Of the Need for Think Tanks or Policy Units

It is a matter of tradition as we reach the end of the year to carry out some introspection and assess the events which have marked the year gone by.

This exercise is carried out at the level of individuals, organizations as well at the national level. As the New Year approaches these introspections serve to also define our resolutions for the future, purportedly informed by the experience of events just gone by. Most unfortunately more often than not this almost instinctive need to ponder and resolve turns out to be an exercise in futility as we get carried away by our pressing daily schedules. The main culprit is no doubt our modern, hectic living style and the way it has disproportionately increased the weight of circumstances and events in determining our day to day actions as opposed to thoughtful decision making.

Under these conditions it is not surprising that the easier thing to do takes precedence over the right thing to do. Short termism or the need to show results in terms of weeks or months, as opposed to taking steps to build a sustainable project, becomes the order of the day. Events rather than principles guide policy making and dominate the national debate. At a macro level this translates into the negation of “ideology” which has been reduced to almost the status of a “dirty” word. There is no alternative (TINA) or the mystifying formula for preservation of the status quo becomes the mantra of the powers that be.

How to get out of this rut without falling into the simplistic solutions of propagating a return to the good old days? This could indeed be one of the critical questions of governance to which we need to reply in order to see real improvements in our society. The Governor of the Bank of Mauritius has provided a timely pointer with his recent musings on the important exercise in which he had led a team of economists in the 1990s culminating in the publication of the ‘Mauritius Vision 2020’ document. He has suggested that a similar exercise, led by a private sector think tank this time, should be carried out to map out the future of the country over the coming decades. The private sector has already reacted positively. Before that a barely commented sentence in the last budget does mention something about a policy unit at the level of the PMO.

Whether a think tank or a policy unit or why not a mix of the two with a PMO led public-private sector group, provided with a clear mandate, such an agency could definitely be part of the solution. Indeed this would be one way of institutionalising a formal thinking moment in the value chain of policy making thus providing a break from the worse effects of the present paradigm dominated by the kind of reflexive action syndrome described above. Institution building which used to dominate the discourse of economic growth in emerging nations provides an interesting platform for engaging the debate. Institution building and institutional reforms provide the benefit of systemic effect. When well thought out they have ripple effects which take care of subsidiary problems.

Many studies have shown that the quality of institutions in the national economy, most often trumps other determinants of economic growth, including geography. The post-independence economic history of Mauritius while itself testimony to the primacy of institutions, such as the rule of law and respect for property rights in the economic success of a country is also a case study into how the right mix of “technocracy” and politics is also a critical factor of success.

The irony is that the present state of relatively low growth of the national economy may be equally due to the global economic crisis and factors beyond our control as to our inability to overhaul our extant institutions to respond to the rapidly evolving global environment. Similarly one can surmise that the unsatisfactory progress of the economic democratisation programme is due as much to the poor global economic environment and consequent lack of policy space as to our failure to fundamentally reconsider the role and functions of existing institutions in the light of the objectives of the programme.

Recent trends seem to confirm that the green shoots of economic uptake in the US as well as Europe will most probably be more resilient than was initially suspected and that we shall benefit from an improved global economic environment in 2014. Such periods of transition between the end of a crisis and an economic upswing generally sets the scene for the emergence of future losers and winners. At the eve of New Year 2014 let us resolve to give ourselves the necessary tools to be among the latter.


* Published in print edition on 20 December 2013

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