Lessons from The Past

If we have been so successful in the past to rise up to the challenges of the time, why then are we today unable to deliver the same successes? We have the ideas, the institutions, better human resources and infrastructure, but the nagging question remains: why we are failing?

Hardly anybody doubts these days that many of the difficulties in our contemporary society, reflected in the economic, social and political problems, have their origin in an ailing economy and the failure to create sufficient resources to meet the needs of the population. Some may argue that such criticisms are mere grumblings about the political order, but feelings of grievance and anxiety are too deeply felt in the population at all levels to be ignored. Moreover, the loss of purpose and cohesion at the helm of public affairs seems to have set the country on the path of steep decline. The nation is not only anxious about its future but is perplexed, and there is a general perception that authority vested in our institutions has weakened and no longer reflects public interest.

To understand why there is presently a diminishing capacity to identify issues which are vital, to devise and implement appropriate policies and to sustain consent, we will look into how the country was able to meet the great challenges of the past and perhaps identify a few of the factors which explained our success.

Today we are more educated; there is no shortage of ideas, expertise in many fields is available in the country and abroad, yet we are unable to create the conditions for robust economic growth and tackle the many social problems. This is not to deny that there have not been successes in the recent past when the economy was made resilient on being confronted with the worst global economic crisis, or in the field of tourism development and in other areas as well. But we have decided to look briefly at three major successes, which incontrovertibly are turning points in our history — the eradication of malaria at the end of the Second World war, curbing population growth in the 1960s and embarking on the path of industrialization in the 1970s, hoping that these cases may yield some insights on which the nation can reflect.

Malaria control

In the years 1867-68 we were faced with the worst epidemic in the country’s history and more than 40,000 people perished as a result of malaria, mostly from the poorer ex-slave population and the indentured labourers. Yet the colonial government and the colonial elite did practically very little to tackle the problem except introducing a sewage system in Port-Louis in the 1890s.The indifference of the colonial elite can be explained by the fact that they had moved to the cooler regions of Plaines-Wilhems and felt relatively secure from malaria. However, towards the closing decades of the nineteenth century, malaria began to pose a threat even in Plaines Wilhems, and self-interest led members of the elite to take the initiative to invite Dr Ronald Ross, a British medical doctor who received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1902 for his work on the transmission of malaria, to visit Mauritius to inquire into the problem and to make recommendations.

Ross accepted the invitation on the condition that he is paid 1000 pounds or nothing. The Mauritian elite accepted and the Governor, through the Colonial Office, was able to get Ross to visit the island. He visited Mauritius in 1908, accompanied by Major Fowler, studied the problem and wrote his report. At a farewell reception in honour of Ross by the Mauritius Medical Association, after various speeches, Governor Cavendish Boyle told the audience that he would do everything possible to implement Ross’s recommendations, but ‘money was wanted’. Nevertheless he assured Ross that he would do his best.

Anti-malarial schemes were implemented successfully in Plaines Wilhems but not extended to other districts, which would have been beneficial to the whole population. After some time, the anti-malarial schemes were abandoned for shortage of funds. Malaria continued to decimate the population and was the main cause of mortality and morbidity in the country. The situation worsened during the Depression of 1929, and it was not until the labour unrest of 1937 that the new Governor Bede Clifford decided, among his many measures, to consider improving the health situation in the country. He commissioned Dr Rankine to inquire into the health situation but the recommendations of the Rankine Report could not be implemented due to shortage of materials and manpower during the war.

It was only because the army and the RAF were stationed in the island during the war that anti-malarial schemes were renewed with vigour at Plaisance Airfield, Port-Louis and Tombeau Bay. Not only did the military and service personnel benefit from works carried out by the Admiralty, people in the neighbouring regions also improved their health as these regions became malaria free.

By that time the imperial government had realized that the health of the labouring population was crucial in increasing production and productivity during the war but thereafter to contribute to Britain’s post-War economy. Anti-malarial schemes were slowly extended to the rest of the island; in 1944 DDT was introduced as a pilot scheme. The success of DDT encouraged the Colonial government to sustain the anti-malaria campaign. Funds were obtained from the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund, thereby ensuring that Mauritius was on the road towards eradication of malaria. Self-interest, exigencies of the war, the need to protect the British troops and the concern for labour productivity, the collaboration of the medical profession and the local people — all contributed to end the scourge of malaria after the war. In fact one can argue that the convergence of interests, proper planning, organization, innovation and effectiveness together with the cooperation of the people were crucial for success.

Overpopulation and Family Planning

In the 1960s the problem of overpopulation came into the spotlight as it was a major factor in the declining standard of living after the post-war economic prosperity. Professor De Smith was invited by the government to study the problem and he recommended the introduction of family planning and birth control in the country. These were controversial issues, which evoked a passionate debate, with opposition on both moral and religious grounds. To clinch his argument against birth control, one politician even pointed out that Tagore was the youngest of 13 surviving children. It required a lot of courage, conviction and persuasion to negotiate with different sections of the population.

But the government of the day was committed to the welfare of the people; the Minister of Health at that time, Guy Forget was convinced that that was a measure to help the poorer classes, and against all odds was able to reach consensus with different stakeholders to implement family planning in Mauritius. Here too, voluntary organizations such as the Mauritius Family Planning Association and Action Familiale, staffed with proper personnel played an important role in a national campaign to reduce the number of births. They were able to supplement advice on birth control by highlighting the advantages of smaller families. The vision of the government, a dedicated and courageous Minister, competent personnel in both public and private organisations and consensus among all stakeholders contributed to solve a problem which many had thought impossible to address.

Economic development

While the country was actively engaged in reducing population growth, rising unemployment in the 1960s emerged as a formidable challenge. Professor Meade, a Nobel Prize winner, was brought in to advise on the economic problems facing the country. After wide consultations in the country, he wrote his report ‘The economic and Social Structure of Mauritius’, making 129 recommendations which represented a blueprint for our economic development. Among its array of measures were the creation of an export sector, an industrial development board, an industrial estate, tax holidays for five to eight years of a company’s operation, a development bank, a water authority, an agricultural marketing board and many others. What he recommended amounted in his own words ‘to a revolution in economic affairs in Mauritius’. He also added that with freedom of entry of raw materials, government support to new industries, a greater spirit of enterprise and cooperation among all classes, and stable labour costs and access to preferential markets, Mauritius would be well placed to develop export industries.

With these recommendations in mind, the government set its priorities and explored the concept of processing zone from Ireland to Taiwan. It was in Ireland, near Shannon airport, that the first free zone was created in the world in the late 1950s. After the feasibility study had been completed, the export processing zone was announced in the Budget in 1968 and the Plaines Lauzun industrial estate was set up. In 1970 the EPZ Act was voted. With the formation of a coalition government, the EPZ development received a fresh stimulus and, by 1974, a large number of jobs in the EPZ had been created and the country launched on the path of diversification and industrialization.

This creation of the EPZ and industrialization became priority number one of the then government to solve unemployment and to give a new direction to the economy. Import substitution industries had proved grossly inadequate to solve the unemployment problem. It was finally the outcome of a number of processes — a creative appropriation of the free zone concept, a lot of reflection and debates in which the contribution of public-spirited public officers and private entrepreneurs was significant. The political will to industrialize the island, effective planning, provision of adequate human and physical resources and economic diplomacy did the rest.

There are many lessons we can take on how Mauritius began to industrialize.

If we have been so successful in the past to rise up to the challenges of the time, why then are we today unable to deliver the same successes? We have the ideas, the institutions, better human resources and infrastructure, but the nagging question remains: why we are failing? Every citizen will have to reflect and find his answer but also propose a solution. Is it because nepotism and corruption have trumped development? Are there other reasons too?

Whatever be your answer/s, you will soon get the opportunity during this or the coming year to create the Mauritius you want to live in. Our history and the three case studies presented above should indicate that we have the potential to do much better for the economy and society. We should not lose hope and remind ourselves of what Sir Amedée Maingard, the then chairman and managing director of Rogers, should not have said when he  once told Tim Taylor in 1971 during a period of gloom: ‘Mauritius was finished and the island was going to the dogs.’


* Published in print edition on 26 October 2018

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