What does it take to live in peace? Lessons from Mauritius

 

Naseem Aumeerally, Senior Lecturer in English Studies, University of Mauritius

Allegra Chen-Carrel, Programme Manager Sustainable Peace Project, AC4 Earth Institute, Columbia University (US)

Peter T. Coleman, Professor of Psychology and Education, Columbia University (US)

What does it take to live in peace? How can people from different groups live together without letting differences lead to deep fractures, divides, and violence? How can multicultural societies move from tolerating difference to deep reciprocity, where all not only survive side by side, but also form diverse relationships that help all people to thrive?  In this article, Naseem Aumeerally, Allegra Chen-Carrel and Peter Coleman explore what leads to positive intergroup dynamics and peace in the context of Mauritius. Their report, from which this article is derived, is part of a wider project by Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium of Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity: the Sustaining Peace Project, that strives to use interdisciplinary methods to glean insights into sustaining peace globally.

The full report is available in French, English and Creole  

 

Sustaining Peace Project

According to international indices, Mauritius is the most peaceful nation in Africa and one of the most peaceful multicultural nations on the planet. Mauritius can thus offer insights into what drives peace, and into modes of resilience in the face of the challenges and threats to peace.

As part of a collaboration between the University of Mauritius and Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium of Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity, this project is part of a broader initiative, the Sustaining Peace Project, that strives to use interdisciplinary methods to glean insights into sustaining peace globally. From this project a report was written on what it takes to live in peace in Mauritius. It offers lessons learned from focus groups with members of a Chagos refugee group, the Chinese community, the Creole community, the Franco-Mauritian community, the Hindu community, the Muslim community, LGBTQ groups, Mauritian women, and University of Mauritius students cutting across age, gender, class and region and 15 interviews with a variety of stakeholders about sustaining peace.  This articles summaries the report’s key findings.

These interviews and conversations evoked an everyday peace- a peace where ordinary positive connections with others from different backgrounds highlight the micro-politics of peace.

Many also described a tentative peace, a fragile peace ‘because of this sort of ethnical problem, racism, what you call here, communalism, and following this, a lot of exclusion, discrimination, and of course, poverty and the social ends associated with it’.

Institute for Economics and Peace, 2020 Global Peace Index

10 Keys to Sustaining Peace

Common themes from the conversations in this study suggest several actionable keys to sustaining peace, listed below in order of the frequency they were mentioned:

  1. Transmit Wisdom- By sharing knowledge, values, and stories through formal education, the media, the internet, museums, and storytelling, it is possible to open minds, reduce prejudice, and ensure that the harms of the past are not repeated.
  2. Appreciate ‘Le Vivre Ensemble’– Participants expressed pride in the diversity of the country, and in the norms and policies supporting this multiculturalism.
  3. Normalize Non-violent, Non-confrontational Values- Social norms and taboos prohibiting the use of violence, and encouraging conflict avoidance, self-control and restraint allow people to build bonds across communities that bridge differences.
  4. Build Unifying Cross-Cutting Ties- Integrated workplaces, schools, and neighbourhoods allow people to build bonds across communities that bridge differences. Quote: We all live together. When there is a wedding, birthday, funeral, we support each other.
  5. Create an Overarching Identity- Despite the diversity in Mauritius, many pointed to a strong overarching identity as Mauritians. Quote: Whatever may be our ethnic origin, or colour of skin, we are all Mauritians.
  6. Protect the Safety of All People- No guns, no army, and a general respect for the rule of law, made Mauritians feel secure. This is not necessarily always true for all groups, particularly for some women and LGBTQ individuals.
  7. Develop Peace Within Yourself– Individual qualities such as respect, trust, faith, compassion, and benevolence, were viewed as critical to peace.
  8. Strive for Equity- Many described how ensuring that all groups have equal access to representation, power and resources is an important factor in achieving peace. Many participants described that this ideal is yet to be achieved, but believe working towards this is key to sustaining peace.
  9. Meet Basic Needs– Mauritius has a strong welfare state, serving as a social safety net, ensuring the majority of people have access to basic services such as healthcare, housing, and education.
  10. Remember the Past for a Better Future– Participants described how knowledge of past tensions and violence has inspired a fear of future conflict, which works to promote peace.

Mauritian Bride – weddings are one of the spaces identified as bringing multicultural Mauritians together. Photo by Daniel Barrientos/Flickr, CC

Challenges to Peace

Participants in our study were also concerned about some pervasive and upcoming challenges to sustainable peace. Key themes that emerged include:

  • Communalism The primacy of in-group loyalties was considered as a major impediment to the elaboration of common civic objectives foundational to sustainable peace.
  • Politics: The cultivation of ethnic distinctiveness is further exacerbated by political manoeuvring. Corrupt practices and cronyism in local political culture were identified as social scourges which require regulation.
  • Colonial Legacies: The incomplete overhaul of colonial structures continues to have a negative impact on some sections of the population such as the Creole community.
  • Inequality: The increasing gap between the rich and the poor was identified as one of the growing forms of structural inequality in society.
  • Precarity: Decades of prosperity in Mauritius have resulted in unsustainable high levels of consumption. Participants were collectively alarmed by the potential environmental hazards facing the population of a small island-state like Mauritius.
  • Scarcity: Resources and opportunities remain scarce and are not accessible to everyone in the same measure.

Some of the challenges which were evoked by the participants also constituted the peace characteristics of Mauritian society.

  • Cleavages: Numerous participants in the study stated that the homogenization of designated ethnic communities mutes any social discrepancies within ethnic groups as well as intersectional inequality.
  • Inaction: Failure to address existing and worsening tensions was attributed to what participants labelled as forms of ‘inaction’ characteristic of a culture of compromise and avoidance.

 

Sheet metal homes in Mauritius. The increasing gap between the rich and the poor was identified as one of the growing forms of structural inequality in society, a potential challenge to peace. Photo by Historic Mauritius/Flickr, CC.

Sources of Resilience

In the face of these challenges, participants also identified several qualities and processes which have helped address issues.

The existence of cross-cutting structures and ties in Mauritian society is one of the most significant sources of resilience among the population.

Civil society actors and social activists within and across communities have played a critical role in developing and maintaining conflict resolution strategies.

Cultural awareness across the population helps to manage challenges which might be encountered in living in a multi-ethnic and rapidly changing society.

Effective conflict resolution strategies: People tend to respect and trust the processes of procedural justice and continue to turn towards institutions for distributive justice.

Keepers of the Peace: Some religious and political leaders as well specific groups of women were identified as actively engaged in containing onsets of violence by cultivating practices of consultation.

Individual Resilience Mindset: Empathy, forgiveness, wisdom and grit are harnessed by locals to address potential interpersonal and intergroup conflicts in everyday life.

 

Recommendations

Based on our findings from interview and focus group data, we offer the following recommendations:

Build upon existing strengths

    1. Our data suggests that Mauritius excels at balancing a respect for difference with an overarching united identity. Events which bring all Mauritians together such as the Indian Ocean Games have been particularly effective in the past, and should continue into the future.
    2. The cross-cutting ties in neighbourhoods, schools, and informal institutions should be deeply valued and protected.
    3. Norms and laws which protect and value multiculturalism should continue to be celebrated.

Address inequities

      1. A review of extant colonial structures should be put in place and gradually be replaced by fairer and more appropriate mechanisms.
      2. The Truth and Justice Commission, the Equal Opportunity Commission, and greater access to education are welcome measures but the recommendations of the different commissions need to be implemented.
      3. Creole participants advocated recognition through the support of national and global institutions.
      4. Additionally, platforms which would allow marginalised groups such as Creoles, LGBTQ and women to address issues of inequity and stigmatisation are suggested in the report.
      5. Ultimately, wider and targeted opportunities and access should be made available to people in underprivileged pockets.

Develop more transparent and responsive public systems

    1. Regulatory mechanisms should be put in place to monitor and stem corruption and cronyism in politics.
    2. Electoral reform to tackle gerrymandering would help to promote a fairer sense of representation of different sections of the population.
    3. Greater transparency mechanisms particularly in relation to the outer Islands development was proposed.
    4. The quality of public services should be enhanced so that poorer people in particular are not mired in bureaucratic backlogs.

Ensure a holistic and inclusive approach in decision-making processes

    1. Institutional bodies should engage with young people as well as the wider population who are invested in developing and implementing a sustainable environmental agenda.
    2. Communication and synergy between NGOs, institutions and the private sector would enable better identification, implementation and monitoring of social and economic goals.
    3. Economic development must be complemented with social, cultural and environmental blueprints which focus on the well-being of the population with respect to health, family and leisure.

Continue to develop skills and platforms for addressing tensions

      1. There should be greater cooperation between local, regional and national bodies in addressing differences and conflicts.
      2. Peace education should be included within the curriculum so that children are sensitized to conflict resolution strategies at a young age.
      3. Women should be empowered to play a greater role and bring greater contribution to the maintenance and sustainability of peace.

Foster shared and accurate historical accounts

    1. Shared, accurate and collective memories of national history should be crafted.
    2. A repertoire of the oral traditions of different cultures which recount the stories of solidarity and friendship should be recorded, preserved and disseminated.
    3. The importance of maintaining the important traditions and mechanisms for knowledge sharing such as transmitting wisdom through formal education, the media, the internet, museums, and storytelling should continue to be celebrated.

 

Difficult conversations to be had

Mauritius is on the brink of change and there is a feeling that the status quo cannot persist, but there seems to be a hesitancy around the process through which these changes may occur.

There are difficult conversations to be had. One of the interrogations which recurred was about the best ways in which to open spaces for people who are having different experiences, and who cannot hear each other, or would not speak to one another about challenges out of a fear that these conversations might cause some break down of the peace.

Since the focus groups and interviews were conducted, several participants have spoken about how refreshing it was to participate in these focus groups and have these conversations. A desire for a space for these conversations to continue into the future was palpable.

Full report accessible in French, English and Creole  

Main Photo Herr Oslen on Flickr, CC licence

The Charles Telfair Centre is non-profit, independent and non-partisan, and takes no specific position. All opinions are those of the authors/contributors only.