What country are we bequeathing to our children?

The model of economic liberalism in place has profoundly widened inequalities, failed to assure inclusive prosperity for all or meet the aspirational needs of people

What country are we going to bequeath to our children and to future generations? This is a burning question which confronts and challenges every Mauritian as we survey the chequered journey and development path during the near 50 years since our independence. The picture is far from being bright. The dreams of those who fought and won independence for a better future for the people and their children and descendants in the country have been thwarted by inept policies and systemic poor governance by those in power.

Instead, there is growing evidence among the people of the exodus of their children and grandchildren who opt in increasingly larger numbers to work abroad as it seems easier for them to get a job in line with their qualifications overseas than in their own country. The causes of this deplorable situation are many. They include nepotism, the crying absence of a level playing field in respect of opportunities, transparent and merit based employment and the overbearing interference of government and its nominated appointees and advisors in government administration and state institutions.

Similarly, the hotel industry is losing a share of its staff to better terms of employment and broader experience on leisure cruises. An increasing number of families are therefore coming to terms with the grim and painful reality of being separated from their children and grandchildren. The successful future and well-being of their progeny remains their prime consideration. However, the majority of the young do not have this choice. They must get a job and define their future in the country.

This exodus is detrimental to the country as those who choose to work abroad include some of our most qualified and best brains and talent, who given the choice would probably have preferred to work here. The pursuit of excellence by people of all walks of life is evidenced by the list of laureates announced this week. In the absence of cogent national policies to systematically harness these valuable human resources and their multi-disciplinary skills for the common good, the billions of Rupees invested in the enormous annual education ministry budget and by parents in the university studies of their children abroad are basically contributing to the advancement of other countries.

Major step back

This trend is also fuelled by the substantial fall in purchasing power and widening inequality in income over time in the country. While the post independence generation could certainly afford to invest in basic existential needs such as a house or a car to commute to work or on holiday trips from their savings and bequeath assets including land to their children, this is quasi-impossible for the young university educated cadre of today to do from his meagre savings. This is a major step back for the country as it depicts, above all, the failure of our model of economic development to meet the basic aspirational needs of people.

This is evidenced by the jolting statistics that some 345,150 or 80.7% of the 427,700 employees in 2016 earned up to 25,000 per month whereas some 8,500 or 2% of the employees earned a salary exceeding Rs 75,001 per month. How can such a situation be sustainable in a context of growing inequality and escalating real estate values across the country fuelled by generous fiscal largesse by government in support of promoters of smart city and other property development schemes which allow the sale of a major share of their residential properties to foreigners? Such a policy is basically denying larger swathes of mainstream Mauritius the unalienable right to buy a house or flat or buy land and build a house of his choice. Our policy should instead be to graduate through higher standards of living more and more people out of social housing. Social housing is a stark symbol of the widening inequality in the country. Building more social housing units in essence epitomizes the failure of government policy and its economic model.

New political culture

It is more and more evident that the politicians and political parties entrusted with the governance of the country have failed the country and the people in so many ways. The idealism, promises of a fairer and better socio-economic order and an unstinted commitment of service to the people of the founding fathers of our fight for freedom have after independence been supplanted by a new political culture and a new breed of politicians bent on relentlessly wresting and holding on to power and its trappings by all means.

The people had expected that elementary logic would require every government after independence to unwaveringly beef up their ranks from among the most qualified and talented persons in the country who have the collective intellect to devise innovative policies to continuously improve the standard and quality of life of the multitude. From the word go successive governments and the political leaders of the various parties have chosen to surround themselves by subservient apparatchiks and duds and appoint the coterie in key government posts to strengthen their stranglehold on government and the party. The upshot is that the country and the people have been short changed by such an overbearing mindset.

It is therefore no wonder that the questionable choices of candidates by parties have been exposed so many times over the past decades in scandals and behaviour unbecoming of Ministers, MPs or elected representatives of the people. These range from MPs crossing the floor for posts and favour, the shameful episode of the Amsterdam boys in 1985 when an MP was caught at the airport with 20 kgs of heroin to the various scandals and wrongdoings of Ministers and MPs under the present government.

Political power in the country during the near 50 years after independence has in the teeth of elementary democratic principles been monopolized by only three elected prime ministers, two of whom belong to the same family. The current nominated prime minister does not have the legitimacy of a formal mandate which can only be conferred by the people at the polls. The leaders of the main political parties who have been repeatedly disavowed by the people and defeated at the polls refuse to step down to enable fundamental reform and an induction of new talent to give a new impetus to the parties. They have become masters at foiling every palace revolution with the help of their cohort of party apparatchiks. Despite being discredited, they hold the parties hostage and keep concocting new game plans to wrest power. The relentless pursuit of power by political leaders for power’s sake has corrupted and blemished our democracy.

Failed economic liberalism

The model of economic liberalism in place has profoundly widened inequalities, failed to assure inclusive prosperity for all or meet the aspirational needs of people and imposed low wages. In 2016, some 166,800 employees of principally the private sector eked out a living out of earnings of up to Rs 10,000 per month. With the end of preferential agreements, the traditional private sector seems to be out of its depths to adapt to the many daunting challenges of a more competitive, sophisticated and liberalized world market environment.

However, government incapable of sorting the wheat from the chaff and desperate to showcase growth is endorsing all private sector proposals hook, line and sinker. This is for example evidenced by government’s questionable stance on the sugar sector despite the annual losses incurred by the sugar producers from the uneconomic sale of sugar. In contrast, the main thrust of private sector investment is heavily skewed in potentially lucrative real estate developments on their substantial land assets. This begs so many questions. How do these projects create employment for the thousands of qualified young coming on the market every year? What business opportunities do the diverse projects create for SMEs and other economic actors in their respective region? Shouldn’t such deliverables as well as environmental and socio-economic fallouts on the broader economy be monitored and accurately measured?

Generous grants from friendly counties or the sale of luxury villas to foreigners are a one-off transaction. They cannot be a substitute for budgetary rigour. The policy of continuously increasing government expenditure whilst the tax base is narrow is financially untenable. A standard tax rate applicable to all widens inequality. As is the case in other lay democracies, politics and religion must be kept apart. The religious establishments must stick to their calling and help remedy the appalling fall in moral values. When will they finally proscribe speeches by politicians at pious events to commemorate religious festivals and celebrations?

Noble calling

Politics should and can be a special and noble calling. The inspiring examples of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela are vivid reminders of the standard of ethics, ideals, commitment of service to the people, probity and altruism expected of the political class. The continuous well-being and upliftment of the people has to be at the centre of government action and initiatives. Only aspiring politicians imbued with such core ideals and values and making the cut in terms of qualifications and proven talent should therefore be chosen by the political parties as candidates to seek the mandate of the people. Every Tom, Dick and Harry cannot therefore be chosen by the political parties as candidates.

The present snapshot of the country is therefore damning and a scathing indictment of successive governments who have failed the people. The catalyst of fundamental change has to be the judicious choice of people entrusted to run the country. They have to be among the most qualified and talented of the country and be imbued with the loftiest ideals, values and ethics.

It is only such a team which would have the intellect to define the type of country we would be proud to bequeath to our children and future generations. A country of equal opportunities, inclusive prosperity anchored on values of unity, solidarity and meritocracy. A country with a model of economic development which provides impetus to growth through significant value addition and bridges inequality and an innovative policy framework which ushers fundamental reforms and brings about sustained improvement in standards of living and the quality of life of the multitude. We cannot bequeath anything less.

 

* Published in print edition on 9 February 2018

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