposal was aligned to the Singaporean model where national economic strategy plans are developed by special committees set up by the Prime Minister and chaired jointly by the Ministers of Finance and of Trade and Industry, with the participation of other ministers — for instance, a Committee on the Future Economy convened in January 2016 to develop economic strategies for the next decade. Around 9000 stakeholders were consulted in this process. The Committee submitted its report to the PM in Feb 2017. National economic strategy and planning in Singapore is fully driven by government on the basis of broad public consultations.

Too bad that, since the time of the tandem Mansoor/Sithanen, the Ministry of Finance has not succeeded in overcoming its allergy to the emergence of a rival ministry or agency manned by high calibre economists — not accountants — involved in the formulation and the monitoring of policies and programmes. Both proposals were torpedoed yet again.


* Published in print edition on 19 October 2018

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