SHEILA BUNWAREE

The poignant testimonies of some poor families, uncovering the complex dynamics they are confronted with in their daily existential struggle, the university students pleading for a pro-poor alternative model of development and the most aberrant speech of the Minister of Social Integration prompted this article.

These voices were captured at a workshop organised by ATD Quart Monde Mauritius on Saturday 13th October at the University of Mauritius. While the first two sets of voices were very much at the heart of the debate and fitted in well within the exercise of ‘Le Croisement des Savoirs’ that ATD propagates in its search for a better understanding of poverty, the Minister went off tangent.

His discourse was most offensive to many of those present. At one point, I felt that some people were on the verge of interrupting, to tell him to stop rambling on. This would have echoed what one brave woman dared do at a meeting convened by the former Minister of Housing some months back. However, the people assembled for the workshop last Saturday contained themselves. They burst out once they were out of the hall when the workshop ended. Many of them felt insulted and dejected. The poor no longer want to hear about the personal journeys of our Ministers.

They are not interested in how the ‘honourable members’ of parliament rose from humble beginnings to ‘success stories’ – success often marked by ostentatious trappings of ministerial/parliamentary life. The poor want jobs for themselves and their children, want a roof on their heads, want a good education – one which includes rather than excludes; want adequate health facilities, want to be able to bring food to the table, want some form of leisure and so on. They do not need to be systematically told that they have to work hard, be disciplined and patient. The vast majority of them already are! The University students’ reflection called our attention to the urgency of reallocating resources to the priority needs of the country. ‘Decent Housing for All’ is certainly one of them. 17th of October – ‘Journée du refus de la misère’ – is here again. My hope in penning this article is that this ‘refus de la misère’, is not just a one-day business. It should become a sustained one so as to assist towards poverty eradication. Without the latter, social cohesion in our rainbow island remains threatened. Several initiatives have been taken by various governments to combat poverty: Anou Dibout Ensam, Trust Fund for the Integration of Vulnerable Groups, Mandatory Corporate Social Responsibility, the setting up of a Ministry of Social Integration and Empowerment, the Lovebridge Programme and the Marshall Plan. However, poverty is still with us.

To make matters worse, the growing inequality and thinning of the middle class, as pointed out by the World Bank and the IMF, give rise to new complex forms of poverty. The latter coupled with the absence of an equitable allocation of resources constitutes a major threat to peace and stability. Several causes and manifestations of poverty exist but the root cause of many social ills, often leading to the intensification of poverty, is inadequate and poor housing conditions. This was recognised in the Budget Speech 2017-2018. Prior to this, the Government’s Programme 2015-2019: ‘Achieving Meaningful Change’ noted that it: « will increase housing supply and home ownership for the economically and socially disadvantaged. The construction of some 10,000 social housing units during this present mandate has been planned…. ». This mandate is nearly coming to an end but the housing issue, particularly as regards the poor, will remain unresolved. While there is some kind of predisposition to assist the poor in getting a shelter, several important questions remain unanswered. (1) Is the state conscious of the potential that a well thought out housing policy holds for the promotion of interculturality and nation building? (2) How many Mauritians realise that the official figure of house ownership is inaccurate? Statistics often hide certain complex realities and vulnerabilities, causing experts to speak of the lies of statistical data. How can we speak of some 88% of home ownership when there are several families without a house of their own? Many are living under the one same roof with parents and/or relatives and in the most abysmal conditions. (3)Do we know which criteria are used in the identification of sites for the development of social housing projects? (4) How is the UN Habitat Participatory Slum Upgrading programme (PSUP) being implemented if at all? (5) How is the opening of doors to foreign buyers and the resulting land speculation affecting the affordability of land and housing for Mauritian nationals, particularly young couples wanting to start a home? (6) Is there anything being done to prevent the growing phenomenon of gated communities to prevent the further ghettoisation of the already marginalised sections of our society? (7) Do we have the right kind of legislation and regulatory framework to protect the poor when it comes to land acquisition for ‘development’ as seen by the authorities? Inhuman relocation of entire communities can wreak havoc on the lives of our citizens, particularly the weak and vulnerable.

Needless to say that children living in poverty are often the worst hit. In her Annual report of 2018, The Ombudsperson for children has drawn our attention to how children have been traumatised as a result of displacement? A tracer study of these children might help to see whether they can actually get out of the new poverty traps that they often fall in. Another incident reflecting the unjust nature of some of our laws is the pocketing of some Rs 15 million by a senior Minister. He had to be compensated for the compulsory acquisition of his land by the state. All of this in the name of Development! (8) Is there sufficient, regular and relevant communication between officials and ordinary citizens regarding the various facilities/schemes offered to obtain a house? The recent case of the man who has been cheated by someone who pretended to be an official of the Empowerment Foundation Programme is reflective of this lack of effective communication. (9)Are we making judicious use of our resources? Empty buildings/ new infrastructure lying bare and idle, standing as white elephants in various places on the island, while so many families struggle to find a decent home, highlights the pertinence of this question. (10) How prepared are we for the potential destruction of the poor’s flimsy shacks in case of a climate change related natural disaster? The shocking and desolating images from different parts of the globe are stark reminders of this potential danger. The latter should trigger us to plan and prepare.

Shouldn’t we be incorporating a housing/shelter dimension to our disaster relief management system? (11) Is there sufficient knowledge around the fact that if inequality is allowed to grow, new and complex forms of poverty will emerge. Moreover, squatters and squatter related problems may be exacerbated. In short, we are yet to develop a comprehensive human centred Land and Housing policy – one which can integrate – which can build bridges across cultures, where families and their children are safe, comfortable and happy. It should be such that no citizen is left without a decent living space. We need a housing policy which will enable the poor and the middle class to thrive. Comfortable and safe homes are the very foundation for meaningful social mobility and greater inclusiveness. For the above to happen, we need to adopt and implement a results-oriented approach while simultaneously ensuring sustainable human development. This demands ethical and competent governance pinned on a legitimate government. Clearly this is not the case at the moment!