Interview : Manisha Dookhony – Economist
* ‘With the the Covid pandemic and the economic crisis facing us, our focus should be on defining ways for economic recovery. All the scandals are unfortunately deviating us all from this’
* ‘The mere fact that the Kistnen case is requiring a judicial inquiry and that lawyers are having to become detectives, is an indication that something is wrong somewhere’
Manisha Dookhony, qualified in economics and Public Administration from Harvard University, shares her views on a number of events and issues currently of concern to the country. For her our public administrative system needs in-depth reforms so as to make our institutions truly independent in their functioning and regain the trust of the public. She cites the example of Rwanda where this has happened. She also thinks that we need to refocus our efforts towards accessing new markets given the changed conditions caused by the Covid pandemic. She agrees that our political parties need an infusion of new blood and is engaged with citizens at grassroots level in various localities to promote the idea.
Mauritius Times: What would your generation be thinking about the bad news that have dominated the headlines in the country since these past few weeks? I am referring in particular to the Angus Road saga and to what’s coming out in the judicial inquiry into the suspicious death of MSM activist Soopramanien Kistnen?
Manisha Dookhony: We are still unsure about the facts in all these affairs and we should be careful not to jump to conclusions. In the latter case, the general thought coming out of several conversations is the feeling of mistrust in the working of our institutions. If it is proven that a crime was indeed labelled a suicide, this is worrisome as institutions meant to protect the interest of the public would then appear to be involved in cover-ups. The mere fact that the latter case is requiring a judicial inquiry and that lawyers are having to become detectives, is an indication that something is wrong somewhere.
* True, a lot of what has been heard lately are mere allegations that have yet to pass the test of judicial scrutiny. But is there the feeling that we have somehow entered into rough and violent waters?
As an economist, I would say that the times that we are living now are already rough. With the annus horribilis we have lived through with the Covid pandemic and the economic crisis facing us, our focus should be on defining ways for economic recovery. All the scandals are unfortunately deviating us all from this. We seem to be in some sort of a board game played at the national level, with us, citizens as pawns in this game. People have been quite angry regarding the alleged insider contracts that happened during the great lockdown.
There are many cleavages that have been exacerbated recently along party lines, between the public and the private sectors. We should be careful not to be distracted from the real challenges. Now is the time for us to stand together as a nation and come up with solutions to get out of these testing times.
* Without prejudicing the outcome of the judicial inquiry, does it seem to you however that our investigative bodies in the field of law and order may be may be falling short of the expectations of the public?
There are many good, competent and ethical people in investigative bodies in the country. However, we are not safe from rogue elements within institutions and those who try to influence the working within institutions.
When I analyze issues arising out of the incidents being uncovered one after another, it seems that there is a need to review the functioning of our public administrative system, modernizing it, putting in checks and balances and in particular reducing interference – these are essential to ensure rendering of justice.
Montesquieu’s inspired principle of the separation of powers is still considered today as an essential element of democratic governments and that needs reminding and reinforcing.
* One could argue that there is something fundamentally wrong when allegations are levelled at a Government minister in what could turn out to be a criminal case, and when a former Commissioner of Police is ordered by the Supreme Court to report to the Central CID to submit explanations, likely “under warning”, in the investigation relating to the issue of a passport to a drug trafficker. Do you think that’s indeed the case, or would you say the system is working?
I am not an expert on these affairs and only know of what I hear in the news. Mauritius is not privy to such affairs. French politician Francois Fillon is now serving a two-year jail term for a case of ‘emploi fictif’. Nicolas Sarkozy is facing numerous cases of corruption, influence peddling and attempted bribery of a judge. In other countries, accused figures often step down or aside voluntarily to allow investigations to proceed unhindered.
On another note, the fact that the former commissioner of police is being investigated under warning is something that would have perhaps not happened if we were in a total ‘non-democracy’.
The role of the press as the 4th pillar of democracy is important to highlight. The mere fact that the press is asking questions indicates that some elements of democracy are still working.
* On the other hand, economists/economic historians would tell us that countries that succeed owe a lot to, amongst others, the robustness and independence of their institutions. Do you think that institutions that should be fostering and sustaining democracy in the country, like the National Assembly, for example, are living up to the expectations of the people?
I believe a lot in institutions and part of my work across the African continent is to help governments prioritize and implement reforms so as to create efficient institutions for delivery of economic services.
Rwanda is an example of how reforms within institutions have not only rendered the country relatively corruption free but also very efficient in attracting business. Madagascar has started on the path of modernizing its institutions and there is already good traction. Namibia, another country that I advise, has already started looking at changes to economic governance to equip the country with more robust institutions through its Harambee prosperity plan. Large and strategic investors are already eyeing opportunities in the country.
Institutions are important because they help cement, protect and organize a country. Countries in the high income bracket are characterized as having high levels of institutional capacity and integrity. Deep reforms will be required. We tick the box in terms of the existence of institutions. However, when it comes to outcome and delivery of these institutions, it is far from what is needed for us to be competitive and successful. To maintain the status of high-income country, we cannot continue having institutions stuck in another era.
* As regards the state of our economy in the wake of the Covid pandemic, the private sector would want us to believe that economic recovery hinges on the reopening of our borders, whilst the Government would seem to believe that a Covid vaccine will see us through the current crisis and back to the previous normal. Is it as simple as that?
Vaccines will help to a certain measure, but will not be the solution to all our economic woes. Even reopening the borders with no restrictions, no quarantine, no PCR test is not a guarantee that tourists will come again.
There are over 100 vaccine candidates currently being developed across the world. Four of the most promising ones are the ones being developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna using messenger-RNA. Data released shows both vaccines are highly effective, with minimal side effects. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has obtained regulatory approval in Britain. It will be rolled out in the US in a few days. The Moderna vaccine will soon be approved. The AstraZenaca vaccine is already under clinical trials in many parts of the world. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine being developed in collaboration with Harvard Medical School scientists is expected to complete phase 3 trials in January 2021.
Although a lot of hope is being put on vaccines, we need to be aware that vaccines will not be available so quickly, there will be a lot of logistics issues, their worldwide distribution is not easy and there will have to be a priority list. The remarkable thing however is that for the first time in history a vaccine has been developed so fast. The US’s top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Faucci expects that if the vaccine campaign goes well, we should be seeing the end of the pandemic there towards end of 2021.
Thus there is still a long road ahead. In a couple of weeks we are speaking with Stéphane Bancel the CEO of Moderna, a Harvard alumnus who has used mRNA sequencing to develop the vaccine. I will be able to know a bit more then.
* What according to you would be required to get GDP growth back in the positives?
It will certainly take some time to re-ignite the economy. We should not expect tourism numbers to simply jump back to where they were at the same time last year. We will not have as many people who want to invest in the country in the current sectors. Trade will remain disrupted. It is not sure that some jobs will come back.
Our economy has been fuelled by consumption, infrastructure investment by the government and real estate investments. It will take a lot of concerted effort and a real change in strategy to bring actual new productive investments to our shores.
Many countries across Africa are already surfing on new changes and trends in the world. With changes in geopolitics and trade wars, companies are opting to find alternatives to production in China for example. In that event, some countries are already gearing up to welcome electronics and non-textiles goods manufacturing. I think we could also diversify in a comprehensive manner our manufacturing and attract big players. Unfortunately, I hear too often that our companies are not competitive as labour is too costly. If that is so, my question is how does France or Germany continue to produce and export?
We will need to think seriously about modernizing our agribusiness and putting in the means to do so. Modernization does not only mean putting in machines to cut cane, but it also means looking at fruit and vegetable production in a more modern and ecology-friendly manner as is being done in places like South Africa, Singapore or New Zealand.
We need to refocus our export and import activities towards accessing new markets. Business access to the Chinese market will be made easier with the Mauritius-China free trade agreement becoming operational. We are already exporting more to Africa than we did 10 years ago. We will need to enhance these linkages and expand value chains across the Indian Ocean and African region.
We will have to develop a new and enhanced economic diplomacy with diplomatic and economic missions in more countries across Africa if we want to have a real Africa-focused strategy.
Finally, I think there should be a real focus on competence first, rather than putting in people in decision-making places based on their affiliation and affinity. We are in serious rough waters. We need competent people to help steer the ship. We have come together with a team of professional economists and statisticians of Mauritius and are actively thinking about the solutions for coming out of this crisis. We shall be able to share our comprehensive thoughts over the next few weeks.
* On the political front, we would like to believe that the people are fed up with the way politics is being conducted locally; they might be looking forward to see change happening at that level as well as with regard to the faces leading the political parties. But with no alternative in view, the people might end up saying: ‘Vaut mieux Navin/Paul’. How do you react to that?
What I hear more often are people, young and old and from all social circles, saying that we need a new breed of leaders, with strong ethics and who would have a real vision for Mauritius, not just a vision for themselves or their inner circle.
There is already more citizen engagement and I would say that with new tools and the youth of today, there shall be more engagement of citizens. I have also noted that this engagement is not only of youth. It is also of elder people who want to see change happen for future generations.
There are many potential alternative politicians. However, it is really hard for small parties to succeed as money matters in elections and small parties do not have the reach that larger parties have. With promises and higher means, members of small parties are easily poached by larger parties. What I see however is that some mainstream parties have started investing in younger members with some of them really doing well. Hence, we may see the new breed emerging from within the ranks of established parties.
* We understand that you together with two academics tried your hand at changing the equation with the Mauritius Society Renewal, but that does not seem to have had the desired impact. What has the experience taught you?
We launched MSR in 2017 with a view to enhance citizen engagement. We have been engaged in several civic engagements via workshops, awareness videos, papers, opinions, articles, conference in the margin of the 50th anniversary of Mauritius, on rethinking the constitution. We have seeded ideas on a larger set of rights in our constitution which is now being discussed within other forums.
Last week we conducted a Factchecking workshop supported by the University of Mauritius, the US Embassy and AfricaCheck this week, and came up with two very concrete ‘way forward’. We will be creating a community of factcheckers which will help create awareness on misinformation. We are also creating a Fellowship program where fellows will become our ambassadors. Through that fellowship we shall be able to approach our engagement in locations across the island as our fellows come from across Mauritius, including villages like Banane, Tyack, Quatre Soeur, Ilot, Creve Coeur or Triolet.
* Published in print edition on 15 December 2020