By Sean Carey
Mauritius is in the premier league of the world’s democracies, according to the newly released London-based Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The Index, which monitors 167 nations ranks Mauritius, a small Indian Ocean island, with a population of 1.3 million, 24th out of 25 “full democracies”, just ahead of Spain.
Norway is in first place followed by three other Scandinavian countries—Iceland, Denmark and Sweden. Canada is eighth, Ireland is 12th, Germany is 14th, the UK is 18th, while the US is ranked 19th.The remaining 90 countries which make it into the “democratic” category are divided into 53 “flawed democracies,” which includes France and Italy at 29th and 31st respectively. The next category consists of 37 “hybrid regimes” and includes Hong Kong (80th), Singapore (81st), Turkey (88th), Tanzania (90th) and Kenya (103rd). The remaining countries in the Index, including Bahrain, Chad, Fiji, Madagascar, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, are described as “authoritarian.”
The Index is based on five criteria: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture. However, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that nearly all of the “full democracies” belong to a group of the world’s advanced economies, whose populations are well-practiced in placing marks on ballot papers and tossing out unpopular or incompetent governments.
Little wonder, then, that Mauritius’s inclusion has caught the eye of some commentators. “In some ways, of the 25 ‘full democracies,’ Mauritius is now the most notable,” writes Neil Reynolds, economics correspondent for the Toronto-based Globe and Mail. Reynolds cities Mauritius’s endorsement by the World Bank as the best among African economies, and its top position in the Sudanese-born telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim’s Index of African Governance.
Reynolds also goes on to note Mauritius’s ascent in the Index of Economic Freedom jointly produced by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010, it was in 12th place of 179 countries. In 2012 it has moved up to eighth place. The piece finishes with a rousing cry: “Economic freedom is as much a prerequisite for democracy as voting. Let’s hear it for the prosperous little democracy with a dodo on its coat of arms.”
But free-marketeers are not the only members of the economic tribe to endorse Mauritius. Last year, for example, Joseph Stiglitz, after a brief visit, wrote an article for The Guardian, heaping praise on the country for the provision of free education, transport for schoolchildren and free healthcare, including heart surgery. The former chief economist at the World Bank, and a leading light in the neo-Keynesian “third way” movement, reckoned that North America and Europe could learn lessons from Mauritius in terms of how the country managed “social cohesion, welfare and economic growth.”
Despite the brevity of his stay, the Nobel prize-winning economist was observant enough to point to some of the island’s problems, especially the colonial legacy in inequality in ownership of land and other forms of capital which differentially affects the life chances of various segments of the polyethnic population.
Then there is the vexatious issue of the US base on Diego Garcia, which along with the other 54 Chagos islands, was illegally detached in 1965 before Mauritius’s independence from the UK in 1968 to form the British Indian Ocean Territory. “The US should now do right by this peaceful and democratic country: recognise Mauritius’s rightful ownership of Diego Garcia, renegotiate the lease and redeem past sins by paying a fair amount for land that it has illegally occupied for decades,” argued Stiglitz. He should have added that those 1500 or so islanders, who were forcibly removed from the Chagos Archipelago in the late 60s and early 70s by the British authorities to make way for the military base and dumped in Mauritius and the Seychelles, should be allowed to return to their homeland if they so wish.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School Social Sciences and visiting lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton
A version of this article has also appeared at anthropologyworks
* Published in print edition on 27 January 2012