Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mauritius (dis)empowered

Our relationship with the West smacks of neo-colonialism: it corresponds to a love-hate affair of a suitor wooing a femme fatale with a colourful past. It brushes with the ambivalent but with its own original twist.

As a country of immigrants, we have yet to proclaim that Mauritius-building has reached a satisfactory level. Worse, daily encounters with fellow citizens even suggest that it is waning. The demotivation of a workforce tempted by the sirens of xenophobia and emigration is indeed a distinct symptom of inhibited people who feel more humiliated than rewarded by a system.

Whereas many Americans have managed – albeit in a longer time frame and before “Bushism” hit them by storm – to overcome the same constraint, it is to a great extent because they have been groomed to challenge “conventional wisdom”. Their rule-based patriotism revolves around what their legendary architect Philip Johnson dubbed the “wow principle”, that child-like fondness of novelty.

Alternatively, when people are educated through rote learning, their gullibility tends to be more easily exploited, less and less subtly lately, by “elites” bent on promoting the status quo through puppet “experts” and political leverage. Although this is a global trend, its degree is highlighted in a tiny country like Mauritius where resources are even more limited. The resulting asymmetries can brew devastating impulses if they are not addressed with diligence.

In IMF and World Bank we trust

Does it necessarily take the rapid cognition of Lee Kuan Yew, the maverick behind Singapore’s aura, to dismiss the consultancy of the World Bank because it “presents its findings in a bland and universalizable way that does not grapple with the real problems”? Countries choose to kowtow to their sloppy doctrine at their own risk and peril.

Alan Reynolds, a senior fellow with the U.S. libertarian think-tank Cato Institute, whose ethos is a far cry from the lefties with a romanticized vision of the world, surveyed the IMF track record in "Money and the Nation State". He found that “IMF requirements to raise taxes and debauch the currency had always contributed to crises, while policies that lifted countries out of crises, and even created "economic miracles", were always home grown”.

He compared our policies in 1982 which were viscerally IMF-centric to those of 1983 when a relatively independent-minded Finance minister took office and embraced measures outside the usual IMF package that stimulated a “feelgood” economic expansion. It is a shame that the opportunity was not seized to complement our infrastructural development with a massive overhaul of our economy that would certainly have spared us the gloomy zeitgeist.

According to Joseph Stiglitz, a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, who has taught at Oxford University, MIT, Stanford University, Yale University and Princeton University, “the IMF frequently consists of third-rank students from first-rate universities and has almost never succeeded in recruiting any of the best students”. Their like-minded buddies must be scrutinized too, the more so when they play a key role in the decision-making process.

The former Finance minister deserved a headline-grabbing accolade for experimenting a new genre where Kafka meets Don Quixote when he rapturously announced that the IMF and the World Bank would help us in the setting up of a “centre of excellence” for the training of our executives! Now the cost of the ticket for the intimidating rollercoaster ride is being forced out of our pockets.

Herd mentality and leadership

The trouble is that even our policymakers, barring a few, have outsourced their thinking. It is not that overseas know-how is not desirable. In fact it is one of the prerequisites to bandwagon as long as we pick the smartest minds within their own specialist fields because not all of them are “éminents”! A session of myth busting should provide a relief.

No doubt an affiliation to Harvard University, LSE or McKinsey can provide the useful tools to devise a strategy. It is rather a policymaker’s ability to “block out what is irrelevant and focus on narrow slices of experience to read a complex situation” as emphasized by Malcolm Gladwell in his riveting Blink that determines whether a strategy will work or not. There is no formula for winning. If only! Affiliation, family name or more perversely skin colour are no substitutes for hard thinking and core competence to generate results.

Policymakers should be able to differentiate between a “destination” and a “journey”: where they ought to concentrate their energies. For instance, setting a growth rate target or any other target for that matter is essential, but what matters most is how policies implemented are going to create the necessary environment and momentum that will absorb joblessness, boost productivity and achieve real competitiveness without resorting to a junk rupee.

Dubai is pondering its future beyond 2025. Without a clear vision that sinks in everybody’s psyche, it is impossible to achieve anything sustainable. The job of policymakers is to measure supply and demand in relevant sectors, then benchmark the projects with yardsticks aiming at excellence and more concretely devise and implement policies that allow a flow freed from visible and invisible obstacles.

Adopting a common-sense approach amidst overwhelming gibberish is understandably a challenge. Still, policymakers must try to detect the links in the pattern of interaction between every stakeholder. A strategy works when the action of one stakeholder does not undermine the action of another. Market players tend to respond rationally to incentives. Our long-term prosperity depends on whether the incentives inspire risk-taking or rent-seeking.

We continue to wallow in a vicious circle because our successive governments have been implementing most policies in a fragmented way that fails to foster any synergy. Ultimately, success is tributary of the quality of ideas and data collected locally and worldwide and arguably the one element most elusive to our main policymakers, acumen to contextualise them with an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approach.

In order to cope with global capitalism, the laudable but hopelessly insufficient empathetic leadership of our Prime minister must also instil a no-excuses and get-it-done mindset, the mainstay of Jack Welch, the former revolutionary CEO of General Electric. What does it take to ignite the neurons of our policymakers?