This perennial observer has been reading an article about the beautiful island of Mauritius, a tropical geography of 1.3 million people lying off the east coast of Africa. What caught his imagination was the epiphany that Mauritius is a great model for any small jurisdiction, such as the Virgin Islands, that has to swim in the shark-infested waters of globalism.
The beginning of this new millennium heralds a complex world order and a pulsating planet controlled by a motley mix of billionaires and the odd politician, powerful men and women who may not necessarily be friendly or generous to the small guy. The article from Slate, by Joseph Stiglitz, describes a small country that provides free education through to university, free transportation for school children, and free health care for every citizen.
Since independence in 1968, Mauritius has developed from a low-income, agriculture-based economy to a middle income, diversified economy, with growing industrial, financial and tourist sectors. For most of the period after independence, annual growth has been of the order of five to six percent. This has been reflected in increased life expectancy, lowered infant mortality and improved social and economic infrastructure.
Mr. Stiglitz observes that Mauritius “is neither particularly rich, nor on its way to budgetary ruin. Nonetheless it has spent the last decades successfully building a diverse economy, a democratic political system, and a strong social safety net.” He adds, “87 percent of Mauritians own their own homes.’’
The article describes Mauritius as not possessing any valuable natural resource, such as diamonds or oil. In 1961, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Meade wrote of the country, “It is going to be a great achievement if Mauritius can find productive employment for its population.” Meade was wrong. Around the time of its independence, Mauritius’ per capita income was the equivalent of $400 in 2011 currency; today it is $6,700, according to Mr. Stiglitz.
The country has progressed from the sugar-based monoculture of 50 years ago to a diversified economy that includes tourism, finance, textiles, and, if current plans bear fruit, advanced technology.
Fifty years ago, the VI held a similar position to pre-independence Mauritius, and was even considered nothing better than a bird sanctuary. But today the VI is a multimillion-dollar economy. That change has a lot to do with a beautiful geography and a global investment and digital paradigm that started in the 1980s. Yes, the similarities with Mauritius are evident.
Mauritians have chosen a path that leads to higher levels of social cohesion, welfare and economic growth — and to a lower level of inequality. Mauritius recognised that without natural resources, its people were its only asset.
Maybe that appreciation for its human resources is also what led Mauritius to realise that education for all was crucial to social unity — particularly given the country’s potential religious, ethnic and political differences, which some tried to exploit in order to induce it to remain a British colony. Also crucial was a strong commitment to democratic institutions, and cooperation between workers, government and employers.
Like the VI, Mauritius faces challenges with an unhealthy reliance on food importation and rising energy prices, but her focus on seeing her people as her most important resource has certainly paid off. The revelation from Mauritius is that if you put health, education and social welfare at the top of your list of priorities, all other things will be added ultimately.
And that is a precious lesson for these enchanting Antilles.