What better than Amédée Darga can Bérenger and Grégoire do?
— TP Saran
Whoever has met Amédée Darga would no doubt have appreciated his sharpness, intelligence and outspokenness. These were demonstrated in the radio programme ‘A vous de juger’ on Wednesday last, when he was being interviewed by Josian Valere in his capacity as president of the National Empowerment Fund (NEF). As a true professional he chose objectivity over demagogy. At no moment did he mention community or ethnicity; instead he used the terminology of development, defining categories such as poverty, absolute poverty and exclusion.
He stated unequivocally that never had so much been done before 2005 to lift people out of poverty as had been accomplished since, underlining that this was a work in progress as he referred to the over 2000 families that had been empowered out of the nearly 7000 identified by the Ministry of Finance. Under his chairmanship, NEF had carried out a proper scientific survey – as he took care to stress – in eight cités to assess social mobility between the first and second generations of dwellers there, using three criteria, viz. level of education, professional status and capacity of ownership (of second residence or land).
And the results in all these cités not only astounded him but gave a completely different picture from the usual stereotyped one associated with these localities. In all the cités, there were significant proportions of SC and HSC holders, several university graduates, and employees in upwardly mobile jobs. In one cité 24% of second generation residents owned a second house or plot of land. As the Empowerment Programme would gradually extend to all the 7000 vulnerable families, he was confident that progress and upliftment were inevitable in all of them. In accordance with the accepted paradigm, he placed great importance on education: 760 children in these 7000 families, who did not attend school, were sought out and made to do so.
Further, he gave the example of houses of the CHA having been sold along with the land on which they stood to their respective tenants, and that not only would these houses be worth about Rs 800 000 today, they could also be used as collateral for taking loans, thus further empowering the new owners.
Mr Darga explained how, during the last five years, the government had created the conditions and provided the resources for tackling the issue of poverty. To start with, the NEF was set up, and working with the SEHDA and the Mauritius Post and Cooperative Bank, it had devised microcredit schemes. Thus, there was a Rs 40 000 loan and a Booster Loan of Rs 150 000 for anyone who wanted to start a PME. These loans required no guarantee and were fast-tracked. So far 1161 Booster Loans totaling Rs 63.5 million had been taken, and there were any number of PMEs, many of which were started by women – a notable and encouraging feature, it was felt.
There were several calls from different people and many parts of the island, and again the preponderance of lady callers – Corinne, Marie-Claude, Marie-France, Cindy amongst others – was noted. There were queries about delays or rejections in loan applications, availability of jobs and training opportunities and so on. Mr Darga patiently explained the criteria based on which loans were processed, and the same thing was done for jobs and training too, mentioning the address of the two outlets where advice could be sought: the Centre de Placements and the Centre de Métiers, with details about their functioning.
He also emphasized that being poor or exclu was not merely about access to finance, it was also about attitude. This he observed in relation to a question from a single mother who had already signed up and opened a PEL account, praising her for doing so as it showed she had the right attitude, because she was working hard to help herself and her children. Because of the PEL account she had, she would be on the priority list for the 600 houses currently under construction, and others were being planned too. But Mr Darga made it very clear that there were criteria that had to be respected in the allocation, and people had to understand that.
Expectations had to be realistic, and habits had to be changed, Mr Darga strongly cautioned. He gave the example of a 20-year old woman who lived with her widowed mother, and had a certain qualification, who had approached NEF for a job. After about a week, NEF had obtained a placement for her at a call centre operated by Mauritius Telecom. To his surprise and embarrassment, the woman said she was only interested in a 9 am – 4 pm job! If people were going to pick and choose, Mr Darga said that then they would have themselves to blame if they did not manage to improve their standard of living.
And he urged those who had qualifications to apply to the PSC, although he would encourage people to set up on their own rather than chase jobs in government. Still, he would advise them to apply, and if ever they felt that they had been short-changed, there were appropriate mechanisms to address their grievances.
During the mandate of Bérenger in 2000-2005, Mrs Vidula Nababsing was commissioned to elaborate a programme for poverty reduction. This was done after a two-day workshop held at Vaghjee Hall, and the outcome was a document, which was in fact a roadmap to tackle the problem. Nobody ever heard anything much again about this Poverty Reduction Strategy Programme (PRSP). Prime Minister Bérenger must have been too busy looking after other more pressing demands and interests involving billions to be too interested in the meager millions that poverty involved. Poverty remained unchanged.
As Amédée Darga pointed out, it is only from 2005 onwards that so much has been done to lift people out of poverty, and soon there is going to be a Ministry of Social Integration, a logical extension of the NEF concept.
With Amédée Darga available to drive poverty reduction and social integration, who needs either Paul Bérenger or Jocelyn Grégoire?