Mauritius: Undoing the Stiglitz ‘miracle’?

By TP Saran

Much is being made of an article by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, entitled ‘The Mauritius miracle, or how to make a big success of a small economy’, which appeared in the issue of a British newspaper, The Guardian, on Monday last.

A couple of days ago, Mr Kee Cheong Li Kwong Wing, elected Member of the National Assembly and belonging to the Opposition MMM party, was being interviewed on a private radio. His assessment of the country’s situation and economic policies and its social direction, and its prospects for the future under the present dispensation can be summed up in one word: catastrophic.

As is usual with most such views, the truth must lie somewhere in between, for as we all know nothing in life is in black and white – there are always shades of grey: the middle ground, and I am sure that with his Asiatic (Buddhist?) ancestry/background Mr Li Kwong Wing would appreciate this position. Before we go on to see some more practical aspects, we would like to present a reader’s response to Stiglitz’s article, from someone in Rodrigues, who we think strikes a balanced perspective that gives the lie to what others with divisive agendas have always tried to project (namely the so-called ‘Hindu hegemony that never came to be, as the response shows). Here is what the Rodriguan has to say:

‘Rodriguan Fruit Bat 8 March 2011 – 11:43 AM

Hindus have a small majority of the population, and the various remaining minorities were concerned about their rights in an independent Mauritius. Because of this, large numbers voted against independence, and Mauritius became an independent state on the basis of an unusually small majority vote.

It is worth noting that the minorities’ fears have not been realised. There are tensions, and communal and racial problems to be sure, but Mauritius ‘works’ as a multicultural society, and as a free and prosperous democracy. Looking at Kenya and Uganda, also in East Africa, it need not have been this way, so the fears were understandable. But a similar vote today would not have the same result.’ (italics are ours)

We couldn’t agree more with the reader from Rodrigues. Indeed, while right now there is a raging debate in the US and Europe – in particular UK, France, Germany – about multiculturalism, here in Mauritius it is alive and kicking and, though not perfect and still evolving, can certainly be a useful lesson for the bigger countries.

On the other hand, as several readers pointed out, comparing the US with Mauritius is like comparing apples with oranges, and someone rightly suggested that perhaps it would be more appropriate to look at say, Hong Kong and Singapore rather. We think so too, especially as our leaders seem to have a weakness for the Singapore model, and have dreamt of making of Mauritius the Singapore of the Indian Ocean.

Any Mauritian citizen who denies that that there has been considerable progress since Independence, in particular maintenance of free health and education, and providing an effective social net, would be dishonest. And this is especially in light of the pessimism of the eminent professor Titmuss Meade, of the London Schoool of Economics, and the darkness pervading writer VS Naipaul’s piece Mauritius, The Overcrowded Barracoon during our pre-Independence days. Also, we go along with the democracy tag, but we are not too sure about democratic functioning – which is about how democracy works in practice.

Although Singapore does not have as much of a reputation as Mauritius as regards democracy, when we consider how efficiently and cost-effectively it is run, and the level and quality of services it provides to its law-abiding, well-behaved cirizens, we cannot but come to the conclusion that we are going to be dreaming for a long time indeed! And here we cannot but be in complete agreement with Mr Li Kwong Wing, when he cited a friend of his who said that Singapore does not have an indigenous source of fresh water – but its over 4 million residents never face a shortage of the precious liquid! How? Because it has had an unbroken period of enlightened, serious, committed and farsighted leadership. And it has robust structures and systems in place that delegate authority (and monitor it) and allow decision-making at operational levels by patriotic, highly qualified and paid professionals who also function in a system where transparency and accountability are not simply buzzwords. There is transparency in decision-making – and things do not happen by decree.

Can we reach the level of trust and confidence that prevails in Singapore? And of efficiency, farsightedness, civic sense, respect for law and order, to name but a few?

Six hours of continuous heavy rainfall on Monday sufficed to grind several localities and regions in the country to a halt. Pity that Mr Stiglitz left before that, his article may have been closer to reality.

Our best response would be to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go – and work from there. And take the help of genuine people, wherever they may be situated. Like Mr Li Kwong Wing for example. If the Minister of Finance Pravind Jugnauth were to take his criticisms in a constructive spirit, who knows that the Mauritian miracle might be on the way sooner rather than later?

Worth a try I would say – once the Medpoint mess is sorted out and the political axe is applied where it should be, so the ministry concerned can breathe much-needed fresh air. As ICAC’s slogan goes, ‘Pas guette figir!’

Now that would be a true miracle!

* Published in print edition on 11 March 2011

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