World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the spring 2016 Black Lives Matter Everywhere issue is: Is affirmative action necessary to overcome institutional racism? Steven Ratuva discuses the history of affirmative action in Fiji, where policies meant to alleviate ethno-political tensions had the opposite effect. However, Ratuva argues that affirmative action, if done well, is still a worthy undertaking.
By Steven Ratuva
Countries like Fiji, Malaysia, and South Africa have seen a phenomenal growth in the middle class of the designated ethnic group as a result of preferential policies in the areas of education, business and employment. Affirmative action has also been used as a tool for conflict resolution in some post-conflict societies, to varying degrees of success.
Fiji stands as an example with less-than-stellar results. Pro-indigenous Fijian affirmative action policies were meant to address the ethno-political tension between indigenous Fijians and those of Indian ancestry. The rationale was that preferential policies would help lessen tension and keep the peace between groups. This was not a very successful strategy because of direct political interference and appropriation of resources by indigenous Fijian political elites to mobilize political support. After the military coup in 1987, which overthrew an Indian-dominated government, loans and business licenses were freely disbursed to supporters by the military installed indigenous Fijian government. This resulted in the bankruptcy and collapse of the National Bank of Fiji.
Meanwhile, there was a deliberate policy of “Fijianizing” the public service, public enterprises, police, judiciary and military. Many Indo-Fijians lost their jobs to lesser qualified indigenous Fijians, and there were massive waves of migration out of the country. Because of lack of proper regulation and accountability, some state officials colluded with companies to profit from affirmative action programs through price fixing and under the table deals.
Over the years, a number of high profile individuals, including a former prime minister, were convicted and jailed for abuse of affirmative action policies. Given the problems that affirmative action exacerbated in Fiji, it was abolished after the 2006 military coup. The military regime redefined and re-articulated development through a multi-ethnic approach without special preference for any ethnic community. This continued after the elections in 2014.
As in the Fijian case, affirmative action can have unintended consequences, despite its lofty goals. In the case where those in dominant political positions also happen to be members of the designated group, as in Fiji, Malaysia, and South Africa, it has been used as leverage by certain powerful designated-group individuals to serve their own economic and political interests. Affirmative action in these countries has helped create a powerful ruling class who use the preferential policies to bolster their wealth and power through selected and targeted distribution of state resources. Such abuse subsumes the original aims of the policy to self-serving forces. This has led to large-scale and institutionalized abuse and corruption, thus giving affirmative action a bad name.
Additionally, some have criticized affirmative action as a form of reverse discrimination, especially against the poor, powerless and disadvantaged members of non-designated groups. In this case, well-to-do elites in the designated group do not deserve affirmative action, while the poor and marginalized in non-designated groups do. This is one of the reasons why class-based affirmative action is seen by some as more appropriate. In many cases, class and ethnicity intersect and this means that the entire group, by and large, is disadvantaged. A case can thus be made that both class and ethnicity should be used to determine affirmative action policy. However, the formula has to be comprehensive enough to ensure that resources must reach only those who deserve it.
Despite its drawbacks, the noble aims of affirmative action are still relevant in many places. Affirmative action’s ability to foster diversity, equity, peace and opportunity remain fundamental to creating a better society. However, truly justice-focused policies also require an appropriate monitoring system which ensures that short term targets, timelines and long term outcomes are achieved. Eventually, affirmative action will need to come to an end. The question is, when?
Steven Ratuva is a professor at the University of Canterbury and the director of the Macmillan Brown Center for Pacific Studies.
[Photo courtesy of Tim O’Shea]