“Inequality and governance failures feed on each other, making the model highly problematic, carrying the seeds of its own instability”

Interview: Nalini Burn, Economist & International Consultant

* ‘We are in murky waters. Gambling, siphoned funds and illegal drug trafficking thrive in our porous frontiers and financial accounts…’

 * ‘From business facilitation by the state, we have the capture of the state itself by private interests’

* ‘Those who have been on the left, while accusing the West of hypocritical double standards are guilty of the same double standards
by absolutely refusing to see that Putin’s Russia is just as imperial’

Nalini Burn, Economist & International Consultant, shares her views on the changes that have taken place after independence, which despite appearances to the contrary are not as rosy as they seem to be. She is concerned about the rapid erosion of the welfare state model by state capture forces that are as one with overt and covert networks of drugs, big money, corruption and shady businesses.

Mauritius Times: It does not seem the celebration of Mauritius’ independence anniversary, to be celebrated symbolically tomorrow, evokes the same feelings and passion that it did 54 years ago. While we could put it down to a few obvious explanations, does it seem to you that we have understood that what independence should mean for us is not just having a President and a Prime Minister, a flag and a national anthem?

Nalini Burn: Over the last years, the official commemoration of Independence Day, has been muted. Yes, it is the only National Day we have. Just a protocolar raising of the flag, perhaps a Covid-compliant state banquet this year and some Rs 30 per school child for the school event.

But I do not think feelings and passions about independence have gone away. Far from it. Its meaning is contested and interpreted in different ways. More of concern: these tensions have just been pushed to the margins to fester and amplify. If one observes the exchanges on many platforms, there is resentment about the state of our politics and who gets to raise the flag as President and Prime Minister.

The recurrent theme is about how dynastic the “alternance” has been over half a century. Behind that are many troubling, divisive themes. About what causes this state of affairs, whether it is the electoral system, the entrenched voting along nepotist, communal lines, the continually controversial question of election finances, the “money politics” that never goes away…I think people do care, even as they resign themselves to vent frustration.

* Mauritius has however come a long way during the last five decades in different fields – on the economic front, in terms of general well-being, social welfare and generally as far as living together as a nation within the framework of a democratic framework – despite some hiccups, fortunately few. We compare favourably with the rest of Africa, don’t we?

About living together as a nation, perceptions, emotions count so much. And it depends who you are. While many voice how they are better off, there are also persistent narratives about how things have got worse since independence. In fact, it seems to me that many trace current ills to political independence and hark back to some idyllic “letan lontan”. This is not just among the then dominant privileged elites and classes. Being better-off is not attributed to independence as such, while being worse-off specifically points the finger at independence. There seems to be no closure on how contested, divisive and violent the experience of independence has been.

Our colonial past cannot be described as idyllic and rosy. Yet the sense of loss is about living together, especially in Port Louis, before the riots of 1968. The nostalgic memory is that living together was the case even in those times of serious poverty and unemployment. So, there may have been a high expectation of the difference that progress and independence would make, together with apprehension that independence was bound to make prospects worse, depending in whose hands the government would be. Many emigrated at the time of political decolonisation because of this “push” factor, but also the “pull” factor of labour shortages in Europe and Australia at the time.

For those who remained, there are diverse and often conflicting perceptions. We do not have a shared sense of our belonging.

Indeed, more than living together in a country created by colonialism, how and when our different ancestors came to Mauritius counts and is still a source of contention. History is no longer taught as a subject at school, despite the considerable knowledge that could demystify and correct biases. Many myths of legitimising one’s national worth are out there. We do have a problem with weighing up historical periods.

Many deplore, with good reason, a perceived dominant view that particularly economic history only seems to meaningfully start with the linking of Mauritius to the British colonial sugar economy as it shifted from slavery to indenture. The creation of a maritime geostrategic hub predating crop production does not seem widely acknowledged as the focus is on sugar.

Today the steady pulling down of many vestiges of tangible built “patrimoine” of the French colonial period is resented. Those stones and earth are testimony to well over a century prior to indenture, of this hub, of different waves of settlement, whether of colonial settlers from Europe, enslaved, indentured, free skilled artisans and traders mainly from Africa and India.

About coming a long way. I think that the seeds of our achievements have been nurtured from the political struggles, trade union formation and social mobilisation, especially from the 1930s onwards. And in response to our exposure to cyclones and climate-related risks as well as global economic crises. Faced with such shocks, women, specially, have responded by defying taboos, discrimination, conflict and violence, to challenge their dependence on men’s power and authority: The sharp drop in fertility, the rapid take-up of jobs in export sectors as in the wake of the ‘overpopulation’ unemployment and macroeconomic crises followed.

This is still not adequately recognised. And every 8th March women are reduced to applauding the powers that be for their patronage, an exercise of vote building for this constituency of women.

To me, general well-being and social welfare have been built on a developmental state modelunderpinned by political action. It made Mauritius a beacon, rightly acclaimed. But the path to progress is not irreversible. What economic and social capital we have built and nourished and what natural ‘capital’ we have extracted, is being depleted- fast. This model valued and sustained public goods – public health, education — as well as other complementary economic and social infrastructure and functioning public services.

Its later neglect created a market for private services. It is on this foundation that our diversified export-import development model(besides sugar) has been based since the1990s. And from mid-2000s onwards it was particularly highly performing. But only if you use conventional economic indicators like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Income. We have been reaping returns from prior investment and from extracting natural wealth.

It is the private market aspect of it which has been highlighted during our “poster boy” heyday of virtuous macroeconomic and economic liberalisation prescriptions, hailed as “miracle”. We are told and/or tell ourselves we are a role model. But we do not take this prior investment into account.

This prior advantage, and the fact that we are a small island state, is to a great extent what made us different from the rest of continental Africa. We are in general stunningly ignorant about the diverse continent we are in and its dynamism. Having worked over decades in so many other African countries, I believe that we have no reason to be complacent about how better off we are.

There are many emerging economic areas where many countries in Africa are surging ahead. And if it is conflict, whether ethnic, tribal, resource grabbing, secessions and civil wars that you are referring to, yes, we are a haven compared to fragile states in conflict, cursed by resources and conflicting, multiple identities. But equally, there is a wealth of knowledge about social capital, conflict mediation and resolution in mainland Africa that we could learn from.

* What are the dark spots in the picture today? Persisting inequality in our society, the governance of the country…?

I would not call them mere dark spots. They are wired into the fabric of our country. We have no reason to be complacent about our democracy and about never becoming a rogue, kleptocratic or failed state. It is not just that ok, on the plus side there is growth, necessary growth and on the minus side is the inequality. Some proponents of our model have also touted it as either necessary and/or inevitable.

The inequality and governance failures feed on each other, making the model highly problematic, carrying the seeds of its own instability. I feel that the extractive and exploitative sugar plantation model is at the heart of our existence as a settler colony. The private public-compact starts early. Many who have benefited from a sugar economy have not really faced a free market, but a state that protected them from all sorts of risks.

It handed out concessions of land and rights to natural resource extraction, disciplined as well as regulated the workers, gave subsidies to, created institutions – the dreaded parastatals -, including financial intermediation institutions to help own land, provide financial capital, insure and incur debt with expected future sugar proceeds as guarantee.

It also compensated out of public funds the loss of slave assets. Other than providing safety nets, the state regulated and arbitrated conflicts between players, including working class and professional institutions such as trade unions. These players became keen to lobby and indeed capture the developmental state.

The biggest exclusion was of those ejected from the sugar economy, with cheaper migrant/indentured labour. The former enslaved apprentices, maroons have been stigmatised for this exclusion and as they sought alternative, marginal livelihoods, some exploiting their land.

So, on the one hand we have a patrimonial capitalism, with entrenched private, male dynasties engaged in wealth accumulation, management and harvesting. It set up the colonial infrastructure to control, police and inhabit remote scattered small islands, without which a sugar plantation economy could not later develop.

On the other hand, those whose forced labour enabled this accumulation of wealth have eked out and sustained livelihoods in the interstices of private unenclosed land and the public domain have been left to fend for themselves with safety nets, mainly in the form of housing after cyclones and welfare payments.

Adopting neoliberalism as from the 2000s has unleashed profit-seeking, business facilitation, seen positively. But it also nurtured a social and cultural model of individualism, opportunities seeking, privatisation and oriented towards consumption as a lifestyle, as marker of identity, status, even of religious affirmation. Private consumption has been one of the drivers of economic growth.

The pursuit of high income, based on debt, at individual and national levels and wealth rewarding incentives have been the dominant mantra for decades. What happens when there are external shocks, as Covid has laid bare and now geopolitical wars? What are the fallback options? We don’t seem to have a vision, strategy and a plan.

This neoliberal mantra has been embedded in every signal and political instruction sent from high up. Speeches, policy documents and budget circulars testify to that. It has been just about the only vision and means of justification of sectoral policies- (do we have them?) of plan (do we have viable ones, implement and monitor them?) and of allocating budgets – in terms of pots of money and not in terms of what the money is to achieve.

With economic liberalisation, a market oriented, profit-seeking ethos has been encouraged in the public sector, slowly displacing the developmental, welfare state. The state has become a site, an enterprise for business facilitation in the new ideology of development. But what does this mean in the nitty-gritty, in actual transactions?

The ways to regulate to protect public goods and ecological services have just buckled in the wake of business facilitation. There is no effective physical development planning control, just a business-driven land use decision-making process. With the results evident in barely sustainable land use patterns vulnerable to climate change, flooding, encroachment of key ecological sites. The business-facilitating public sector ethos opens the way to corruption, to rent-seeking, permeating all areas of public life.

From business facilitation by the state, we have the capture of the state itself by private interests.

* What about the shift to a hub of financial services?

When we look at financial flows and services – money begets money — as a driver of and pillar of economic growth, we are in murky waters. Gambling, siphoned funds and illegal drug trafficking thrive in our porous frontiers and financial accounts. The black economy, its dynamics is the big elephant in the room in “having done well”. How big is it, what drives it and how does it permeate our institutions? How is the money laundering done and how does it feed into the party finances to sustain and expand the client network?

In the absence of a moral political compass and of accountability mechanisms, it is rumour, suspicion and anecdote which thrive. Money begetting money dissolves the moral connection between what is being facilitated and what it generates and who benefits. It also dissolves the link between effort, competence and reward. It breaks down trust, a key public good. I don’t think I would not call these dark spots

* Hiccups have been few and rare, as I mentioned earlier, but Rama Sithanen mentioned earlier in an interview to this paper what his in-depth analysis of the voting patterns of the people over the past six decades, has brought home: the average Mauritian’s electoral preferences go mostly towards candidates from his/her community. What do you think is keeping alive that communally based reflex?

Let’s unpack some more of that communally-based reflex.

Keep in mind that at national, not just local level, we have an electoral system that is based on geographical constituencies. So, the probability of being elected depends on local affinities and loyalties. Map that with patterns of inheritance and social bonding, with extended families still living contiguously, given inheritance and subdivision of plots. I would say, to the extent that people marry within their community and in those with caste-based marriages, you will get caste-based voting patterns.

It is family loyalties that predominate more than work-based ones, particularly when unionisation is not so widespread, weakened, delinked with political ideology. So, religion, community as well as local power relations predominate to attract national level resources locally, rather than aptitude as potential minister and political ideology.

Rival parties compete on the basis of the same electoral lists and addresses. They depend on the ground, fine-grained local knowledge, increasingly assisted now by sophisticated analysts and electoral engineers, often using big data to customise the votes offers.

It also exists because there is a political project to do politics through community/caste variables. And because we have a patrimonial political system, with complex patron- client relations and transactions, based on offering and/or soliciting, bidding for posts, positions, money to the networks. It is an exercise in not just vote capture, but state capture.

It expands – particularly if you are an incumbent government with exclusive access to administrative data, not freely accessible – with the scope for enlarging the portfolio of available posts and matching clientele and being able to extract patronage from private firms, who also finance the elections.

There is also the case that the patron-client relationship extends to relations between interested governments and our own political parties. In this context, community affiliations can become a useful commodity, a constituency to be nurtured, to shore up the patron country’s influence and its leverage. Investment decisions are based more on the patron’s interest rather than the client country’s and are shrouded in opacity. Community is also relevant in geopolitics.

Once this system prevails, majority communities can co-opt other minorities, using the same social relations. And the sheer power of money to shift votes and allegiance in the political market place is not to be underestimated. People sell their services- usually to the highest bidder or the one that can threaten the most retaliatory damage.

* One could argue however that the communally-based electoral reflex has not come in the way of the country’s development and progress. We have survived the hiccups, which have not been long-lasting. We live reasonably well together within and outside the country, there are more interactions across different communities – socially and in the workplace. What’s your take on that?

There is a dearth of social research and research about social trends in this country and about how they may affect voting patterns. Are older people more likely to vote communally, are the young more likely to vote on other criteria? On the other hand, it also appears that broadly targeted populist measures such as pensions, minimum wage regulations, applicable to all those eligible and not communal targeting may also have swung votes. So what is the interplay of all these dynamics and how do they translate into actual votes? Frankly, I don’t know.

I will insist that these are not hiccups. Because the combination of money patronage and how that plays out at the family and this community-level or directly at community-level is rather systemic and corroding.I will also claim that it is coming in the way of a country’s development and progress. Specially because of the associated state capture by private interests who are in power. They are short- term in their orientations and who may ally with powerful private and/or big power to advance other than the national public interest.

The infected body politic cannot shake it off. It has become endemic. It is in my view, and those of others who may not voice out, hollowing out public institutions, subordinating them to the private interests and motives, encourages loyalty to the patron rather than performance.

The culture of “backing” is discouraging countless talents, who leave. Public officers with any sense of duty complain of the politicised nature of the work, frustrating in no small measure any professional approach to work to their mandate. The cut throat culture of touting for political business has shocked many. Public finance management is more in the limelight over procurement during crises, Covid, and now Ukraine than over what the spending is for and whether the debt is sustainable. Crises are opportunities to do business with and in the state.

* On the other hand, what do you think about the unfinished business of “completing the decolonisation process” of the country? We have been to the UN, the International Court of Justice, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) and lately to the Blenheim Reef, but the process remains as elusive as ever. And it appears that it’s likely to remain that way with the onset of Cold War II, don’t you think?

Well, this has been well discussed over and over. Apart from the political gains- bearing in mind the dynastic rivalry, symbolic gains have already been substantial. But bear in mind that the government has already declared that it will ‘lease back’ Diego as a base. However, the existing agreement already seems to permit fishing and to exercise seabed rights.

If one looks at Agalega, over which there is very little information, one wonders what sovereignty really means in terms of a people over its elected representatives. Agalega is our territory, leased and on what terms? We are here mere ignorant subjects.

As far as the ITCLOS is concerned and Blenheim Reef, the reason is over delimitation of territory and competing claims. So, decolonisation means we can engage in conflict resolution with other states competitively, rather than cooperatively as SIDS. Blenheim Reef, if not all submerged, will lead to further territory gains. For what? The real reason: seabed exploration and exploitation.

We are extending the frontiers of our polluting and extractive economic modelShifting from the appellation of Blue economy, toOcean economy says volumes about the priorities. The other UN Conventions on sustaining the seas and global biodiversity will be given short shrift. Who stand to gain from any lucrative transactions?

* What the UN secretary-general, António Guterres stated, in his 2019 new year message, to the effect that ‘geopolitical tensions are at their highest level this century, and this turbulence is escalating… leading more and more countries to take unpredicted decisions with unpredictable consequences and a profound risk of miscalculation’ have turned out to be premonitory. The writing was on the wall, and the world now is living in dangerous times, isn’t it?

Yes, indeed and again this will marginalise the climate emergency by the way. It takes the reckless military adventure of an autocratic ruler hell bent on recreating the Great Slav Russian Empire, with its theocratic establishment, to throw a — hopefully not nuclear – spanner in the works in current geopolitical alignments.

Europe, for centuries the theatre of bloody wars, is embroiled again in ways that have profoundly shocked its civilian population. How can the attack of a sovereign country be the way to resolve disputes? And without calculating what could be the counter reactions, apart from those he has anticipated, tested and already factored in as positive for the Russian case.

* What is it that disappoint/s you the most about the current Russia/Ukraine conflict? The double standards of the Western powers and/or that of the mainstream media?

I will not frame my answer in terms of the choices you have given me but nevertheless address them.

First, the conflict or issue goes back centuries, as mentioned, predating the existence of NATO and the USA among the Western powers. Second, what disappoints me, and from some understandably, is the framing of the issue only in terms of the anti-West racist hegemony, and from the post WWII existence of NATO and the Cold War with Warsaw Pact countries.

There is no doubt about the Western powers’ being wrong and duplicitous on the Iraq and Libyan Wars of aggression and regime change. But what does that then mean about reacting to Putin doing the same not just for Ukraine but others that he considers as vassal states or those with no right to exist as sovereign state and ripe for supporting separatist parts? Let it happen? No, not on the grounds of the UN Charter, if sovereignty and territorial integrity is to mean anything at all!

The most disappointing part to me is that those who have been on the left, anti-imperialist, while accusing the West of hypocritical double standards are guilty of the same double standards by absolutely refusing to see that Putin’s Russia is just as imperial, as authoritarian, sectarian supportive of far-right conspiracies and socially conservative misogynist ideologies and theologies.

They seem to be part of the information war that he has built to great effect. Not using mainstream media as such- do you mean this as a proxy for Western media? but an army of bots and trolls amplifying and giving legitimacy to the disinformation on social media, which it picks up on his own media. They are in alliance with the extreme right. To me this is shattering.

There is so much else about how Putin does not support African freedom fighters and liberation forces. He shores up, through private military contractors, like Wagner, authoritarian military dictatorships (Syria), warlords (Libya), those engaged in territory and resource grabbing in Africa, as foremost military service provider.

* The most pressing question today in light of the new geopolitical tensions is: How do we position ourselves intelligently and leverage our position? What are your thoughts on that?

Yes definitely. We have run out of time and geopolitical space! Work out what are in our interests, taking stock of what our situation is and position ourselves, from our vantage point, not of others, as we seem to do presently. Decolonisation does not end like this.


* Published in print edition on 11 March 2022

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