Of Doers, Bean counters and Visionaries

By R. Chand

The Governor of the Central Bank is blunt. His words that he does not mince may have hit a wave of hostility within the intellectual elite and some institutions. He has the habit of steering us into uncharted waters, into an unknown destination. Does he deserve a cheer from the shoreline, or a blast on the foghorn?

Manou Bheenick is not the new kid on the block whom we have inherited from some international institutions busy producing purely academic stuff. He has won his spurs both as Director and Minister of the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development (MEPD) spearheading its evolution from traditional functions and policy adjustment preoccupations to a progressive involvement in all major initiatives to enable the economy and public institutions to be outwardly focussed. The institution gradually imposed itself from a position of strength as an initiator and facilitator of change not only at the domestic level, namely the NLTPS, the NEDC, BOI, NPCC, IVTB, FSPA, but also at the regional level and further afield e.g. its lead role in the Indian Ocean Commission, the SADC, Cross Border Initiative and the IOR-ARC.

The narrative of change is the story of people who embody it. Sometimes it takes a fired imagination to get things moving and Manou Bheenick is convinced that, now more than ever, the country needs such initiatives if the horizons for future progress are to widen and for Mauritius to shape its new role in a world faced with new realities.

The march of history does not have only one drumbeat. At every point in the century it has been taken down side alleys and run up against the barricades of those who think differently. At the cusp of the 21st century we badly needed “avant gardistes” institutions, thinkers, leaders and visionaries who will also be looking for the difficulties on the road ahead. Manou Bheenick did try to provide a platform for addressing such issues.

The National Economic Development Council, or NEDC, and later reframed into the NESC was supposed to be the “avant gardiste” institution that looks for signposts on the road ahead – the many issues where there is a need for deeper analysis, discussions and debates and consensus building. It was supposed to serve as a joint think tank and pressure group.

“But it is a pressure group with a difference since it can apply pressure either on Government or on the private sector, depending on who needs prodding on the particular issue concerned at that particular moment in time. It is a well known fact that politicians are averse to take measures that are unpopular and prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. The NESC had the explicit mandate to build consensus, especially on thorny issues, and to bring them up to the position where the political class can take over without paying too high a political price. To do that, the NESC is comprised of individuals who are there in a personal capacity.It makes for a healthy atmosphere where there are no sacred cows, no “no-go” areas, and everything can be examined in an objective and non-partisan manner. Reports and recommendations are publicly debated…” Manou dixit.

The NESC was expected to give meaning to the multifarious struggles of the Mauritian people for greater control of their own lives, for decent standards of health, education, housing, nutrition, for social justice, etc. We had thus every reason to look forward to a new Mauritian model that best integrates the principles of top-down and bottom-up participation with a pragmatic orientation to find consensual solutions to the concerns and issues such that we will be able to work together more effectively and succeed in turning that old adage “nothing about us without us” into reality.

But the doers led by Ministry of Finance (MOFED), the TINAs, who believed that there were no alternatives to what they were proposing, killed all the debates and thus did not give a chance for the NESC to succeed. They imposed their short-term view of things. The urgent wins over the important, tactic triumphs over strategy and patronage over public good. For the past five years they have failed to provide us with an image more in tune with our reality. They failed to produce a shared vision – a common ground between government, entrepreneurs, the middle class and the poor. In fact our ideas for the Mauritian economy have in recent years become more ghettoised than ever. The nebulous policy diktats bereft of all logic or explanation — Aid for trade, Circular migration, Comesa Fund, IRS and ERS and the gated communities and the latest ones — a rainy day fund or stopgap summer schools for CPE poor performers — could not have been more unlikely or blinkered in its vision and cannot be said to be visionary ideas to chart the way forward for the country.

The doers — the bean counters — are unable to think over, push through and implement critical ideas. For example, the Civil service reform often meets with resistance because for them it is a tool for curbing government spending through personnel and wage cuts rather than creating a skilled and efficient government workforce.

Mauritius Inc. is seriously concerned about the absence of decision-making on regional cooperation issues. While they were waiting for Mauritius to emerge as the service node linked to a huge network of manufacturing ventures all the way through East Asia and into the Indian Subcontinent and as an ideal conduit for inter African and Asian trade, India was already establishing an economic footprint on the continent bolstered by its centuries-old ties of trade across the Indian Ocean and a million-strong Indian Diaspora across Africa.

India is already present in capacity building of institutions such as a new centre in Uganda to train business about global markets, a diamond processing facility in Botswana and assistance to cotton farmers in four of the continent poorest countries. Bharti Airtel’s $10 billion takeover of Zain’s Africa business has made mobile call cheaper. Africa now consumes almost 15% of India’s total generics drug production with Cipla and Dr Reddy’s being the biggest supplier of HIV remedies. Mauritius being a packager of investment and joint ventures for the African market, you said! When?

Africa is emerging as the next big market for trade and investment globally and Mauritius should fashion its policies accordingly. Indeed there is an urgent need for a policy that helps Mauritian industries to set up overseas business in the continent. Local banks in Africa, with limited capacities, have been found wanting in backing foreign ventures. That’s where our banks can be asked to scale up operations in Africa and “not miss out on the critical ingredients of the recipe to add greater value and to move to the next stage of development.”

There is little discussion about the extent to which policies pursued in recent years have promoted growth, little debate on the manner in which these policies have been imposed or how they have increased economic security and sense of powerlessness. And a host of crucial national issues remain ignored, the most galling being food security, energy, education, skills upgrading and public sector and health sector reforms. For the past few years, we have become adept at finding our way round our obstacles in policies. But these detours around ineffective and unreformed systems are shaping a growth path for Mauritius that is very different from the one we intended or expected.

The threats to the Mauritian economy lie here in these unswept corners of policy that we now avoid and step around because they will determine the country Mauritius is set to become. For instance, as the chasm between the haves and have-nots is deepening, people are cordoning themselves in gated housing communities with private supplies of electricity, water and security. And our education system continues creating thousands of educated illiterates who cannot string a coherent paragraph together and whose certificates are not worth the paper they are printed on.

There are many ideas that have largely been missing from our public discourse even though they are critical to our future. Many of our ideas and reforms have followed economic templates that have proved successful across the world and our corporations have modelled themselves on best practices and standards. But Mauritius’ new challenges are demanding much more of us in innovative new ideas as existing solutions for issues like heath, energy and environment have proved ineffective around the world.

Manou Bheenick’s advice to the Fiji government in his address ( Mauritius and Fiji: Oceans Apart – Or Just Islands Apart?”) at the National Economic Summit held in Suva, Fiji, back in 1995, is still very pertinent today especially for our doers – “If I were in your shoes, I would give top priority to creating the conditions for economic growth and develop an agenda for growth by consensus on both the content and the pace of reform. I would build up a national alliance for growth, drawing on all available talent and the fund of goodwill which I am sure is there waiting to be tapped. I would dissipate the domestic political uncertainty that seems to hang like a cloud over your economic prospects. There are enough dark clouds on the international horizon; so why should you add some of your own making? I would undertake a thoroughgoing policy review to reduce the policy deficit that you have in relation to the prevailing best practice in different policy areas. Armed with this, I would improve the policy stance and go about restoring confidence in the economy, its managers, and its people. Without this, it would be difficult to instil any dynamism in the economy and to get out of the nightmare envisaged in the pessimistic scenario presented in a recent World Bank Report.

There are powerful dynamics that are transforming the Mauritian economy, it will be a time of new challenges and a time for new resolve. The doers in their day to day involvement in their work rarely provides a chance to look beyond the immediate future, leave alone mull over contentious issues which could have a bearing on our lives in years to come. If we do not want short-term expediency to create long term pains at least for 10-15 years to come, we need to put in place a new team of thinkers — and a new institution — that will thus approach development with a more comprehensive framework, a wider consensus to ensure a continued commitment to reform and innovative ideas, an awareness of broader objectives and more instruments, a greater sensitivity to the complexity of the development process, greater sense of humility in the face of the tasks ahead but a greater sense of optimism about what the future might bring.

* Published in print edition on 16 December 2011

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