An Interview with Shari Villarosa, U.S. Ambassador to Mauritius and Seychelles
Shari Villarosa became Deputy Coordinator for Regional Affairs in September 2008. Previously, she served as our Chief of Mission in Rangoon, Burma from August 2005 to August 2008. Prior to that assignment she served as Director of Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore Affairs in the Department of State’s East Asia and Pacific Bureau; Economic Counselor of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia; and Chargé d’Affaires of our new Embassy in Dili, East Timor. Her other overseas assignments have been in Songkhla, Thailand; Brasilia, Brazil; Quito, Ecuador; and Bogota, Colombia. Her assignments at the State Department in Washington have included Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs; Deputy Director of the Office of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam Affairs; Singapore and Indonesia desk officer; and in the Office of Investment Affairs. In addition, she spent a year at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii as Diplomat-in-Residence. Ms. Villarosa graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in International Studies. She also has a law degree from William and Mary.
The Politic: To start off, why did you decide to join the Foreign Service?
I joined the Foreign Service because I am an army brat. My first overseas experience came when I was six months old and went to Germany, and I spoke German before English. Courtesy of my parents I gained wide international exposure growing up. When I went to college and learned that there was a major in international studies, I decided, that is what I want to do. I want to travel around the world. I feel very, very fortunate and cannot imagine a better career for me than joining the Foreign Service. Not only have I been able to travel the world, but I have been able to live in different countries, gotten to know the cultures, and gotten to know the people. This is very different from briefly visiting places as a tourist. Instead, I have gotten to know different ways of doing things.
The Politic: The majority of your past experience has been in Southeast Asia and South America, so what do you believe led to your assignment to Africa?
My last job in Washington was working on counterterrorism, where I worked closely with the Africa bureau on Somalia, Mali, Niger — all of which were confronting major terror threats. Thus, the bureau got to know me. I have already been in almost every country in the Western Hemisphere and all through Southeast Asia. I don’t care for cold-weather countries, so that left Africa as a new place to discover. I expressed interest in going to Mozambique because they are Portuguese-speaking, which I learned in Brazil, but that wasn’t available. So they said, “How about Mauritius and Seychelles?” And I love beaches!
The Politic: One of the interesting things about Mauritius is that before gaining its independence in 1968, it was colonized by not one country but successively by the Dutch, French, and then the British. At the same time, about two-thirds of the country’s population comes from the Indian subcontinent. Does a strong national identity exist in Mauritius, and if so, could you describe it?
Mauritius was uninhabited before the Dutch came. The dodo lived here, which became extinct with the arrival of people. The Dutch couldn’t make it here. The French then came in and brought Africans to work as slaves on sugar plantations. When the British took it over, they outlawed slavery, and began bringing Indians in to work on the sugar plantations. Everybody in Mauritius came from somewhere else, and there are no indigenous people. Mauritius is a mix of European, African, South Asian, East Asian and other people. Many former British colonies were like that — I was in Burma, which also had a large Indian population although a different ethnic make-up. The diverse population is a result of the colonial experience.
In terms of a Mauritian identity, I’m not sure that it is as strong as it appears from the outside. Mauritians are proud of their diversity, but at the same time, they remain very conscious of their ethnic/communal identities. There is not a lot of intermarriage here like in other diverse societies. So I don’t know exactly what you mean by a strong Mauritian identity. Mauritians were all united in their desire for independence, which they secured in 1968. But, ongoing social tensions exist between the different groups. There have been some violent incidents in the past, but mostly you only sense tension. I do not get the sense that tensions will erupt in violence at any moment. The population is diverse enough that no one group can succeed by disenfranchising another; there’s no tradition of doing that.
The Politic: What has really set Mauritius apart is the strength and stability of its democracy, so much so that it is categorized by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index as one of only 25 “full democracies.” In a region struggling with democracy, how has Mauritius built such a strong system of governance?
I am not an expert. My Foreign Service career has been spent in former colonies, and some have been relatively successful while others have not. It is hard to come up with hard and fast rules because each country’s different. For island nations, size may be an asset, simply because you’re not dealing with millions of people; the whole population of Mauritius is just over one million. Most Mauritians know each other, and when you know each other personally, I believe that you are more likely to work together. I think they had far-sighted political leadership at independence that helped. I also think it important that Mauritius invested early on in education. Education is free here through university, and Mauritius has a very high literacy rate in comparison to other countries in Africa. That high literacy allows people to make more informed choices. I am a strong believer that good education is important to a successful democracy.
I think the very diversity of the nation — no one group is sufficiently strong to prevail and completely disregard the other — serves as a check. In some of the Arab countries that are going through dramatic political transitions now, there’s little history of democracy, so some have gotten leaders that think, “We are the majority, we are in control, so we don’t have to listen to anybody.” We saw most recently in Egypt that that is not a successful plan for government. Because of the diverse population, the political leadership in Mauritius had to find ways to include the different groups rather than exclude or ignore them. I think that helped strengthen Mauritian democracy while also diminishing the chance of violent social unrest. Each of the different populations of Mauritians believes they have a political voice, so they don’t need to take to the streets or harm their neighbors.
The Politic: So this diversity, rather than being an imposition to stability, is a supporting factor of democracy?
In the case of Mauritius, I believe so. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in the Balkans or Iraq. Mauritius’ underlying culture and its colonial experience with elections before independence got Mauritians used to bringing the different groups together. However, you cannot generalize from Mauritius’ experience.
The Politic: Shifting towards Mauritius’ economic approach, Mauritius was ranked 8th in the 2012 Index of Economic Freedom. How has Mauritius developed from its post-independence low-income, agriculturally-based economy to its current middle-income, diversified economy?
Mauritius has made a dramatic economic transformation in a matter of decades. Mauritius went from a poor monoculture, sugar-based economy, to a diversified economy. Sugar is still a factor, but so are textiles and banking and tourism. Mauritius now has a middle class with rising expectations.
But you can’t just rest on your laurels. Mauritius must keep evolving. Mauritius’ economy was harmed when the European economy declined, leading to a drop in tourism. Now Mauritius seeks tourists from other countries, and that is proving to be a challenge. As more Mauritians have reached the middle class, they have become less interested in working in textile factories or hotels. Mauritian companies increasingly find it hard to recruit Mauritians to do these jobs and face the prospect of bringing in foreign workers, which has a social cost. That becomes a subject of debate. Mauritians don’t want foreigners to be brought in, and neither do they want these jobs. So now Mauritians must decide: “Okay, what direction do we need to be going in the 21st century?” While Mauritians achieved great success in the final decades of the 20th century, they now need a vision for going forward.
The Politic: How do you see the construction of the Cyber City factoring into Mauritius’ vision for the future?
Cyber City is recognition that information technology (IT) is essential for the future. At the same time, Mauritius has chosen to protect state communications companies. As a result, Mauritius has slow internet speeds and narrow bandwidths — inadequate for twenty-first century communications. Again, Mauritians must decide: develop the IT infrastructure for the 21st century or protect state communications companies. Mauritians must reach a national consensus on their vision for the future. They face challenges. Many young Mauritians seek work overseas because they don’t see the professional opportunities here. Mauritius must keep evolving and improving in order to grow and achieve future success.
The Politic: What role do you see the United States playing in helping Mauritius reach a consensus on their vision for the future?
It is not for us to dictate. The U.S. can help inform Mauritians about the many opportunities — expand their horizons. We have this wealth of knowledge. This knowledge serves as a positive influence by helping curious, creative Mauritians decide for themselves. We don’t need to dictate to them; they can figure it out, they just need to look more broadly at their possibilities.
The Politic: Shifting the scope of the conversation a little, Seychelles is ranked on the Gini Index as having the highest income inequality in the world. What measures are being taken to resolve this disparity?
Brazil and Indonesia, big countries where I have lived, had much greater extremes of wealth and poverty than I have seen in Seychelles. Seychelles has just 90,000 people. I have not seen Seychellois living in the abject poverty that I saw in, for example, East Timor. I have lived in many countries with lower levels of development. Looking at a number without knowing the place can give a distorted picture. Every country I have served in has income inequality as measured by their Gini coefficient. Unfortunately, inequality appears to be worsening in the United States as well.
Income inequality is unfortunate. I believe the most important solution is to educate for the future. Seychelles has a good public education system. Although there is one university in Seychelles, the costs are prohibitive for Seychellois to go abroad for education unless they come from a wealthy family. I would like to offer more scholarships to the United States. Providing five or ten scholarships a year to Seychelles, with its small population, could make a dramatic impact over twenty years. But we do not have sufficient resources for that.
The Politic: There, in Seychelles, how much of a determinant for the future is having a college degree? For example, in the United States, there has come to be this prevailing notion that you cannot succeed without a degree, because we don’t emphasize vocational schools.
Most Seychellois do not have college degrees. I’m not sure I know exactly what is going on: there is high unemployment among young people, yet the hotel industry tells me they cannot find Seychellois who will take the jobs — they do not need a college degree for those. Seychelles is not a place where you must have a college education to have hope for the future.
The Politic: A main aspect of your job as Ambassador to Mauritius and Seychelles has been to promote American economic, political, and cultural interests in the country. Could you talk a little bit about what advancing those interests looks like in the context of each of these countries?
Mauritius and Seychelles are very friendly to the United States. They share our democratic values and believe in free trade and capitalism. Not only do they share our values, they want to be partners with us and have stepped forward to take on regional and international responsibilities. Seychelles in particular has been very helpful in prosecuting pirates operating off the coast of Somalia, because Somalia lacked a judicial system to provide fair and impartial justice.
Both countries speak out in the region and internationally in the support of human rights. Both nations want to work with us to ensure free and fair elections take place in Madagascar. The United States is fortunate to have good friends like we have in Mauritius and Seychelles, which share our values and want to work with us. They also welcome any kind of training we can provide to become more capable partners, whether to help try piracy cases or train police with investigations. When I was in Burma, I had to speak out against gross human rights abuses. I don’t have to do that here. Our interests are also their interests, so it becomes, “How can we work together?” We work well together, and I consider myself fortunate to work with countries that want to work with us.
The Politic: How has working as Ambassador to both Mauritius and Seychelles informed your approach and policies to each separate country?
We don’t have widely different policies for the two nations. Mauritius and Seychelles share many similarities, but they have some differences. I have learned over the course of my Foreign Service career that every country, and even regions inside a country, like to be seen as unique and not told, “Why aren’t you more like something else?” We should avoid ‘one-size-fits-all’ policies. Not only do they not work globally, they don’t even work between Mauritius and Seychelles. When I go to Seychelles, I get different questions than I get here in Mauritius. Some things in Mauritius are better than in Seychelles, and some things in Seychelles are better than they are in Mauritius. I do not have to say, “You need to do it more like the other,” because that is not effective. We do not provide development assistance to either of these countries. Instead, we can rely on technical assistance because of their relatively high levels of development and education.
The Politic: Is there is a person, experience, or event in Mauritius and Seychelles respectively that have greatly influenced your policies?
No one person — it is the people, all of the people. The diverse people of Mauritius and Seychelles are very friendly, so it is a delight getting out and meeting them. That’s the way I learn: by talking and listening to different people, rather than just one person.
The Politic: Could you speak to what you have learned from the people of Mauritius and Seychelles?
I have only been here for six months, so I’m still learning. Everyday I learn something new. Instead of, “Oh, now I see the light and that explains,” everything, I discover, “Oh, that’s a little piece of the puzzle that helps make the picture a little bit clearer.” Mauritius and Seychelles are very complex societies with very diverse populations. So I am trying to understand how different people think and what they think. In each of my assignments I have found that the more I learned, the less I knew. It is just as true here as everywhere else. I would not claim to be any kind of authority; I am a learner.
The Politic: In what ways have you found the United States and the UN to be less effective than you would have hoped in the two countries?
The UN has minimal presence. Both the United States and UN are relatively less engaged in Mauritius and Seychelles because we must focus on many different crises around the world. I can’t argue that we should forget about famine or refugees to give more attention to Mauritius and Seychelles. I do not want people to starve or die in civil wars. We have limited resources, and the limited resources tend to go to the crises countries and the poorest countries. Mauritius’ and Seychelles’ reward for their relative success has been less engagement. They offer great value as partners, and our challenge is finding the resources to make them more capable partners.
The Politic: As a whole, how do you think America’s represented abroad, and what elements of American foreign policy would you want to change?
I am biased, but many people outside the Foreign Service have told me that the Foreign Service tends to attract the very best. I have worked with Foreign Service Officers from entry level officers to the most senior, and I consider them all deeply committed public servants. We are lucky to have these very dedicated public servants representing us around the world.
I would like to see a more bipartisan foreign policy and greater respect in the Congress for the many good things we are doing. The State Department budget is one of the first that Congress cuts. State appropriations represent less than 1 percent of the entire federal budget, but some people think that more than a third of our entire budget goes overseas, and that is complete nonsense. Our modest resources go a long way and have a powerful influence in other nations, but this is just not an argument that anyone makes inside the U.S., which I think is sad. I don’t think our budgets need to be doubled, but it would be nice if there was more appreciation in the U.S. for the valuable role we play to advance the interests of the U.S., building global peace and stability so that we can have a healthy global economy. The United States will be the major beneficiary of a peaceful world.
Embassy of the United States to Mauritius/Seychelles: http://mauritius.usembassy.gov/com.html