By TP Saran
The water crisis and other matters of national concern that have been brought to the public centre stage since the beginning of this year should be viewed by the government as an opportunity to consider the setting up of an Institute of Public Policy and Development Planning. It might seem plain horse sense to appreciate that if there is no planning of the country’s development there will be no planned development – it will then take place haphazardly…
… and each project will be a stand-alone with respect to others and without any consideration whatsoever of the overall impacts of the several projects going on, their implications for the country’s resources – physical, geographical, economic, financial, etc., – and the impact on the lives and living conditions of its population.
The consequences of this absence of integrated development are all too visible: besides an asymmetrical use and depletion of the country’s vital, limited resources and major changes in the landscape not all of which are desirable or beneficial, there are also glaring socio-cultural drifts. Further, the weaknesses of government and the State are being exposed – which is not a bad thing in itself, as it allows citizens to get a glimpse into the dysfunctions that have plagued us for several decades. But from this point onwards, it is the duty of thinking citizens to make constructive suggestions in the national interest, and what follows purports to be an example in line with this spirit.
It is quite surprising that the authorities have never thought of setting up such an institute as we marched – I would not use the expression ‘progress’ – towards Middle Income Country status. We gloated over the fact that we had made it to a higher economic level, and this veneer of our development status made us indifferent to all the other aspects bar the per capita, to which was added such other dubious distinctions as the Mo-Ibrahim index. They mean what they mean. In other words, a mere snapshot of output, and not of outcome which wiser Bhutan has embarked upon to measure with a more refined yardstick: Gross National Happiness.
While President Sarkozy has called upon Nobel Prize winner economist Amartya Sen and another colleague of his to work out an equivalent index for France, and in the UK an academician has engaged government in a similar exercise, in Mauritius those who are responsible for the country’s future have given no indication whatsoever that they have even so much as heard of these steps taken by our former colonizers and currently partners in a number of fields.
Instead, and especially in the past decade and a bit, the country has been subjected to the ultra-capitalist logic heavily skewed in favour of Big Capital. The effects are there for all to see. Notwithstanding the litany of facts and figures dished out by MOFED, couched in a jargon that was meant to impress but failed to, the fact remains that what is happening at MOFED seems to be far removed from the fundamental crises that are hitting the country, in terms of its basic needs such as water, transport and energy. That is because MOFED has been catapulted into pure econometric mode, and the uninitiated in the government apparatus have been taking all that comes out of this model as gospel truth. Therefore the country is soon to be without drinking water, food insecurity looms large, transport problems are overwhelming and for access to the capital probably a helicopter service will shortly be needed – and will be available only to those with fat wallets!
There is no mechanism in this country for structured public policy analysis and formulation and for development planning.
That is why we are in such a mess. To get out of it, we must take a long-term view of our development, and set up the structure which the times demand. Before our Independence and for some years afterwards, there was a clear vision of what was vital for the country and objectives were set with matching strategies to achieve them e.g. setting up of the University of Mauritius, building from scratch a foreign service and diplomatic corps, securing the sale of our monocrop sugar, creating an economic zone, expanding the educational sector and opportunities, widening the cultural space in a harmonious manner, and so on.
We are now in a different situation altogether. There are so many competing local, regional and global forces and interests that it is no longer possible for any single person to understand all the complexities and to make sense of them before taking the crucial decisions for the country. Developed and many developing countries have Departments or Schools of Public Policy based in universities, or similar think-tanks which carry out research and extensive studies that provide the data inputs necessary for a comprehensive planning process. And economists are only one of the categories of experts who carry out this important work on behalf of the country. Equally important are professionals drawn from such fields as sociology, political economy, program evaluation, policy analysis, and public management. There are also development experts, land use and environmental specialists and, it goes without saying, professionals from other fields who are regularly consulted or co-opted so as to strengthen the team and enrich the thinking process.
Given that competing interest groups are constantly trying to influence policy makers in their favour, and that individuals and groups often attempt to shape public policy through education, advocacy or mobilization of such interest groups, it would certainly be in the public interest and a highly commendable decision for the government to show transparency by directing such pressures towards an independent body. Its job would be to analyse any proposal in all its dimensions, interacting with whatever government department it deems is appropriate, have inputs from the private sector too if necessary, prioritize, factor in funding options, and present scenarios to the authorities for their final decision in full knowledge of what the decision entails. No one will be able to point a finger at the authorities.
Even the Prime Minister’s vision can be given its due attention by such an institute, and if the latter’s independence of functioning and institutional integrity is guaranteed by the choice of the thinkers of calibre who will be called upon to guide it, he can remain confident that whatever advice he would be given would be of the highest standard, objective, and most likely to be accepted across board at national level. That would surely save him and his government the types of unnecessary headaches that are currently the grist of the mill for the Opposition and its independent supporters.
A high-level, robust entity of excellence that may also eventually serve the region, that is what this country needs in the form of an Institute of Public Policy and Development Planning.
* Published in print edition on 10 June 2011