Mauritius’ International Standing

A quick reorientation of public policy – consisting not merely of reshuffling of Cabinet positions – to get back our credentials will be necessary to inspire confidence again

Being devoid of natural mineral resources and finding ourselves at some distance from the world’s mainstream markets, Mauritius’ best bet is on preserving a sparkling international standing for the country. So doing, it could attract businesses to its shores and vie against other performing countries of the world.

The latest World Bank report on Ease of Doing Business has just scaled us down in its Doing Business Index, which measures key inputs for business facilitation in individual countries, from rank number 42 last year to 49 this year, that is 7 ranks down among 190 countries assessed by it. Not now, but many years ago, our policy makers had identified ‘gravitas’ as a cornerstone for cutting the edge in our favour. That’s how Mauritius gained a better rank than other African countries which came behind: e.g., Botswana (71 currently), South Africa (74), Kenya (92), and Seychelles (93).

We’ve lost rank on each of 10 indicators (ranging from ease of starting a business, getting electricity, enforcing contracts, resolving insolvency, etc.) this time, the biggest loss (5 country ranks) being on the facility with which a business can be started. Our rank has remained unchanged with respect to only two indicators: the ease of registering property and trading across borders.

Obviously, we can’t do much if other countries improve and relegate us behind. The question to ask, however, is: how do countries like New Zealand (1), Singapore (2), Hong Kong (4), South Korea (5), UK (7) and US (8), manage nevertheless to remain among the top rankers? They persevere to stay on top, not allowing weaknesses to creep in and worsen their lot. Fighting it up if and whenever a gap appears in the structure becomes part of the culture.

What makes others, worse still, remain tail-enders; Madagascar (167), Libya (188), Eritrea (189) and Somalia (190 and last)? They do all they can so as not to improve their lot, being entangled in too many domestic complications, each one worse than the other. Rwanda (56) is an exception: if you go and meet people over there, they immediately give you the impression that they have no mind to mess it up. They feel that this is how they will be able to shine out as a remarkable performer from out of all the cohort.

We should not despair. Mauritius can still ascend up to and even higher, from where it has currently fallen. All we need to do is to inculcate the right culture so that there’ll finally be an element of intolerance against anyone who doesn’t help to raise the country a notch higher in its international standings.

If the Minister of Finance has currently gone to Europe to ask it to reverse an erratic judgement Europe has misguidedly formed about our status as an anti-money-laundering centre, it’s because there are people over there who also form impressionistic erratic judgements (sometimes deliberately with a view to hurt) about financial centres like us.

Outsiders can make errors in their assessments about countries in the indices they publish about them. But what should we do? On our part, we should not give them the least opportunity to take undue liberties with our good standing and international reputation. We have to be rigorous in our rules and principles as well as the good governance of our public institutions. We can be exemplary in matters of governance of public affairs, something we have attained in certain domains in the past. We have ourselves to blame if, instead of that, we destroy even the good things achieved in the past.

Consider 2014. Most of the year was not spent doing the business of the country, overhauling its economic structure and opening up to world markets. On the contrary. It was difficult to determine which is the government and which is the opposition, so there was no one to seriously bring to book the wrong-doing of those in power. Instead of that, the priority was a political one: to blur differences and present a high-sounding project of a second republic that was supposed to cure all the shortcomings the country had accumulated. Fairy tale.

The whole year was spent doing the wrong advertisement that the country’s priority was politics, nothing else. This message travelled not only locally with the correction inflicted in the December 2014 elections but also at the international level as far as our democratic image goes. Such erratic behaviour is duly recorded and gets reflected in the country’s continuous assessment, especially by outside observers.

Consider 2015. Hopes were high that all this erratic behaviour would be relegated to the past for good. Was that so? Not at all. Public institutions which had already been quite debased in the earlier period were further debased. Ministers came out in public to denigrate public institutions as well as those who previously held positions of responsibility in them.

Anyone who was objective enough could easily make out that public institutions were being “instrumentalised” to get previous holders of public officers behind the bars. It was a world of daily sensations. But sensations such as the one beginning with the unmannerly bringing down of the BAI group ended up catastrophically.

The central bank poured Rs3.6 billion initially to pay up for taking down the BAI group in the manner in which it was done in early April 2015. The new bank that was hurriedly put together along with another bank to create an altogether new bank has already received capital injections of over Rs3 billion to stay alive. It is currently looking for a strategic partner to give it the direction and probably the additional financial support it needs to keep going. All this speaks volumes about the competence of those who have been presiding over this crumbling situation.

Was this the way one should have proceeded to take care of the exaggerated liberties the previous political regimes had allowed to happen in one of the country’s most sensitive sectors, notably its finance sector? No one in his senses will concur. The country is worse off.

The repercussions of the poor political and financial decisions taken as from 2015 are not over yet. We are informed that substantial damages are on the way, not because actions were taken but because of the wrongful manner in which they were taken. No one in his right mind will agree that the country has achieved the orderliness it was expecting after the 2014 elections.

Instead of that, the chaos is getting amplified and those who bungled up all the things are lying low and quietly slipping out of the ignominy and bad focus their misdeeds should have brought them into. The World Bank index doesn’t appear to be reflecting the full impact of the catastrophic undermining of public institutions having taken place in the wake of all these events.

The handicaps inflicted on the country’s good standing by the previous and current governments can somehow be overcome. It will surely not happen if the leadership doesn’t arrest all the dilapidation of our goodwill the ramshackle management of public affairs has caused so far. A quick reorientation of public policy – consisting not merely of reshuffling of Cabinet positions — to get back our credentials will be necessary to inspire confidence again. The time has come for the country to build up substance rather than keep doing the repairs to set right all that has gone wrong so far.

Murli Dhar

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