Why the Mauritian Extractive Economy is Imploding

Published on 24th July 2018

Mauritius’ brand of development has failed to ignite the desired mojo and live up to the expectations of the many. There are ten main reasons for that.

First, unreliable public institutions and watchdogs. It takes inspirational heads and a committed team to build trustworthy institutions.

Second, weakening rule of law. Unless and until Mauritius’ set of laws and regulations are regularly updated and indiscriminatingly enforced, the culture of impunity for the few fades, leading is by example, transparency and accountability prevail, our motherland will continue to foment mistrust and cynicism. The worst thing to happen to any nation is when people tend to feel they have a moral justification to flout the law.

Third, the heavily lopsided reward system. Glass ceilings, the struggle to make ends meet and to afford a decent and unisolated habitat are not conducive to identification to the Mauritius Project. Under these conditions, it would be a miracle if, say, turning zougader (betting culture) spirit into stress relief, contempt through the bling-bling of the few and flashing surreally-priced villas on billboards, do not also demotivate, whip up social ills and health issues, ruin families, hurt labour productivity, fuel brain drain.

Fourth, the "welfare state" for lazy and/or fat businesses courtesy of the deliberate and persistent depreciation of our currency and freebies. At independence it took about 13 rupees to buy one pound sterling. Today we need about 47 rupees. We can only pray we never reach the 2007 Peak Dive of 66 rupees. Lumped together, ever-shrinking purchasing power, steep borrowing costs that deplete any disposable income, endemic corruption and structural unemployment constitute a massive systemic distorter and parasite that triggers a vicious cycle for households and forward-thinking businesses alike.

Fifth, the red carpet for land grab. Not only have mighty landowners been gifted with phenomenally inflated valuation of their assets, foreigners have been empowered to buy property. The in-built disincentive has frozen any large-scale initiative to salvage our crumbling food sovereignty and reverse the scary de-industrialisation process. One of the wisest and boldest steps to defuse the looming violent wake-up call stemming from brewing popular resentment is through a comprehensive and savvy land reform.

Sixth, the demise of planning. Instead, barring the early years of independence, policymaking has been outsourced to one-track minded technocrats and charlatans. What is paramount is a culture founded on experimentation, fast learning and incremental improvements along with a mechanism of carrot and stick that nudges people to suppress inefficiencies.

Seventh, shoddy infrastructure. There has been an apparent re-alignment in internal and external connectivity, but by and large the attempt has merely managed to fill up part of the lag. Without actually catching up with current demand. Accordingly anticipating projected demand would be asking too much. Just observe how the tropical "tiger" can be overwhelmed by a cyclone or extremely low and high rainfall even if the synopsis does not fit into the definition of a "black swan" (an event that comes as a surprise and brings devastating impact in its wake). Poor execution, inexistent maintenance and cost ineffectiveness have magnified the inadequacy and systemic disruption. The bitter truth is, measured on a global scale, Mauritius is logistically a laggard.

Eighth, the disabling of the creativity, problem-solving and entrepreneurial mode in the education system. Overspecialisation, rote learning and exam obsession that manufacture herds of "sheep" and celebrate their smart avatar may comfort the status quo seekers at the top, but they barely train the human capital to cope with the onslaught of artificial intelligence and survive the cut-throat global competition.

Ninth, the nurturing of the self-hating Mauritian. The reluctance to openly embrace our local lingua franca is one illustration. Another is how we have become vulnerable to foreign soft power as epitomised by the “exotic”, unsophisticated and pervasive narratives since the advent of la république. We have grown grateful to tokenism. When we could have harnessed all the features in our cosmopolitan DNA to build a nation anchored in infinite creative energies. Doing nothing about it is suicidal.

Tenth, undermined lakorite (effortless sense of collaboration between stakeholders that transcends creed and skin colour). In fact this is the culmination of all the above. When some observers claim that "modern" Mauritius has tamed the beast of communalisme (read sectarianism), the more insightful can only wince. Le repli identitaire is dangerously alive and kicking. Our differences are still being sordidly instrumentalised to feather vote banks. Whether more subtly, less in-your-face is irrelevant.

When market economy becomes a problem

Arguably, we have witnessed a nationwide upgrade if materialism is the sole marker of progress. Regardless how dramatic the costs and the absolute disregard for quality and standard. We now desperately need to delegitimise the enablers of growth in instant gratification, GDP extraction, bat bate (doing things the least bothered by the imperative of achieving excellence), feel-bad factor, tribalism, common non-sense, economic and social rent seeking/clientelism, plutocratic tendencies, injustices, inequalities.

Market economy per se is not the problem, it becomes one when policies and socio-economic environment tend to promote a magnetic hub for business hanky-panky and cartelisation. The degrowth of these nuisances must simultaneously be complemented with robust growth in leadership, vision, hindsight, home-grown solutions, synergy, innovation, eco-friendliness, fairness, empathy and contentment.

Effective change will roll down with the emergence of a mindful citizen agency that overturns maja karo (overindulgence spree), sophistry, denial and blame game of the "squatters" who control the corridors of political, business and media power. Small can be beautiful as well as awful. It depends on the context. Negativities can be as contagious as a gung-ho impulse. The more so in a relatively small place. Even if a turnaround looks tremendously challenging, we must keep this in mind.

By Samad Ramoly

The author is an entrepreneur and a policy observer.

Courtesy: Conjoncture.

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