Mauritius is simultaneously weak because of its size and strong because of its proven ability to adapt and survive in the face of challenges — By Rajiv Servansingh
Musings in the context of 50th anniversary of independence
Independence and the Economic Miracle: The celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Independence on 12 March 2018 have already started as some official events are already being placed in the context of this momentous occasion for the Mauritian nation. No doubt and hopefully so, as we approach the date there will be increasing debates about the many issues which we have successfully dealt with during this past half century as well as the ones where there is still much more to be done.
The economic transformation of the country from a colonial model of a plantation economy — one based on mass production of agricultural products for exports to the metropolis for further transformation — into a diversified economic base has been praised by many international institutions and was famously touted as an economic miracle in a well-documented IMF Working Paper (2001) by Arvind Subramanian and Devesh Roy entitled ‘Who Can Explain The Mauritian Miracle: Meade, Romer, Sachs, or Rodrik?’ Significantly enough in their conclusion the authors state:
“Mauritius in the 1970s was offered the choice between access at the then high world price with limited quotas and access at a lower domestic EU price but with higher guaranteed quotas. Many countries chose the former attracted by the high price prevailing at that time. Mauritius chose the latter. The larger quantitative access, combined with the pressure from domestic EU producer’s lobby which raised domestic EU prices, handed Mauritius high rents, which proved to be vital in financing private investment and generating growth.”
If we take the liberty of citing such a lengthy quote from the above document, it is because it incontestably represents the single most credible and verifiable explanation of our famous “economic miracle”. Furthermore this stands testimony to two characteristics of the “Mauritian experience”, which have contributed to our success through this period and which are unfortunately fast fading from our governance practice.
The first of these is of course political leadership. If Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam rightly deserves the title of the ‘father of the nation’, it is because he led the Independence Party which won the decisive elections of 7 August 1967, and also because he was the Head of Government who ultimately made this critical and decisive choice described by Subramanian and Roy.
The second, which is again related to political leadership, concerns the process of decision-making which led to that fateful choice. Only a few years after the owners of the sugar estates and the large planters had largely (not unanimously) supported the anti-independence movement, the Government did not scoff at engaging with them in a necessary dialogue which provided the guiding principles that informed the negotiation process with the European Union.
In fact in this collaboration one can trace the origins of the famous Public-Private Sector Partnership which was a unique institution among the newly independent African nations that largely accounts for the economic success of our country. The credit for initiating this process largely goes to SSR.
Independence and Nation Building: We are not aware of any other instance in any country where public opinion leaders are so obsessed with the concept of nation-building — more often to decry the purported “absence” of a national identity even 50 years after independence — except perhaps in the case of Lebanon. Such a view is primarily explained by the still strong bonds of “communal” solidarity which seems to exist between different sections of the population, loosely based on religious and/or cultural appurtenance.
As we approach the 50th anniversary celebrations, we expect these views to be expressed even more frequently. The holders of such a view are of course entitled to their opinions as long as their expression remains within the confines of democratic debates in the country.
In opposition to this view, there exists a postulate according to which a Mauritian nation does exist to the extent that the people of this country share a common larger destiny under the aegis of a State which has jurisdiction over the geographically defined territory of Mauritius. In such a view, the dynamics of nation building do not function in an abstract conception of “one people and one nation” but in the commonality of experience of everyday life. While diversity is celebrated as a founding strength, the development of common and shared universal values of equality, sharing and peaceful coexistence becomes the leitmotiv of the permanent nation-building process.
Which one or its close variant of the above definitions one adopts is not only an academic or intellectual choice. It determines our larger view of the desired future for our country as well as our stand on a number of issues such as, critically, electoral reforms and representativeness versus meritocracy. The hugely sensitive issue of electoral reforms will most probably remain unresolved as long as a consensus cannot be reached on what are the characteristics of our nation which we propose to uphold — diversity with shared values, or oneness without distinction.
Looking forward, it is abundantly clear to any observer that as we celebrate half a century of existence as an independent nation we stand at the dawn of a new age which simply cannot be confronted using the same intellectual tools and political skills which have served us so well until now.
In a rapidly changing global environment where even the “mature democracies” seem to be at a loss regarding their future, a small island developing state like Mauritius is simultaneously weak because of its size and strong because of its proven ability to adapt and survive in the face of challenges.
At the risk of being repetitive we must again conclude that political leadership of a higher order (compared to what we have seen up to now) still appears to be the missing ingredient which can scuttle all the best efforts of the greater number of Mauritians who are more than willing to take up the present and coming challenges.
- Published in print edition on 24 November 2017