The Importance of Strong Institutions


One striking feature of countries which have drifted into anarchy or misrule is that all of them have a weak institutional structure.

We are lucky in Mauritius that not only have we inherited respected public institutions, such as an independent Judiciary, an independent Director of Public Prosecutions, an Electoral Commission, a Public Service Commission, a Police Department and an independent Director of Audit, from the British and preserved them. We have also set up a few prominent ones of our own (like the Medical Council the University of Mauritius, the Bank of Mauritius, the Financial Services Commission, the Financial Intelligence Unit, the Independent Commission against Corruption — a successor to the Economic Crime Office –, the Human Rights Commission, the Competition Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission) and strengthened those institutions with the passage of time.

It is one thing to have any number of institutions in a country but which hardly perform the role for which they have been designed. It is quite another thing when institutions stand up to perform their duties without fear or favour. It is not that under-performing countries in the rule-of-law context do not have a plethora of the self-same institutions that you have in the well reputed countries. They have them all. But those institutions fail to live up to their mission either because political powers that be, have scorched them or because their top brass are not equipped  morally and mentally well enough to do their duty as it should be done. Having or not having efficiently functioning institutions can make the difference between a country which achieves and one which does not.

Even if well-established institutions were to err on occasion, it does not matter. One can always appeal and get things sorted out or come up with greater clarity. So long they have a track record of delivering the chapters which have been entrusted to them, sufficient confidence is created in the country as a whole for the economy and society to move on. It must be admitted that countries like Singapore have derived a lot more strength from the efficient operation of their institutions than we have done. Regardless of whether the institutions belong to the public or private domain, they have consistently aimed to do the very best they can. They have lent to Singapore an image of a reliable place in which to do business. This has contributed to the country’s advancement among the top rankers of the world according to several indices of good performance. Good performance on a series of key indicators has collectively uplifted Singapore beyond the reach of others who do well on one count or two but not on all. By dint of hard and persistent work, across-the-board reputation for seriousness has been created by this country and this is by no means a negligible factor for the upward march of a relatively small economy.

At one time, the Indian Electoral Commission, took the bull by the horns because it was then headed by a man who meant business. Politicians used to winning elections by capturing polling booths and by recourse to other corrupt practices so far had to reckon with this new force and there was a complete changeover in India on how elections will be conducted henceforth. Not only did th Electoral Commissioner TN Seshan get the compulsory use of the ID cards for voting established, the system even embarked on electronic voting later. It was an institution that knew what its mission was and how to set out about it to put it right after decades of sloth and generalised anarchy.

The Indian Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), a legacy of the British Raj, is another public body which has asserted itself quite aggressively in recent years. Shifting its focus from corruption in the case of 2G spectrum allocation the effect of which was to send high executives and even a minister behind bars, It has now gone on to expose a possible case of public under-selling of coal mine allocations involving huge financial losses, in the CAG’s opinion, to the Indian Treasury. This amount of activism on the part of a public body like the CAG has caught attention even though the figures it has quoted may be wrong and it may be failing to grasp the broader outlook of the subject at the spill-over level on the Indian economy. Setting right what is wrong does not go far enough when done on a piecemeal basis. This is where India (and other countries) has a lot to gain by acting on all loopholes all at once. The risk is that the thief may appear many years later at another unsuspected spot if you don’t catch at once the beast head and tail and all.

The working of public and private institutions in different countries shows that it is possible to bring improvements to the outlook of a country other than by the political establishment alone. Some of them produce their result by acting through the deterrence factor. Others define the platform which is most conducive to overall progress by implementing their agenda forcefully. They will brook no delay or distraction from their main goal(s). On a combined basis, institutions working at this level offer the best chance a country has to forge ahead. Those in charge of such institutions have to constantly round up their rough edges lest they allow a suboptimal condition to persist due to an inherent situation of conflict. For this to happen, the fundamental quest should be that of competence and qualification of those in charge. Competent people normally also have a drive. This drive or efficiency is what opens up new horizons rather than making unworthy behemoths of otherwise useful institutions.

It cannot be said of Mauritius that we have been benefiting from this kind of drive and efficiency from all our institutions. Many of them pass the buck. The result is an uncomfortable status quo. Others wait for decisions to be taken elsewhere as a justification for non-action on their own part. In some cases, one is at odds to understand their inconsistent attitudes posted from time to time throwing into doubt the supreme principle they are supposed to stand for. Some executives who take decisions contrary to the wishes of political party financiers are perpetually scolded by part of the media until they fall in line or until they are ejected. Such an environment does not bring about the assertiveness of office holders we see in places like Singapore, especially when personal interest may lead them to justify the most inexcusable of situations of conflict in which they may be putting themselves into. If we become expert at twisting and presenting situations which actually they are not, we risk losing that basic institutional power which distinguishes a successful country from one that is not. All of us will stand to lose if our institutional heads do not speak out blunt facts but pay only lip service to their enjoined duties when personal interest takes the upper hand. At this stage, it is desirable that we give a boost to those institutions which stick to their duties unflinchingly and harmoniously enough for the common good.

* Published in print edition on 31 August 2012

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