How to be a successful economic advisor? Recollections from the economic advisor to Mauritius

Updated: Mar 1

Dr. Sen Narrainen


CEoG initiated a program of writing support to African economic policymakers who have played senior advisory roles at the heart of governments in sub-Saharan Africa. The goal is to gather recollections of key economic events during their tenure as economic advisors. CEoG helps contributing policymakers transcribe and edit their recollections into at least one chapter that will form part of a ‘Handbook for Chief Economic Advisors to Government’.


These chapters will be organized around key economic events and the roles of that the senior economic advisors played in navigating their countries through the events. The chapters will document successes and mistakes, elaborating the practical challenges associated with bridging economic evidence to effective policy making. They will provide a vivid account of what it takes to be an effective advisor to political leaders. At their discretion, contributing authors will be encouraged to share practical lessons and tips for how to organize advisory functions.


Part 2: How to be a successful economic advisor


Q: As an economic advisor how do you communicate (bad) economic news effectively?


Ministers like to hear good news but they also need to know about the bad news. They would be upset if the adviser hides any bad news from them. I guess in such a situation where an adviser must communicate bad news he must do three things: be discrete, delicate and dexterous. Discrete in the sense of being careful and prudent. The adviser must have a full knowledge of why the news is bad and what make it bad. Delicate in the sense of being diplomatic and tactful, especially if the the bad news results from an action or policy of the minister. And dexterous in the sense of being quick-witted enough to deal with the reactions of the minister to the news.


But it is also important to be able to provide the minister with a solution or with ways of dealing with it. Ministers do not like their advisers to bring problems to them but rather to offer solutions to problems. Advisers should avoid talking about a problem without having given some thoughts to the possible solutions.


An adviser should not aim at imposing his or her thoughts on the minister. I would however tell them what I think. And if I think it's serious, it's urgent, I would tell them a second time, a third time. But no more than three times. That's my policy.


One minister told me once, “you know, you are the economist and I’m the politician. I have to decide as a politician. It's not that I disagree with you.” And that’s perfectly fair. As long as he knows the issue, for me it’s ok. And I’ve seen other advisors who try to impose their thinking. But I like to keep an open mind realizing that I can be wrong. Maybe an adviser should learn to see things a lot more from the perspective of the politician.


Q: Have you ever tried to make a political argument in order to get your message across?


I don't think I've ever told a minister what would be good for him politically. I’ve told ministers what would be bad for them politically. Until now I do that.


But politics is not my area of expertise. I therefore try to stay away from it, as much as I can. Even as regards economic advice I tend to focus on my areas of expertise, which are macroeconomic policies, development economics, and finance generally.

Q: What do you do as an economic advisor when your boss is mired in political turmoil? How can you navigate these waters when it's complicated and when you don't have stability in the finance ministry?


I am not a political adviser. And I like to be a low-profile adviser. I think it is very important to be in the back seat and try to influence the driving as much as one is allowed to as an adviser.


I am therefore very remotely involved in the political activities of the minister if at all. I recognize that ministers can lose or gain political capital on the advice that I give.


But I must add that so far no minister has blamed me for an advice that they have heeded from me and that went politically wrong. I believe that it is because I fulfil my role as adviser on the principle that the politicians are the ones who decide and must take full responsibility for their decisions.

I stay away from the political aspect . I'm not the personal advisor of the minister. For most of the years that I have been at the Ministry of Finance, it was as adviser or senior adviser to the Ministry and not to the Minister. I've never discussed any personal political issues with them, and they don't discuss them with me because they know I'm not interested.

I never put myself in a situation where there's a political issue where I will have to take side or participate or give advice. And because I've been able to do that, no government, no minister has associated me with any political party or particular minister. I'm nobody's man, actually. I just do my job as an advisor.


However, an adviser has to be loyal to the Government of the day. And it has to be loyalty without compromise. When a non-political adviser feels or thinks that he or she cannot be loyal to the government of the day for whatever may be the reasons, then the adviser must not continue in that job.


Q: What does an economist bring to the policy world that others don't?


Let me here use an analogy to answer this question. Think of a fisherman who is fishing in just the lagoon and one who is fishing in both the lagoons and the high seas. The economist must be the latter, especially if she or he is a policy adviser. An economist is actually trained to be the latter. Islanders would understand easily that analogy since lagoons are a relatively shallow part of the sea between the coasts and the reefs. They are relatively small in size and fairly well mapped out and safe. Whereas the high seas are deep and very vast. The economist must have that much broader viewpoint.


Most importantly, an economist who is operating at the policy making level must have long years of experience. I believe there are three main strengths that such an economist must have:


Good insights into the problems and issues he is addressing. That is why I try to stay as much as I can within the orbit of my expertise, areas in which I have, over the years, deepened and widened my knowledge with hands-on experience.


Good hindsight. I have always believed that history is important not only because it tells us about the past, but equally important is that it can tell us about the future. Over the past three decades as adviser I have come across many policies and actions that could have been done differently to achieve the desired outcomes. There are some cases in economic policy making in Mauritius where I would not like to see history repeat itself. That is why it is vital to have a good hindsight.


Good foresight. A good hindsight also helps to have a good foresight. This is not about forecasting or predicting the future – but most importantly about a good understanding of the acceptability of changes in policies and major reforms among the population – about how the population will react so as to better shape the future. I have seen policies and reforms that were implemented with the best intentions fail because there were misjudgements about the reactions of the population. Societies do evolve overtime. Today’s Mauritians would react in a totally different way than past generations to exactly the same policy. Understanding the social evolution is one of the requisites to have a good foresight on policies. Increasingly we have to build an anticipation culture in policy making in Mauritius.


Any economic adviser who masters these three main strengths would be able to perform in an effective way.


This post is part of our new blog series on recollections of Chief Economic Advisors.


Click here to read Sen Narrainen's recollections of the 2007-09 financial crisis in Mauritius.

Click here to read Prof. Benno Ndulu's recollections of the 2007-9 financial crisis in Tanzania.

Click here to read Prof Benno Ndulu's take on how to be a successful economic advisor

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