The 17th October – (World Poverty Day) is once more here. In French, we describe this day as “la Journée du Refus de la Misère’ but as we look around us, we find multifaceted forms of poverty and greater inequality. Our politicians do not stop telling us how much effort they are making to create a better life for us, and this despite the multiple crises that the world is confronted with. We are constantly reminded of the tough conditions prevailing in Spain, Portugal and Greece almost suggesting that we should keep quiet and be content with what is offered to us. They are clever enough to sometimes give us a pat on our back and recognise our hard work, perhaps a strategy for us not to question the very long ‘vacances parlementaires’ that they are ‘entitled’ to ?
 Often declarations are made about the amount of resources allocated to tackling poverty, but the very policies being formulated and implemented frequently produce more poverty and deepen inequalities, kill opportunities – particularly jobs. It is true that growth is needed but when growth is of a jobless type and continues to benefit those at the top of the pyramid rather than trickle down, the distress and hurt of the people can manifest themselves in myriad forms. The latter may be difficult to quell and can constitute major threats to social cohesion and peace.
Equity needs redistribution
Poverty cannot be discussed without discussing inequality and equity. Equity has become a buzz word. However, one gets the impression that some leaders use the term without even understanding its meaning. Equity does not mean better access to services, or better distribution, it means re-distribution and equal chances. The PRB report (approved by the cabinet of Ministers) shows us that there is redistribution but one which is tilted towards the already rich, leaving those who most deserve- the poor, the vulnerable, the middle class on the margins. Thank god that the wrath and outcry of the people is loud enough to make people realize how unfair, unjust and inhuman the small ‘paradise’ island of Mauritius has become.
THE ‘ECOPOL” elite
More than 10 years ago, Ronald Inglehart, of the University of Michigan, and his team at the World Values Survey asked the question : should income distribution be made more unequal as incentives for individual effort or should income differences be made more equal ? Almost 50% of the respondents were in favour of larger income gaps and the other half in favour of closing the gap.
Judging by the uproar that the PRB has provoked, if we were to engage in such an exercise in Mauritius, we may get a different picture. Much more than 50% of the population, it seems, would show their inclination for greater equality and equity. The fact that values such as justice sharing, solidarity and equity are embedded in the psyche of vast segments of Mauritian society provides some sense of hope. But would this be enough to challenge the ‘ecopol’ elite ? ‘Ecopol’ elite is a new coinage of mine to describe the oneness and collusion of the economic and political elite. It is used to hammer the point that their unison helps them to administer bitter pills to the citizenry while retaining the ability to preserve their vested interests as a group rather than serve the nation.
Merits of the PRB
While the PRB has been a useless exercise, it would have at least the merit of (1) bringing the class dimension back into Mauritian political thinking and thus assist in making Mauritians understand that the ethnicisation/communalisation of politics and the politics of ethnicisation that some people thrive on is not relevant to our micro realities and lives. (2) highlighting the incompetence and hypocrisy of the cabinet ministers (3) helping to bring the recommendations of the Truth and Justice commission back on the agenda.
Poverty, inequality, the Miser Index and the Human opportunity Index
The inequality and poverty of Mauritian society becomes even more glaring when we look at the backdrop against which it is set : (1) a failed democratization of the economy, (2) Growing inequalisation with a worsening Gini coefficient (3) absence of a poverty line, (4) No minimum vital, (5) rapidly expanding unemployment particularly among the youth, ; (6) a growing feminization of poverty, (7) an indebted nation (8) a declining worker-pensioner ratio (9) the poor subsidizing the rich through the laureate/ scholarship scheme for which the returns to the country remain unknown, (10) high level of wastage as pointed out by the audit bureau,
Inequality is usually measured by the Gini Index. The Norwegian researcher Kalle Moene has introduced a new index- ‘Gnier-index’ in Norwegian. The translation that comes closest to this is the ‘Miser Index’. The dictionary tells us that a miser is a person who hoards wealth and lives miserably, a miserly society is one where the rich hoard wealth and let the rest live miserably. To capture this, the ‘miser-index’ measures the extent of poverty in the midst of affluence and the index can to some extent, be interpreted as the institutionalised willingness to accept such inequalities. Middle income countries tend to rank high on this index.
Reducing inequality remains one of the main development challenges. Inequality is pervasive, resilient and judged to be fundamentally unfair and unacceptable from a moral/ethical point of view. But political and policy debates about inequality often diverge and tend to have a polarizing effect. Inequality of opportunity is difficult to measure but perhaps it is time for us to use the human opportunity index to get a better assessment of the local scene. While the UNDP human development index (HDI) is quite familiar to us and we take pride in the country’s ranking at international level, the Human Opportunity Index may provide us with a very different narrative.
Intergenerational occupational mobility and social justice
The literature on inequality of opportunity is vast and straddles across several disciplines including economics, ethics, political philosophy but I would refrain from going into this. However, an influential and reasonable perspective on inequality of opportunity worth mentioning is that of the economist, Romer. The latter points out that what people are able to achieve in their lives depends on two sets of factors -those that are within their control (efforts) and those that are not – (circumstances) e. g gender, race, ethnic group, caste etc and people should be held responsible for the former and not the latter. In societies with low levels of intergenerational mobility, a person’s family background (e. g education and occupation of parents) plays a huge role in his/her life chances. From the above perspective (since one does not choose one’s family) such societies are characterized by a high degree of inequality of opportunity. The trajectory of Mauritian development and the persistent mismatch of the labour market with our education/training system may well put a halt to occupational mobility, especially amongst the already disadvantaged.
Rumblings of discontent
Occupations determine the lives that people live. The sociologist, Anthony Giddens, notes :
“… occupation is the most important critical factor in an individual’s social standing, life chances and level of material comfort… individuals in the same occupation tend to experience similar degrees of social advantage or disadvantage, maintain comparable life styles, and share similar opportunities in life… ‘
There was a time when Mauritians from the lower strata of society felt that they could make a breakthrough to enter higher echelon jobs. The move from cane cutting to the EPZ, then into tourism, provided some form of mobility and a revolution of aspirations and expectations. The contemporary frittering away of ‘upward mobility opportunity’ brings frustration and discontent back to the surface. This raises questions on the nature of Mauritian democracy.
Mauritian democracy – the search for an alternative
Redistribution of wealth and redistribution of power goes hand in hand. Democracy, the people’s participation in decision making, transparency in the income and use of public funds – making the government accountable to its own people, not only the elite – is crucial in redistribution of power.
Mauritians should stop wasting their time on sterile debates and instead come together in search for an alternative- one which stops excessive consumption and persistent destruction of the environment, one which stops obscene wealth accumulation by the privileged few, one which guarantees food security, which creates new jobs and prevents existing ones from disappearing, which makes the citizenry disease free and illiteracy free, one which curbs criminality rates and puts an end to patriarchy.
Making this alternative a reality requires a new political class – one with a vision, a strategy, one which includes the voices of women and youth – in short a class of politicians which can institutionalise some form of ‘solidarity economics’. In other words a new development epistemology is required altogether. Such a move will create a win-win situation for each and all. Defying the current power structure on the one hand and making the powerless, voiceless and assetless become part of the new development paradigm proposed here is what is necessary for democratic consolidation and durable peace.