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How Mauritius became Africa’s vanguard in sustaining peace

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Picture: Matt Savi/via Wikimedia/31 August 2020 – People march peacefully against the government for its perceived failure to respond promptly and effectively to the MV Wakashio oil spill resulted in anti-government protests. As a Small Island Developing State, Mauritius is highly vulnerable to climate change and environmental disasters, such as the MV Wakashio oil spill-induced ecological crisis with disproportionate adverse socio-economic impacts on vulnerable groups and national stability, the writer says.

By Gwinyayi Albert Dzinesa

This piece explores the Mauritian government’s remarkable success in sustaining peace over the past decade, bolstered by strong support from international partners.

The small island state has been constantly rated as the top African country on the Global Peace Index and the Positive Peace Index. Mauritius has never had a violent intrastate conflict, except for short spells of ethnic-based riots in 1968, before independence, and in 1999, leading to loss of life, destruction of property and displacement of people.

In August and September 2020, Mauritius witnessed its biggest demonstrations since independence in 1968. In rare occurrences, thousands marched peacefully in the capital, Port Louis, and the coastal town of Mahebourg in protest over the government’s poor response to the MV Wakashio oil spill on the south-east coast of the country. Notwithstanding, the island country’s generally tranquil nature, cordial international relations and geographic isolation, which limit the risk of interstate conflict, make it plausible not to maintain a military force. Mauritius chose to forego a standing army from the onset. Instead, police units act as de facto military force carrying out all military and security activities. The pacifist route paid off handsomely as Mauritian military spending paled in comparison to the education, health and welfare budget, which arguably contributed to social stability and drove long-term economic growth.

Mauritius’ achievement of durable peace is a product of its government’s strategic homegrown and endogenously driven five-point sustaining peace framework, which predates the launch of the United Nations (UN) sustaining peace agenda in 2016. Sustaining peace is regarded as a comprehensive, coordinated, and coherent approach to strengthen societal resilience and capacities for proactive conflict prevention, addressing its root causes and potential drivers.

Firstly, Mauritius is living proof of the benefits of leadership for sustaining peace pinpointing and reinforcing existing mechanisms and capacities that maintain and nurture peace instead of merely focusing on the causes of conflict, economic development and social security programmes.

Mauritian authorities have strengthened existing drivers of peace like the country’s firm foundation for democracy, itself a strategic vehicle of sustaining peace and preventing violence by promoting an environment enabling citizens to resolve conflict non-violently and to participate in co-charting an inclusive path towards positive peace.

Mauritius has been the Continent’s constant top scorer in the Ibrahim Index on African Governance during the last decade. Despite the island state’s history of peaceful power transitions through regular and generally credible elections, there is growing concern that the country’s democracy is on a slippery slope towards autocracy. This worry stems from the declining satisfaction of Mauritians with the way democracy is functioning.

Secondly, the Mauritian government has implemented inclusive economic development and social security programmes in a manner that integrates the triad of UN pillars—peace and security, development and human rights—essential to sustaining positive peace. In 2010, the government created the dedicated Ministry of Social Integration and Economic Empowerment (MSIEE) to reinforce efforts to combat poverty and marginalisation, both structural risk factors of violence in society.

The MSIEE’s comprehensive and inclusive social protection programmes, including, the provision of free basic health services to the entire population; free pre-primary school education; free public transport to the elderly, the disabled and all students; special pension for people with disabilities; universal non-contributory basic old-age pension (60 years and above); cash transfers and social housing help address underlying conditions that contribute to the escalation of social unrest. The wherewithal to finance Mauritius’s enviable social welfare system derives from a series of prudent economic policies.

However, critical socioeconomic challenges with the potential to undermine national stability remain. For example, there is enduring relative and extreme poverty and income inequality and exclusion along group lines that are multigenerational legacies of the island state’s history of enslavement.

Persistent youth unemployment and the concomitant risk of economic marginalisation and social exclusion have been a ticking time bomb over the past decade. And as a Small Island Developing State, Mauritius is highly vulnerable to climate change and environmental disasters, such as the MV Wakashio oil spill-induced major ecological crisis with disproportionate adverse socio-economic impacts on vulnerable groups and national stability.

Third, Mauritius has invested in the youth capacities and agency through significant education funding and reform to right-skill learners for enhanced employability and to boost economic diversification and growth, essential to inclusive prosperity. For example, the government’s substantial investment in education reached 5 percent of GDP in 2017 and about 20 percent of government expenditures contributing to nearly universal pre-, primary and secondary school enrolment.

This helps to address the intergenerational transfer of poverty, a structural barrier that reinforces youth exclusion and is a potential driver of violent conflict. It also empowers the youth to participate in the realisation of a common Mauritius National Vision of coherent social development and inclusive society.

However, Mauritius, faces the challenge of how to optimise education spending and improve educational quality and standards. It is also imperative for the authorities to consider policies that promote peace education at all levels to inculcate peaceful conflict resolution skills and tolerance in the country’s juveniles.

Fourth, the Mauritian authorities have made systematic attempts to address the structural violence of exclusion through combined whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches, including traditionally marginalised actors such as women and youth. Crosscutting social security and empowerment initiatives, which foster durable peace, have been implemented through cross-sectoral governmental collaboration, together with all segments of society working towards the common vision of a coherent, inclusive, high-income country.

Besides the MSIEE, Mauritius’s conflict preventive complex social security system involves the ministries of social security, finance, education, labour, health, and gender and state institutions such as the National Empowerment Foundation, Statistics Mauritius, Human Resource Development Council, Mauritius Institute of Training and Development and Central Informatics Bureau.

Additionally, the Mauritian government’s social welfare model recognises gender and age as crosscutting issues, based on a holistic approach. The government committed to give priority to gender equality to address low levels of women’s economic and political participation and the gender wage gap of 30 percent in the private sector, as well as rationalise social protection to reach the most vulnerable and eliminate gender-based violence.

The jury is, however, still out on whether the government’s women and youth empowerment and protection policies and schemes will produce tangible results. Crucially, however, the whole-of-society approach focused on women- and youth-inclusive empowerment promotes the complementary women, peace and security and youth, peace and security agendas.

Fifth, the Mauritian government has been prepared to harness the comparative advantages of relevant local and global partners to ensure collaborative multi-stakeholder engagement and action to ensure the implementation of crosscutting initiatives that foster peace. This has been best exemplified by the multi-stakeholder composition of the National Social Inclusion Foundation under the MSIEE, the MSIEE-European Union Decentralised Co-operation Programme collaboration and the government-UN Strategic Partnership Framework.

Mauritius benefits from multi-stakeholder partnership frameworks that emphasise national ownership, which helps to ensure contextualised and sustainable social security and empowerment initiatives with external technical assistance. For instance, the government of Mauritius harnessed the UN’s comparative advantage in social protection policy support in the partnership to formulate the innovative Marshall Plan Against Poverty and set up a national social register to target and manage social assistance.

Launched by the MSIEE in 2015, the Marshall Plan was aligned to key national, African and global agendas for sustaining peace including the Government Programme 2015-2019, the Government’s Vision 2030, the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, especially Goal 1: ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere.’

There, however, remains a need to enhance the M&E of the Marshall Plan initiatives to combat poverty and social exclusion for greater impact.

Gwinyayi Albert Dzinesa is a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC), University of Johannesburg. This piece is a truncated version of a forthcoming journal article