Performance indices cannot mask the grim and stark ground reality
By Mrinal Roy
There is an air of unreality in the country. The government seems to be obsessively keeping track of all the performance indices issued intermittently by diverse organizations. It seems to gargle almost every week with a new performance index. Mauritius systematically tops or has high rankings in diverse performance indices in Africa.
You name it, every performance index such as the Mo Ibrahim index or the Child Welfare index in Africa or the World Bank Ease of Doing Business ranking, etc., is used and brandished by the government as a trophy to portray its performance in a good light. Whenever the country climbs up a particular performance league table, the propaganda machinery gets into top gear and the government jubilantly tom-toms its performance in self-congratulatory and chest thumping mode with the Prime Minister taking centre stage to soak in and reap the kudos.
How do these rankings and performance indices match up to the ground reality in Mauritius? More importantly, do these improved rankings also mirror in parallel a marked improvement in the livelihoods and standard of living of people? The last Mo Ibrahim index ranks Mauritius no 1 in overall governance in Africa. Is it a suitable yardstick to measure overall governance in absolute terms against the benchmark of the best international norms of governance?
Good governance above all means that the people participate in decision-making either directly or through institutions which represent their interests. It also means strict adherence to the rule of law, accountability, transparency, equal opportunities and meritocracy, equity, efficiency and competence in running the affairs of the country and managing public resources, etc. How does the government measure up to these benchmarks of good governance?
The straight answer is that the prevailing state of governance in the country is far from being satisfactory. Instead of ensuring through transparent and rigorously merit based recruitment policies that the government Establishment, state owned companies, parastatal organizations and key state institutions are manned and efficiently run by the best talents and expertise of the country, the government has instead opted to exercise a hegemonic control over them through cohorts of political appointees and the coterie. Such a warped approach to governance hobbles the prospects of the country.
The upshot is that the standard of decision making and policy framing acumen has been significantly watered down as evidenced by the long list of botched decisions taken by government. However, what is of major concern to the people is that profound damage has already been done to the government Establishment and state companies and institutions which would take time to repair and set right under a more enlightened leadership.
The latest example of yet another decried government decision is the amendments brought to the Information and Communication Technologies Act (ICTA) which constitute a serious encroachment on the personal freedoms and rights of people and expose social media users to prosecution should their posts or messages on social media platforms are ‘likely to cause or cause annoyance, humiliation, inconvenience, distress or anxiety to any person’.
This offence carries a disproportionately heavy sentence of ten years when compared to other more serious offences. While the previous law had put the onus on the plaintiff to prove that the intent behind the post was to cause distress and anxiety to him, the vague, highly subjective and open ended terminology used in the amended legislation, voted last week by the National Assembly, could open a Pandora’s box of complaints and police investigations relating to claims of purported annoyance or inconvenience, etc., caused by social media posts.
The amendments basically attempt to curb and muzzle freedom of opinion. It is a knee jerk reaction by government against criticisms which is unacceptable, especially as libel laws already exist in the arsenal of laws in the country. Were these widely contested amendments a national priority? Shouldn’t the government have instead rigorously ensured that for example the Commission on the Prerogative of Mercy is no longer allowed to grant sentence remissions to drug dealers, condemned rapists or child offenders?
The fundamental right to have a differing opinion
Throughout the history of the arduous battle for rights and freedom, people have had to repeatedly fight against those who wanted to restrict these rights and freedoms. People must continuously fight for the multifaceted dimensions of freedom. Freedom of speech is protected to a high degree in the US. Over time the Supreme Court rulings of countries across the world have broadened and charted an increasingly larger space of freedom enjoyed by the people.
For example, during the First World War, anti war protestors had to take the idea and notion of dissent as a fundamental right to the US Supreme Court. In 1964, the New York Times sought a ruling of the Supreme Court when it was sued by the State of Alabama for carrying a Civil Rights movement advertisement on the grounds that no one can harm the State with words. The Indian Supreme Court has yet again this year made quite a few path-breaking judgments which significantly advance the cause of freedom. Such actions have helped continuously widen the scope and space of freedoms for the benefit of all. It is only by standing up against any encroachment on our freedoms that we can protect and extend them.
In essence, we cannot only allow the people who agree with us to write and express their opinion. Such a narrow outlook, reminiscent of repressive regimes of the past, basically glorifies and promotes sycophancy. Freedom of expression above all means that people who do not agree with you should be equally free to write and express their opinion. The decried amendments have therefore to be tested through the objective scrutiny of the law.
Similarly, the quantum jump in our Ease of Doing Business ranking should have transformed Mauritius into a dynamic hub of substantial investment, generated robust growth, high employment rate, a beehive of new business ventures, innovative technologies and extremely upbeat economic indicators. A closer examination of the country’s economic fundamentals shows that this is hardly the case. Private sector investment is expected to record a ‘no growth’ in 2018. The share of private sector investment in Gross Fixed Capital Formation is expected to decrease to 72.3% in 2018. Gross Domestic Saving as a percentage of GDP has declined below 10% in 2018 which is a marked fall from the rate of 21.1% in 2007. The country is therefore disquietingly more and more highly dependent on foreign capital and foreign grants.
However, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the manufacturing sector has declined substantially to paltry levels: Rs 108 million in 2017 and Rs 56 million in the first half of 2018. FDI in the government flagship project of smart cities have also declined despite billions of Rupees of tax revenue forfeited by the State as part of business facilitation measures through a range of very generous tax and duty exemptions granted to smart city project promoters richly endowed with land assets in prime locations. The FDI in IRS/RES/ISH/PDS/SCS fell by more than Rs 2 billion in 2017 and seems to fall again in 2018.
Does it mean that the demand for these up market real estate projects is weaker than expected? Private sector indebtedness in the construction industry has thus increased to more than Rs 100 billion for the first time. Faltering exports are increasing the trade deficit. Net exports of goods and services would result in a deficit of R 60.734 billion in 2018 which represents 12.5% of GDP at market prices in 2018. Public sector debt is increasing every year and is forecast to be some 64.3% of GDP in 2019. Such a basically tenuous model of doing business is obviously fraught with risks and not very sustainable.
Performance indices cannot mask the grim and stark ground reality. The thrust and prime objective of government actions and its policy framework must necessarily be the continued and significant improvement of the standard of living and wellbeing of the people and the freedoms enjoyed by them. A reality check of the performance and competence of a government in running the affairs of the country has to be based on an objective assessment of the ground reality and the performance score given by the people. It cannot be measured by some outlandish performance index cut off from and unrepresentative of domestic reality.
* Published in print edition on 9 November 2018