Scott M. Weber, President of Interpeace, the International Organization for Peacebuilding
The 21st of September is a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace and building a world that is more equal, more just, and more inclusive. As we celebrate the International Day of Peace, Scott M. Weber, President of Interpeace reviews how Mauritius successfully maintained a remarkable level of peace and security and developed a dynamic economy that is the envy of many larger nations. Yet, Mauritius’ social contract and democratic political culture, both key to Mauritius’ sustainable peace, are sliding. He discusses the imperative for Mauritians to focus on building resilience for peace by identifying peace risk factors and tools for resilience.
Over its 53-year journey since independence, Mauritius has maintained a remarkable level of peace and security and developed a dynamic economy that is the envy of many larger nations. In a multi-ethnic society rife with social and economic inequalities, Mauritius has thus far weathered the winds of populism and xenophobia and found creative methods to protect its unique brand of democratic pluralism. But how long can this culture of unity last? Is this beacon of peace, stability, and democracy beginning to dim or flicker?
A global study of trends in democracy places Mauritius among the “Top-10 most autocratizing countries in the world”, together with the likes of Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and Brazil, to name a few. Sadly, a backsliding of democracy on the island is in keeping with a wider, global trend. The last decade has seen a precipitous increase – from 48% to 68% – of the world’s population living under autocratic regimes.
Indicators of the decline of the island’s social contract and its lauded democratic political culture are clearly visible: the rise of bald-faced identity politics, recent incidence in the parliament, calls for the abolition of the country’s Best Loser system that has preserved political pluralism for decades. As a peacebuilder working to strengthen peace and stability in countries further along the path of polarization and authoritarianism, I must caution readers to take these early warning signs very seriously and to act before it is too late. After all, apathy is the handmaiden of autocrats.
A social contract often erodes in small, relatively unspectacular ways. It begins with leaders exploiting loopholes in the law, showing blatant disrespect for precedence and procedure, especially within institutions tasked with enforcing anti-corruption practices. Emboldened by the inaction of the public, such leaders will proceed to sow doubt in the credibility of elections themselves, attacking the media, stoking tribalism, and spreading deliberate falsehoods for political gain. And when the challenges to this behavior do come, state security services are often instrumentalized to protect the State from the people, rather than the people themselves.
Beware of those who label such concerns as hyperbolic. The insurrection on the Capitol of the United States on January 6th, 2021 came within a hair of leveling the world’s oldest continuous democracy. Donald Trump’s presidency represented an unprecedented assault on the institutions of democracy through a concerted policy of undermining its guardrails, or, as his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, put it, of “deconstructing the administrative state”. Two hundred and thirty-two years of democracy were nearly undone in just 48 months.
And yet, the conditions for a destructive political figure to emerge were long in the making. Social and political polarization and exclusion – especially on the basis of race – had been rising for years, aided by efforts to undermine electoral processes and voter rights. Pervasive apathy meant that these injustices and transgressions gathered silently below the surface, like sediment in a river, ultimately diverting the entire course of democracy and human rights in the United States.
The beauty of democracy is its ability to instill confidence in the wisdom of the people to self-correct, to ensure that the pendulum of politics will eventually swing back towards the center. But when the safeguards of democratic institutions are weakened, a society can cross a threshold beyond which it is unable to reform itself. Is Mauritius approaching that threshold? What would such a threshold be?
The management thinker, Peter F. Drucker, famously stated that “you cannot manage what you cannot measure”. If concerned Mauritians are committed to preserve, protect and enhance the social contract, they must begin to measure its contours and content in order to organize society’s energies towards those goals.
The international organization for peacebuilding, Interpeace, that I lead has developed methods to assess the evolution of societal resilience. The framework we employ of “Resilience for Peace” differs from the traditional of understanding resilience in that it goes beyond the simple ability to withstand or “bounce back” from shock. Rather, it focuses on those social and political relationships that form the fabric of society and that are instrumental in transforming challenges into progress. At the core of it all is an assessment of what we term horizontal trust (between citizens and groups in society) and vertical trust (between the people and the State). It also focuses attention on the endogenous assets, qualities, attributes, resources, and actions that communities possess and that can potentially be drawn upon to manage risks and prevent crises. It is thus both about consciously drawing on social and political experiences from the past that can serve as precedence, but also a deliberate effort to anticipate threats to unity and the social contract and to take preventative actions.
Whereas discussions of a country’s factors of fragility often closes doors to dialogue (after all, who would want to be labelled as “fragile”), a focus on resilience has an important convening power, even for those in positions of authority. The methodology behind this work brings all sectors of society together to define collectively the major risks (especially internal, but also external) that the country faces and may face in the future. Then those same stakeholders map out the factors of resilience (the guardrails of governance, the cultural practices, social bonds, and community leadership) upon which society will depend in order to meet those challenges. The act of discussing these risks and factors of resilience, of tracking them over time, and then designing tailored and collective strategies to minimize the risks and deliberately nurture resilience, not only brings people into a common cause but generates collective action. An annual barometer of risk and resilience can then keep this work at the forefront of the public’s attention.
Mauritius is an unquestionable success story and deserves its recognition in the top ranking among African nations in the UN Human Development Index. And yet, many of those gains are at risk. If Mauritians are concerned about recent trends, take action now before the country crosses a dangerous threshold. After all, you fix your roof while the sun is still shining, not once the rains have come.
This article was updated on the 28th September by the author to bring precision to the indicators of the decline of the island’s social contract.
Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s).