Knowledge and Skill Development in Mauritius: New Political Economic Discourses and Institutional Blockages.

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
830 Barrows (Barrows Hall)
Blandine Emilien, CRIMT-HEC Montreal, Montreal, QC, Canada

Knowledge and skill development in Mauritius: New political economic discourses and institutional blockages.

   This paper identifies a series of blockages facing institutional actors in Mauritius as a result of a national adherence to new political economic discourses regarding knowledge and skill development.  In recent years, the legitimization of liberalized production regimes and markets has triggered heightened pressures on national economies for maintaining their competitiveness within the increasingly globalized world (Casey 2011). In order to face international competition, governments in various parts of the world have aimed at developing a national concern for the enhancement of individuals’ skill capacities and employability. In this vein, many governments have since endeavored to develop knowledge-based and high-skill economies irrespective of their institutional varieties and legacies. While these discourses have emerged in the Global North, it has not spared countries of the Global South. In this paper, we contextualize Mauritius in relation to these current trends. More specifically, we identify the tensions and contradictions that these trends have triggered within the Mauritian institutional context.

    In Mauritius, such discourses coincided with the development of its Information and Communication Technology/Business Process Outsourcing (ICT/BPO) sector. A decade ago, technological advancements and the urge to diversify its economy at a critical juncture led the Mauritian government to work at attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the new sector. For Mauritius, the turn of the twenty-first century was marked by the loss of preferential access to Europe for its products. Between 2004 and 2005, its textile industry was to suffer the phasing out of a Multifibre agreement while the European Union also reduced sugar prices by more than 50 % during the same period (Zafar 2011). Mauritius was to face international competition from countries such as China, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam which were formerly constrained by quotas. As Mauritius became more exposed to global market forces, the former French and British colony could no longer rely upon the form of trade security it had accrued since its independence was proclaimed in 1968.

   The ICT/BPO sector emerged as a recurring economic diversification strategy. Since its independence, Mauritius has built its resilience by diversifying its economy with a focus on export-led growth and various forms of international trade.  Mauritian policy-makers as a common group of actors have been brought to develop the collective entrepreneurship drive of the public sector, and innovation has often consisted in the development of new internationally-driven sectors at times of crisis. The ICT/BPO sector is therefore another major expression of the Mauritian economic path dependency.

   In 2007, the government announced its intention to focus on turning Mauritius into a knowledge economy by 2020 (EHRSP 2007). In its 2008-2020 Education and Human Resources Strategic Plan (EHRSP 2007), the government advocated the need to focus on building young Mauritian individuals’ skill capacities due to the demands of technology-enabled sectors such as ICT/BPO. The Mauritian government has acknowledged the need for a more ‘versatile’ workforce that would fulfil the new pressures facing the Mauritian labor market within the global economy. The government’s objectives as outlined in the strategic plan were multi-fold. Among others, new policy attention was to be afforded to employability. In addition, the Mauritian government intended to change its own mindset in regard to Education and Training. Quality education for all was to become a priority.

   The paper is based on a qualitative study in which 75 informants were interviewed between 2012 and 2014. Informants are workers and managers operating in the sector, as well as 16 local experts. These experts are industrial relations officers, former ministers, trade unionists, activists, educationists and BPO specialists. The study finds how institutional blockages make it difficult for the Mauritian government to act upon its new narratives. Past legacies and poor anticipation of the need for adjustments in contemporary conditions currently hinder the government’s capacity to embrace change as it has announced.  To start with, managers and experts are critical of the education system which, bequeathed from the colonial past, has not evolved rapidly enough to serve the current demands of the economy. Furthermore, experts report the drawbacks of having relied on past success and path dependency in the building of the ICT/BPO sector. Findings show how the sector would have required more adjustments than anticipated by policy makers. As a result, further tensions and contradictions have emerged.  Informants report tensions between the government and private employers in regard to who is to provide which form of training. Other disparities lie between employers’ expectations of workers’ level of employability as well as skill capacities on the one hand and actual skill capacities on the other.   In the absence of unions in the sector, workers are unable to voice out their concerns regarding their skill development opportunities. Contradictions are found in the government’s one-sided efforts towards building a ‘high-skill’ workforce while new pillars of the economy, here illustrated by the BPO sector, can be comparatively low-skill.

   The study concludes that there has been a lack of institutional coordination in the development of a new sector in the context of Mauritius. New narratives borrowed from other parts of the world do not fit directly with the current features that characterize the institutional context within which young Mauritian individuals, such as ICT/BPO workers, operate. As it demonstrates the drawbacks of over-reliance upon path dependency, the study points to the importance for institutional actors to consider context-specificity in their strategies and policy-making. It calls for more carefully designed policies that take into account institutional blockages and contextual realities in order to make room for significant institutional change.