To the Hon Marie Roland Alain Wong Yen Cheong, Minister of Social Integration and Economic Empowerment

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The hope that a new year will bring change seems a trifle optimistic. Nothing is different except that time has marched on, as always, from one day to another. Instead, this may be the time for long-term thinking, especially when so much money has gone up in smoke in recent days. Some fireworks may prettily illuminate the night sky, but all the bangers do is deafen people and terrify the animal world. Incidentally, if evil spirits have been banished, it doesn’t take long for them to acquire reinforcements. Perhaps the mania carries echoes of Dionysian orgies, moments of wildness, an escape from self and everyday life, although it’s hard to see how splashing out on Roman candles helps to reduce poverty.

A wee spirit of course can only encourage thinking about poverty – or anything else – and not pretend to offer definitive solutions but no doubt you’re working on a vision that could make Mauritius a model for the world. After all, with a small population it should be easier here than elsewhere to find a solution. Of course it would help if there were a plan to use the country’s immense ocean space as Poseidon intended, producing wealth without damaging fish stocks, while leaving pure, clean waters for future generations. For the moment, that’s just a whale of a laugh.

Poverty also comes to mind because of the number of imminent court cases starring Ploutos, god of agricultural bounty and wealth. At last Dike is able to render a fair judgement in such affairs but more worrying to a spirit of careful consideration is the cases that will never surface, including the requests for a little bit of tea money. Meanwhile the definition of poverty varies greatly from one country to another. In France, it’s considered to be an income of below forty thousand rupees a month. That sounds generous but, according to my abacus, it would still take a Frenchwoman on the poverty line about four hundred years to save two hundred million rupees (providing she spends no money, not even on a safe or two). You might wonder if that has ever occurred to anyone…

But how do you get people out of poverty? The local tendency is to provide freebies in one form or another but Plato and Aristotle looked askance at any approach that deprives people of self-respect by enslaving them in a dependency culture. Giving the impression that the state coffers are a bottomless pit doesn’t help either nor does implying that they are easily replenished by acting like Robin Hood. The idea was floated earlier about compulsory home insurance so that screaming hordes no longer need to descend on the authorities, but presumably it’s too complicated for bureaucrats to contemplate.

Logic implies that, for everything given, there should be a contribution in return. It’s such an important and complicated topic, we can chat about it more next time but, meanwhile, you could take a tour round some of the free houses and you’ll find that manna from heaven is often little valued. Why aren’t unemployed labourers, who need a house, taken on to help in its building? If people fail to pay their rents or syndic charges, or send their children to school (with the incentive of a free lunch if appropriate), they need ejecting, even if they rush to complain on radio stations or vote for populists in other political parties. The origins of poverty may lie in the past but its alleviation also needs a change of mindset amongst many of the poor themselves. If that sounds complicated, it may be easier than imbuing principles amongst populist politicos.

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