To his credit, whether by political considerations or through the influence of the Fabian society thinkers of the times, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam had the wisdom to keep separate two key ministries: that of the nation’s budget and financial governance and that of the island’s economic development and planning. Accountants peopled the former and could focus on good governance practices, while the latter harboured some of our brighter economists, analysing our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in different industries and also chalking out future prospects of growth and development. It also kept some balance between the short-term and annual horizons with the longer-term and twenty-year perspective, preventing either from hogging the limelight and pulling the rug towards its particular agenda.
Those young economists who staffed that Ministry of Economic Development and Planning (MEDP) then, working on various dossiers of national interest were all enthralled by a job that did not simply pay their monthly stipends, but they felt a sense of worthwhile contribution to our national development priorities and the narrative of Mauritius in the making. Later they would be the architects of pioneering developments both in import substitution industries and, later the push for export-based textile industries, the delocalised « zone franche », or even the freeport. While the political brass was expectedly taking the credit for our successes, few paid tribute to the handful of top-notch bureaucrats and administrators that charted our course from the 80s onwards on the strength of social developments and achievements of the 70s. A history of Mauritius would be incomplete without a chapter on these forbears as the MEPD was eventually dismantled to be integrated in the new massive power centre of Finance.
Some might say that efficiency called for such a shift or that planning, reminiscent of Indian or the Soviet Planning Commissions was out of fashion or again that the Board of Investment or its successor Economic Development Board of a few years ago would be tasked with the planning activities formerly vested with the MEPD. Sadly, as they became peopled with political appointees, nobody remembers any of their achievements, unless of course one counts participation in some international exhibitions or the returning diaspora facilities programme or even the proposed over-the-counter sale of Mauritian passports as noteworthy successes. And so they have whittled themselves down to being grand permit facilitators for the private sector and where every local or foreign investor would look three times before submitting details of any project of some merit for the country, lest he be turned away while some local operator, with expedited clearances, starts the same or a similar project some time later. Unfortunately, that is the reputation of the EDB.
So are these longer-term functions and perspectives still a matter of some importance and, if so, who actually handles that outside of the Ministry of Finance? Who in government has the credibility or authority to analyse our public debt structure, our major investments spree on borrowed monies, the sustainability of our pensions system or simply the future of our students preparing for overseas university studies, perhaps never to come back? Who really cares if those students neither feel that being a political agent or part of the nomenklatura is an enticing prospect and that a generation of our best young minds choose careers elsewhere? Who plans for the challenges of a greener economy when concrete and blocked drains suffuse our common spaces? Who really plans our food security or the economic prospects of our maritime zone on the twenty-year horizon?
As the Minister of Finance prepares to launch his budgetary proposals with some sweeteners which will only come from the general public’s own pockets, we may wonder whether we have reduced our horizons to that lame annual exercise for table-thumpers in the National Assembly.
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 2 June 2023
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