Mauritius Needs Stewardship, Not Leadership, to Keep Global Respect

analysis

By hosting the Indian Ocean Island Games this week, Mauritius has an opportunity to showcase its colours to the region, and to some extent, to the global community.

It also prompts a potentially powerful moment of national unity, and with it, national reflection.

The question is: can Mauritius continue its much-lauded tradition of punching above its weight by embracing a model of stewardship, as opposed to leadership, in politics, the economy, civil society, and even sports?

This may prove the only way forward in an era of climate collapse. No country can continue doing business as usual. Mauritius, due to its size (2040 sq km,) social composition, strengths and vulnerabilities, is uniquely positioned to show how things can be done differently.

Stewardship here is an approach which acknowledges that resources are finite and need protection. And that what the country has now must be carefully safeguarded for future generations. This is easy to hold in mind when you live surrounded by salt water.

Stewardship stands in contrast to managerial leadership, which has been so coopted by corporate discourse as to be most often synonymous with unfettered extraction and capital growth. This approach is in denial of the limited resources of the planet.

Mauritius has been remarkable at reinvention. It has moved from monocrop agriculture to a system in which financial services and the Blue Economy play central roles. The challenges it faces are significant, but there is precedent to think it can succeed.

The island faces worrying levels of both personal and national debt, decimated international sugar markets, fluctuating tourism and an ocean imperiled by the climate crisis.

What is needed is an understanding of stewardship that is based on a clear appreciation of the island's natural environment. It should be one that aims to close, not extend, the growing gap between the richest and the poor. It also needs to implement policies that enable national development and individual career advancement based on real resources, skill and ethics rather than on debt, caste, religion, or the car that one is seen to drive.

What can be done

Mauritius needs to get serious about the climate crisis. Research shows that the country will be severely affected by changing oceans, rising land temperatures and ever more erratic weather patterns. The national discussion has yet to assume the necessary urgent tone.

Secondly, rising consumption needs to be managed in innovative ways. Until recently, the consumer market in Mauritius was reasonably contained. In living memory, the island's society has gone from one that was spendthrift and reused almost everything to one in which single-purpose use, disposability and planned obsolescence are defining features of everyday life. This has lead to more trash and more pressure to buy in a country where the cost of living is already extremely high.

This links to a third area in which change is possible - adopting innovative responses to rubbish management. If addressing littering was treated as a national priority, and a tax for single use plastic consumption was used to generate funds explicitly for the environment, the country would gain significantly.

Tied to this is the need for new eco-architecture, improved recycling facilities, pesticide management, a far safer living environment and an appeal to tourists who are increasingly attracted to green, locally-embedded experiences rather than isolated luxury resorts.

Fourthly, Mauritius' unique constitutional political management system needs serious amendment, to prevent the nepotism and communalism that it enables. Conceived as a compromise for managing the transition from colonialism to independence, it divides the population into categories that have long since dissolved.

If your identity is more complex than 'Hindu', 'Muslim', or 'Chinese', you are required to be 'General Population' in which skin-tone, surname, and place of residence then encodes social perception as likely either very rich, or very poor. Though contested, it remains in place.

Finally, for long term stability it is important to teach history. This should happen in secondary schools as well as in work places. Stress in Mauritius has a tendency to manifest in inter-group violence, often along religious lines. Though all countries grapple with this challenge, the size of Mauritius means that here, it easily gets personal.

Again, there is an opportunity to stand as an example for others. By building both historical knowledge and human empathy in the population, Mauritius can consolidate its multicultural strength.

Moral courage

These kinds of reforms would require moral courage and a willingness to sacrifice personal gain for the good of other people. In a space so small, the growing gap that is a microcosm of the global divide is hard to ignore, and even harder to stomach.

If Mauritius can make the necessary changes to lessen the gap between the richest and the poor, the huge loans taken to build major infrastructure projects, may prove to be worth it.

The country may then emerge a true champion in the eyes of the world: a steward for both natural and human resources.

Jess Auerbach, Visiting Researcher, Open University of Mauritius

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