Mauritius is a top performer among African countries. It developed a manufacturing sector soon after independence and has managed to respond well to new external shocks. What explains this success? This paper draws on the history of the island, the writings of foreign economists, the ideas of locals, and the results of econometric tests. Mauritius has mostly followed good policies. They include: creating a well-managed Export Processing Zone, conducting diplomacy regarding trade preferences, spending on education, avoiding currency overvaluation, and facilitating business. The good policies can in turn be traced back to good institutions. They include: forswearing an army, protecting property rights (particularly non-expropriation of sugar plantations), and creating a parliamentary structure with comprehensive participation (in the form of representation for rural districts and ethnic minorities, the “best loser system,” ever-changing coalition governments, and cabinet power-sharing). But from where did the good institutions come? They were chosen around the time of independence in 1968. Why in Mauritius and not elsewhere? Luck?
Some fundamental geographic and historical determinants of trade and rule of law help explain why average income is lower in Africa than elsewhere, and trade and rule of law help explain performance within Africa just as they do worldwide. Despite these two econometric findings, the more fundamental determinants are not much help in explaining relative performance within Africa. Fundamental determinants that work worldwide but not within Africa are remoteness, tropics, size and fragmentation. (Access to the sea is the one fundamental geographic determinant of trade and income that is always important.) A case in point is the high level of ethnic diversity in Mauritius, which in many places would make for dysfunctional politics. Here, however, it brings cosmopolitan benefits. The institutions manage to balance the ethnic groups; none is excluded from the system. It is intriguing that the three African countries with the highest governance rankings (Mauritius, Seychelles and Cape Verde) are all islands that had no indigenous population. It helps that everyone came from somewhere else.