Leadership failure sets limits to our growth ambitions

The legitimization of Pravind Jugnauth’s position through general elections is becoming increasingly vital for a successful turnaround of the situation

In this article we postulate that there are three conditions which must be met in order to achieve a successful transition from “middle” to a “high income” economy: presence of the right mix of a certain number of high quality institutions, quality of leadership and a favourable global economic environment.

We argue that while Mauritius may enjoy the first of these three conditions we have so far failed to satisfy the second condition in terms of appropriate leadership and that the global economic environment is anything but favourable now as well as in the foreseeable future. Under these circumstances it would probably be more realistic if we were to moderate our ambitions and be content with achieving a marginal improvement.

We finally suggest that holding general elections within a reasonable delay may be a necessary condition for the adoption of more ambitious objectives for the country.

 The necessary ingredients

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in setting very high ambitions for ourselves as long as we remain lucid enough to recognize when conditions have changed so drastically that these may actually become barriers to the achievement of what is reasonable in the new set of circumstances. Another way of saying that sometimes the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

Having been a model of success in transitioning from a developing country to a middle income economy in a rather short span of time, it was no surprise that we should have thought that we could as well complete the last mile and therefore set for ourselves the more ambitious target of going for “high income country” status.

There is no universal recipe which maps out the road ahead for such transformations. Singapore and South Korea, two nations which have been successful examples, claim to have leveraged their “Asian spirit” in this endeavour, somewhat reminiscent of the role of Protestantism in the rise of Capitalism in the Anglo-Saxon world. There is a need to have the right stocks of initial conditions such as strong domestic institutions, enterprise capabilities and yes, strong leadership in order to undertake the journey with reasonable chances of success.

It is notable that developments in science and technology and the subsequent redefinition of the notions of time and space since the advent of modern globalization have inversely impacted on the weight of initial factor endowments as a variable for economic success. As pointed out by Michael Porter a long time back, national competitive advantage is premised on the deliberate honing of existing skills and capacities and the introduction of necessary structural reforms to maximize strategic strengths and purpose.

A significant part of the process therefore turns around having the political will to leverage the unique combination of these endogenous factors in tune with the stated objective of achieving “high income status.” This in turn means that the quality of leadership of those in charge at the material time when the transition is being engineered is a critical if not the determining factor in its successful accomplishment.

The transition from middle to a high income economy simply will not materialize without a coherent long term vision and a strong political will to achieve clearly defined objectives.

Finally the prevailing global economic environment is of course another important variable in defining the success of such an endeavour, especially for small island developing states which are dependent on international trade as well as foreign direct investments. To appreciate how critical this factor can be, one only needs to have a look at the economic growth scenario of Singapore — an island state highly dependent on a healthy global economic environment, it has performed less than satisfactorily over the past years since the financial crisis of 2008.

Leadership failures

It is a realistic assessment of the situation in Mauritius to conclude that for quite a long time now two of the three above conditions have been missing- the favourable economic global environment and leadership qualities. As far as the global economy is concerned, we can counter intuitively that, given the size of our economy and our limited needs, the negative impact can be somewhat contained by the deployment of an agile, intelligent economic diplomacy spearheaded by a coherent vision for regional integration on the back of a rising Africa and the new ambitions of India and China as regional economic leaders in their own right.

The poor state of the nation – poor economic performance, social chaos and breakdown of law and order – is testimony to the failures of the past leadership which was duly sanctioned by voters during the last general elections. Unfortunately instead of stemming the rot, it is a tsunami of financial scandals and charges of nepotism and corruption which have marked the first two years of the new government. This is quickly ramping up a general sense of repudiation of politics and a deep and profound distrust of politicians; that in turn is leading to a situation which defies consensus and therefore calls for leadership of the highest order.

It would be rather presumptuous to pass judgement on the personal leadership qualities of Pravind Jugnauth only months after his accession to the prime ministership. This column has consistently argued that the elevation of Pravind Jugnauth to the prime ministership was a perfectly legitimate process well within the confines of the Westminster democratic traditions. Appointment of Prime Ministers from the party which “commands a majority in the House” without having recourse to general elections is a fairly common practice in Commonwealth nations, as was the case in Australia last year and earlier this year in New Zealand.

We are therefore all the more comfortable to suggest that in a context of a need for affirmative and effective leadership the legitimization of his position through general elections is becoming increasingly vital for a successful turnaround of the situation. This is not to imply that he should call for general elections tomorrow. Rather, in line with what is the general practice in our system of government he should commit to organize fresh elections within a reasonable delay – during which he would have ample time to convince the electorate that he has what it takes to lead this country through the tough times ahead.

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