Updated: Jan 22, 2021
Dr Sen Narrainen has had a remarkable career giving advice at the heart of government. In 1989 he left a job as a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada to join the then Ministry of Finance as an advisor. Since that time, Sen has played key advisory roles operating from both the Prime Ministers office and the Ministry of Finance. His time as an advisor has overlapped with four different Prime Ministers and eleven terms of Ministers of Finance. Sen says, “I came in on a contract, and it has always been renewed since then.”
Mauritius has grown dramatically, including during Sen’s time as an advisor. GDP per capita has grown from $200 at the time of independence to $12000 today. By many measures Mauritius is already a high-income economy, and currently has a Human Capital Index of 0.62 (the second highest in sub-Saharan Africa. These numbers suggest many causes for celebration, but Sen also raises some concerns. For example, 60% of the labor force have less than 10 years of schooling. When evaluating economic performance, Sen say it is important to look at the two perspectives of a glass half full and a glass half empty: “sometimes, the empty glass will tell you something.”
In the context of Mauritius and its outstanding transition from a single-crop agrarian economy to a thriving services and knowledge hub, the empty half of the glass is calling for a greater focus on inclusive growth. This is at the top of the policy agenda. A holistic view of the economy has always been part of Sen’s approach to what he describes as total development, an approach which includes concern for economic growth, social development and the environment.
As well as being a senior economic advisor, Sen sits on the Central Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee and is chairman of the Treasury foreign currency fund. He is also a member of the Senate of the University of Mauritius. He gives an example of how this rich policy overlap can have significant multipliers. He has been able to have pivotal discussions with the university to nudge its policies to align with the government’s development vision. The university has doubled its intake of students in ICT subjects to ensure that there is a supply of trained workers to meet the transforming demand that is part of the government’s high-tech knowledge economy agenda.
Part of that agenda includes the creation of a new body called the Economic Development Board, which has been set up under the aegis of the Prime Minister’s Office to ensure “greater coherence and effectiveness in implementing policies and actions to support the growth objectives of Mauritius”[i]. Sen is heading a newly created bureau within this Board, where he will be operating as the Chief Economist. This new office is supported by 12-15 staff members. The Chief Economist title encapsulates 30 years of experience being an economic advisor to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Finance at different points. This depth of experience allows Sen to share some lessons.
In this time period, he has written more than twenty budget speeches. Sen shares the insight of how influential economic advisors can be in roles like this. Advisors can position ideas in important policy agendas by drafting speeches and helping principles prepare for interviews and meetings.
Another area where advisors can be effective is through consulting widely and coalescing views into policy action. For example, Sen has secured private sector engagement for a coordinated approach to head off a crisis. Here too, he emphasizes the need to know the key players and gain their trust. Sen quips, “Mauritius is a small island; everyone knows me.” Importantly, they also trust him and that empowers him to use the full range of the economics toolkit to effect policy.
One point he emphasizes is that advisors must know the political economy around the economic issues they are analyzing. Asked what constitutes good advice, Sen replies “advice is not good if it is not acceptable to the politician”. Economic advisors at the senior levels in government need to know how to give options and solutions that will align with politicians’ goals. Sen suggests that this knowledge of the political economy cannot be trained but must be gained from experience. This could be one of the reasons he suggests that being a senior economic advisor is not a job for a young person.
The main constraint of being young is that effective advisors need to be able to speak truth to their principles. This is a difficult role for an advisor to play if they have not built up clout or if they have alternative political ambitions of their own. A lack of experience could also lead an advisor to miss a window for reforms. Sen emphasized how there is often only one opportunity to try something new. A potentially transformative policy that is poorly implemented will quickly lose support. The one-shot nature of reforms makes experience crucial.
Finally, Sen also shares the view that part of the role of senior economic advisors is to be provocative. He asks, “what can an advisor do that a politician cannot?” One answer is that advisors can use the data, knowledge and evidence at their disposal to raise sometimes awkward questions with their counterparts in government, pointing out inconsistencies and highlighting areas of concern. He gives an example of a striking statistic that has drawn attention to questions about land use and the sustainability of the Mauritius sugar industry. He asks “how can 40% of the nation’s land be used to produce 3% of its GDP?” Whereas politicians often have the goal of winning more votes, and citizens often lack the big picture of the economic situation, Sen also sees the role of the advisor as advocating for all participants of the economy.
Thirty years at the heart of government have made him a unique advocate of knowledge-based inclusive growth. He brings this all together in one statement: “statistics are important, but it’s also important to know what the people want.”