The role that has been played by state bureaucrats and civil society in promoting ethnic diversity, accountability and transparency is also an undisputed contributor to the Mauritius’ peace and political stability. Mauritius’ Human Development Index (HDI) value for 2017 was 0.8 which places the country in the high development category. Its HDI values increased from 0.6 in 1990 to 0.8 in 2017, an increase of 27.6%. In 2017, Mauritius also ranked first on the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Index of Africa Governance which measures the ability of African states to deliver safety and the rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity and human development. But how has Mauritius overcome ethnic conflict, political instability and civil war which remain characteristics of most post-colonial states in sub-Saharan Africa? What developmental and governance models were adopted by the state and what lessons can be learnt from Mauritius?
When Mauritius was discovered by the Portuguese in 1505 it was uninhabited. In 1638, the Dutch attempted to establish a settlement but eventually abandoned the island in 1710. It was only in 1721 after the occupation by the French and the arrival of the French Governor Mahé de La Bourdonnais in 1735 that Mauritius began to develop. Under both French and later British occupation in 1810, Indian and African slaves were recruited to work on the sugar plantations on the island. This historical reality is important as it has contributed to the peace and stability which has prevailed in Mauritius, as at independence there were no indigenous populations. Hence no individual group could claim primordial rights and attachment to their ancestral lands, which is often the case in many post-colonial states in Africa and a major cause for conflict.
Towards independence in 1968, the international community expressed concern that the new state would be politically unstable with stagnant economic growth. Political clashes which occurred between Muslims and Creoles in 1967 also signalled a gloomy future for the island. However, in 1968 the Mauritius Labour Party government, cognisant of the ethnic and religious diversity, adopted a ‘best loser system’ which ensured that ethnic and religious minorities are represented in parliament. Over the years the system has proved to be effective in resolving conflict in the state as grievances are resolved through democratic processes.
Beyond their ideological differences, political parties in Mauritius have been able to build consensus and work towards developing the state through forging alliances and coalitions which have become a permanent feature of the state since independence. The celebration of cultural diversity by various stakeholders including civil society and the government also contributes to the consolidation of democracy and peace. The government funds the teaching of ancestral languages in primary schools and distributes equally public holidays for all diverse religious groups.
In 1968 Mauritius faced numerous economic challenges, ranging from unemployment, high population growth, poverty and a fragile economy which was heavily dependent on sugar for 93.0% of its export earnings. The government embarked on a diversification program and created export-processing zones (EPZ) which granted duty free access for imported inputs and tax incentives in order to stimulate and develop the economy. In 1969 the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) opposition party was founded by unionists and intellectuals who expressed concern that the coalition government of the Labour Party and the Parti Mauricien Social Democrate had failed to address the grievances of the workers. In partnership with workers unions a series of strikes swept through the island forcing the government to declare a state of emergence were leaders of MMM and political activists were imprisoned.
However, despite these political challenges, the economic programs by the government succeeded as EPZ exports grew by 31.0% annually between 1970 and 1975 and EPZ employment grew by 38.0%. In 1976, at the Lome Convention, the government was also able to negotiate access to European markets. Between 1971 and 1977 an estimated 64 000 jobs were created, however, wages remained relatively low and workers from EPZ firms were denied fair wages and the right to strike unlike other Mauritius workers. The funds raised by the government through partnering with the private sector were invested into education, social services and infrastructure. This was mainly due to the consensus amongst various political actors that Mauritius should thrive to be a moderate welfare state.
Between 1970 and 1980 the economy encountered numerous challenges due to an increase in oil imports and poor harvests which affected the sugar industry and by 1979 the government’s deficit reached 13.0% of GDP and foreign debt rose to USD 226.0 million from USD 33.0 million in 1972. Mauritius secured loans which enabled the government to pay for imports from IMF and the World Bank in 1979. Between 1980 and 1986 austerity policies were introduced by the government. In 1981, the rupee was devalued to 20.0%, social benefits towards education were slashed and a value-added sales tax of 5.0% was introduced. Despite the unpopularity of these policies and a split within the MMM party, government deficit fell from 14.0% in 1980/81 to 6.4% in 1983/84. Inflation which stood at 42.0% in 1980 fell to 14.5% in 1981 and 5.6% in 1983. In 1986 the economy began recovering at an average rate of 5.6% and EPZ became the highest export-earning sector and employer ahead of the sugar industry and government.
Over the years the state has been able to diversify from sugar to tourism, banking, real estate and high-tech. The agriculture sector contributed an average of 22.5% in GDP 1970 to 12.9% in 1990. The services sector over the years grown to be the largest sector in GDP and employment, contributing an average of 74.0% of GDP from 1990 to 2010 compared to 4.2% contributed by agriculture within this same period.
The peace and political stability in Mauritius since independence can be attributed to sound economic policies, strong institutions and the ability of the political elite to share power with various actors including the media, civil society and minority groups. This contributed to the sustained economic growth and development performance in the country. Unemployment has been reduced from an average of 15.0% in 1968 to 5.0% in 1988, to its current average of 7.5 % from 2008 to 6.9% in 2018. Civil society organisations through constant engagement with the state have been able to hold government to account. Political coalitions in the island since independence have remained fragile and this has in a way strengthened democracy as political parties are eager to win alliances and maintain a majority position in parliament.
While Mauritius boasts of a strong democracy and stable economy which has been able to attract considerable foreign investment, there are numerous challenges confronting the state. Key amongst these is an aging population which has a bearing on public spending. Between 2001 and 2015, the state’s economy underwent structural changes, with a shift from agriculture and manufacturing towards service delivery, particularly financial services as discussed above. The growth of these sectors has been confronted with a narrow domestic skills base and inadvertently encouraged income inequality which threatens the living standards for the poor.
From 2001 to 2015 household income inequality grew at an annual average of 3.0%, and further expanded after 2008 following the global financial crisis. The government has made efforts to address inequality and boost shared prosperity through the Ministry of Integration and Social Empowerment which was introduced in 2010. The Ministry launched the Marshall Plan Against Poverty in 2015 and while there is high level commitment from government, there has been insufficient monitoring and evaluation of the programs and poor coordination among implementing partners.
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