I was virtually in Port Louis early yesterday morning at the Labourdonnais Hotel at the invitation of Young Queer Alliance to articulate the business and economic case for decriminalization as part of a one-day symposium. Section 250 of the Mauritian criminal code, a “relic of the colonial era,” which punishes consensual same-sex relationships with up to five years of imprisonment, is being challenged with the High Court. In 2019, 11 people were convicted under Section 250 in the country while the overall negative impact on the lives of LGBTQ+ people is considerable – “the sword of Damocles hanging over the lives of LGBT Mauritians,” in the words of a local activist.
The case for inclusion of LGBTQ+ people has never been so well-articulated since we first published a study carried out by Professor Lee Badgett on the topic seven years ago during my time at the World Bank. The study at the time found that India was losing between 1 to 2% of its GDP by excluding LGBTQ+ people. Since then, the study has been replicated in other countries in the world. Most recently, the global think tank Open for Business published a similar study on Kenya which found an annual cost ranging from 0.2 to 1.7% of GDP and made headlines in the country. In many places in the world, losing 2% of your GDP would be considered a recession.
None of it is rocket science, in the sense that we can all understand how the cumulative cost of discrimination aggregates to a self-inflicted economic wound. In fact, Professor Badgett just published a book on the topic titled The Economic Case for LGBT Equality.
But beyond the cost to the economy, having a good track record in respecting the human rights of LGBTQ+ people sends a powerful signal to the market and investors. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the expression “like a canary in a coal mine” is often used to designate LGBTQ+ rights as an indicator of overall human rights context, including on other issues relevant to the tourism sector such as human trafficking or child labor. It, of course, also sends a signal on the stability or instability of the democratic set-up, as illustrated by recent developments in Hungary, Poland, and Singapore. As such, Section 250 will probably feature prominently in any risk analysis carried out by the private sector.
Companies that pay attention to issues of human rights and political stability also tend to pay attention to other Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) issues, including climate change, a primordial issue for the island of Mauritius. These are responsible business actors. In that sense, Section 250 remains a key bottleneck to economic development.
The Mauritian tourism and hospitality sectors remain in crisis, owing to muted tourist arrivals and a slow vaccination rollout. Yet, it still represents 9% of GDP (down from 20% previously) and remains one of the island’s potential engines of growth. Mauritius was, in fact, listed as one of the best destinations for 2022. The top source countries for tourists in Mauritius, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany are countries that have a very high level of societal acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. LGBTQ+ people and their allies pay attention to these issues as illustrated by this recent article in The Independent UK, stating that “Mauritius prosecutes local gay people but spares tourists”…not a great sign for potential travelers who look up Mauritius on the web.
There is an opportunity to leverage the power of the private sector to contribute to social change in Mauritius. Many of the groups present on the island (Starwood/Marriott, Accor, Hilton, Club Med, but also Barclays or Shell) outside of the tourism sector have signed on to the United Nations LGBTQ+ Corporate Standards of Conduct, committing to play a role in promoting the human rights of LGBTQ+ people inside and outside of their walls.
When you read the landmark judgement by India’s Supreme Court to decriminalize, there are multiple references to the private sector and its advocacy. Companies have multiple channels of influence to use what is often considered as a “more neutral voice” to contribute to progress on LGBTQ+ equality.
I ended my remarks, as I often do, with a quote from Kaushik Basu, the former Indian Chief Economist of the World Bank – who I am proud to call a friend and a staunch ally to the LGBTQ+ equality cause – which he made at an event I organized for our study on the Cost of Homophobia around 2014: “If removing discrimination against a minority group increases GDP that is good news. If enhancing justice and equality across human beings promotes GDP that is reason for celebration. But we must not argue that removing discrimination against minorities is good because it promotes GDP growth, that justice and equality are important because they lead to a higher GDP. Removing discrimination and promoting greater equality and justice are good in themselves.”