“Having to govern can do wonders for making a politician more practical”  

 Interview: Prof Deborah Brautigam:

“A broad consensus does exist in Mauritius over development strategy – it’s the current details that are up for debate”

‘Few countries in the developing world have solved the puzzle of governing for broad-based prosperity. The Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius is an exception. An isolated plantation economy at the end of the colonial period, dependent on the export of sugar, with a deeply divided, multi-ethnic population that had just experienced violent urban riots, Mauritius was transformed between 1968 and 1988. On multiple measures — growth, stable democracy, social welfare, equity — Mauritius has earned its status as a development “superstar”.’ How did this happen?
Professor Deborah Bräutigam of the School of International Service, American University, Washington, who has examined (with Tania Diolle, University of Mauritius) how it all happened provides insights into how it happened in her paper ‘Coalitions, Capitalists, and Credibility: Overcoming the Crisis of Confidence at Independence in Mauritius’, and in the email interview that follows:

Mauritius Times: You argue in your paper ‘Coalitions, Capitalists and Credibility: Overcoming the crisis of confidence at Independence in Mauritius’ that one of the factors which explains Mauritius’ exceptional performance had been the country’s “systemic vulnerability – absence of resources or geopolitical patrons; a price-volatile monocrop; hurricanes and droughts… (which) fostered a sober realization (among the Mauritian leaders and elites) that the country needed to unify, or sink.” 43 years down the road, do you think that the same perception of vulnerability remains our driving force?

Prof Deborah Bräutigam: Today vulnerability is still a theme in Mauritius, and it’s based not just on the weather but on the fragility of the distribution of power and resources in a very multi-ethnic population. But, happily, I see that Mauritians are also driven by a desire to maintain their very good rankings on various global and regional indicators: Doing Business (the World Bank), Governance (Mo Ibrahim), and so on.

* Haven’t the export-based pillars of the economy (tourism, EPZ, ICT, financial services, real estate, etc) which have no doubt helped the country during difficult times and overcome the narrow avenues of the beginning yet, paradoxically enough, introduced yet more vulnerability?

As people in a very small country, Mauritians have no choice but to be globally involved. Withdrawing into an illusionary self-sufficiency would make Mauritius much more vulnerable. It is diversification – into activities with multiple competitive advantage – that will make Mauritius vulnerable. Just recall the days when people’s lives depended on sugar and sugar alone.

* The “national unity government” which brought the Labour Party and the PMSD together into a “development coalition” compelled SSR to share power with his erstwhile political rival, Gaetan Duval. In the same breath however, it spelled the end of the PMSD – and stifled Duval’s aspiration to become Prime Minister himself. Duval should have been alive to that impending consequence for the PMSD and himself, and to the lost opportunity to wrest power from Ramgoolam at the next election. Why do you think did he go along with Ramgoolam nevertheless?

From what I’ve been told, SSR was very persuasive. I think also Duval was realistic that he was unlikely to ever be directly elected as prime minister. In hindsight, plausibly, they could have negotiated something along the lines of the compromise with Bérenger and the MMM, that allowed Bérenger to become PM. But I think the compromise showed the Duval had national interests in mind as much as his own. Within the national unity government, Duval had extraordinary opportunities for crafting the foreign economic policy of the government. He would not have been able to do that in opposition. And the times were very uncertain. Capitalism itself sometimes seemed to be at stake.

* The Labour-PMSD coalition decision to amend the Constitution and to postpone elections until 1976 provided the grounds for the MMM and other opponents of that Coalition to question the democratic credentials of the leaders of the Labour-PMSD government, in particular that of SSR. You suggest in your paper that with that decision “Mauritius looked a bit like Singapore” during “this brief period of more authoritarian democratic rule” and that in effect it “helped provide a breathing space for several key economic pillars to be consolidated”. Do you mean to say that that decision saved Mauritius at a critical juncture of its history?

I would never like to say that being authoritarian and avoiding elections saved a country. Mauritius would have muddled through in any case. This period will continue to be debated. But I do think that the outcome was a “socialization” of the MMM, allowing them time to mature without gaining responsibility for governing too early.

* What would have been the outcome if, in lieu of that Labour-PMSD government, Mauritius had then embarked instead on the bandwagon of the “wild youngsters of the ‘Che Guevara type” as then Finance Minister Ringadoo described the MMM people of the 1970s in his letter to World Bank President President Robert McNamara?

Given the later evolution of the MMM into a moderate social democratic party, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen a revolution in Mauritius. Having to govern can do wonders for making a politician more practical.

* You have mentioned in your paper another factor that drove cooperation among the political leaders and the elites in Mauritius at that critical time: “the high degree of education and personal networks forged through secondary and tertiary education… an unusually high number of people who were stakeholders and decision-makers at independence were graduates of the island’s elite, meritocratic government-run secondary school, Royal College-Curepipe”. You go on to say that “meritocratic, elite secondary schools and support for liberal arts education are out of fashion for donors, but it is possible that both of these helped to build networks and socialized a cadre of effective leaders” to forge a better future for Mauritius. The case for an effective elite cluster in education to turn the situation around is still valid to this day, isn’t it?

I think this is a very understudied phenomenon. I was surprised by the influence of Royal College in the Mauritian political elite. Another fascinating factor was the influence of London School of Economics. These old school networks have always provided enormous stability to moneyed families. But they can provide the same kind of assistance to developmental meritocrats.

* You also quote a 2004 newspaper editorial which remarked that “Mauritius was fortunate to have remarkable men at the helm” (Boullé 2004). Another quote from Gordon-Gentil’s ‘L’Incarné du Voyage’ (1996: 17-18) brings light upon the culture of the men at the helm: “Speaking about his relationship with political rival and sometime coalition partner, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, he said: ‘Ramgoolam and I could spend hours together without speaking a word about politics. Keats, Rimbaud, Chaucer, Lamartine could bring us together. One day we spent an entire afternoon discussing the French poems of Georges Pompidou.’ This would suggest that the intrinsic depth of culture of individual leaders made the difference towards eliminating superficial differences and sticking to the essential?

I loved that quotation from Duval. Perhaps it’s the British influence. In America, it’s hard to imagine George Bush and Barak Obama doing this.

* The meritocratic government-run and non-ethnic-based Royal College Curepipe, which, according to Kanti Banymandhub, became “the nursery supplying Mauritius with its leaders … thinkers, researchers … all those professionals whose intellectual ability was crucial to the economic march of Mauritius”, and the “rise of cross-cutting, multi-ethnic service membership organizations like the Lions and Rotary” as well as non-ethnic-based business organizations fostered an environment of conciliation and compromise. Would you agree that nothing has changed the case for non-ethnic-based education and politics as a way of consolidating effective national leadership and the country’s agenda today?


* But what about the people themselves, their inherent qualities, their culture? Isn’t it possible that the people will only support moderate leaders at the end of the day —i.e., they may go along with radical politics and leaders for some time but not all the time — which is why a few radical leaders fell by the wayside on the way, a factor which has prevented Mauritius going the way of Haiti, Fiji…? The enduring leaders of tomorrow have to be cut in that mould, isn’t it?

Mauritius has great advantages over Haiti and Fiji. The great educator Paolo Friere wrote about the challenge of liberation being the “pedagogy” of working together with the oppressed in a process of conscientization to ensure that when they were liberated, they did not in turn become the new oppressors. This did not happen in Haiti – after they drove the French out, the Haitian elite took their place. They are still suffering from this. In Fiji, the indigenous people continue to resent those whom they see as having usurped their birthright. Mauritius has no indigenous people: the French and the Africans they brought to the island were the founding inhabitants. So no one has an original claim, and no erstwhile leader can use that claim as part of his or her political weaponry. Is this culture? It helps.

* We spoke earlier about the “systemic vulnerability” of the country in the 1960s-70s that provided a compelling motive for cooperation. We are told today that the country is still not out of the woods in the wake of the global economic/financial crisis, and that the country’s vulnerability during the present times makes the case for another “development coalition”, another “national unity government, that is. Your opinion?

Mauritians have a mature political system. I certainly don’t think that elections should be postponed! Working hard to forge consensus on areas that are future-oriented for the country’s development is always a good practice.

* With regard to the politicians who came together in the government of national unity in the 1970s, you mention that their “unusually high level of education and legal training helped ensure that political leaders were accustomed to working out their conflicts through debate, and that they would be more likely to use the pen than the sword”. That was no doubt the case for SSR and Duval. How about Ramgoolam Jnr and Bérenger? Will the sword make way for the pen in the current scenario?

I’m chuckling at the image of the two swashbuckling leaders abandoning their pens (and their sharp tongues). While political debate can come with barbs, it’s not going to come with swords.

* Can it be said that some political experiments in past decades have so deeply undermined the coming-together of social and political leaders in the interval that it might well nigh be impossible to replicate with the same success the consensus which once helped Mauritius join forces to jump over the dire consequences of galloping demography and resourceless-ness, as it happened in the defining decade of the first overhauling political coalition?

The post-independence period was a critical juncture the likes of which Mauritius is unlikely to ever face again. Decisions made then have placed Mauritius on a path that, while bumpy and imperfect, has been broadly beneficial to the country. As my own country demonstrates, genuine bi-partisanship remains rare in politics. Yet a broad consensus does exist in Mauritius over development strategy – it’s the current details that are up for debate. I’m always struck by how critical Mauritians are of their current experience and its trajectory – and how good it looks from outside.   

* * *

Deborah Brautigam’s Paper (Excerpts)

‘Coalitions, Capitalists, and Credibility:

Overcoming the Crisis of Confidence at
Independence in Mauritius’

* Published in print edition on 11 March 2011

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