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Business as usual?

Written for the Vanuatu Daily Post

Moana Carcasses wants changes to the VIPA Act. That might be a good idea.

Back in 2013, when Moana Carcasses was prime minister and acting minister of Trade, Cooperatives and Ni Vanuatu Business, he put a stop to the issuing of so-called D2 business licenses. These are the licenses needed to run a retail/wholesale shop.

Mr Carcasses was reacting to a widespread—and largely accurate—belief that some investors were flouting the intent of the VIPA Act, which reserves certain sectors and occupations to Ni Vanuatu. Now, two years later, he wants to review his decision.

He’s right to do that as well.

It’s clear today that a blanket ban on issuing D2 licenses has done little to remedy the situation. On the contrary, it has stifled the diversity of shops and retail goods in Port Vila.

During a public meeting earlier this week, about 40 of the usual suspects turned up to comment. The Chamber of Commerce (or VCCI) sent a delegation, and local merchants and manufacturers showed up to check on things.

The feedback, if well-intentioned, was predictable. A VCCI representative trotted out the tired assertion that the Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authority can either promote or regulate business, but not both. This is just wrong. Responsible business promotion requires regulation.

Other representatives highlighted the business awareness and training activities that the VCCI is undertaking. These activities are nice, but they have yet to make a dent in the desultory economic growth rate, and there is little likelihood that they will.

Others pointed out that Ni Vanuatu operate at a deficit, lacking access to credit and financial services. The result, not to put too fine a point on it, is that outsiders move in to fill the gaps in business sectors left empty by law and economic circumstance.

And because they’re skirting the rules, some business owners don’t participate as they should in the formal economy.

But let’s not single out small shop owners. Disrespect for the rules laid out by VIPA, Customs and other relevant authorities is widespread. So much so that one VCCI member characterised the process of setting up a business as a ‘minefield’.

This may be a case of familiarity breeding contempt, but it’s a bit rich to hear from the same gang that has in the past been happy to dodge and weave around its civic responsibility when it comes to respecting workers’ rights, taxation and reporting.

Yes, we need simpler laws and regulations. We also need to show a little more respect for the rules that we have.

Efforts to improve enforcement have garnered real results. While business owners griped and moaned about it, a more robust VAT collection regime resulted in double-digit growth in taxation revenues in 2013. The government is stronger as a result.

So much for the stick. The carrot could be a little sweeter, too. It’s clear that VCCI, a publicly-funded entity, is in need of inspiration. It’s clear, too, that VIPA’s regulatory regime could be simplified.

So let’s kill two birds with one stone.

Stop segregating business categories based on turnover. A business is a business is a business. Charge a single, flat fee for the license itself, then tax a percentage of overall turnover. This shares the tax burden fairly between large and small investors, and eliminates the rather parochial distinction between Ni Vanuatu business people and others.

And as part of the reform effort, make the Chamber of Commerce a member-funded institution. Instead of being funded from license fee revenues, VCCI should collect membership dues directly from local businesses. This way, the VCCI will prosper—or not—based on its value to businesses.

Freeing the organisation from reliance on government will also give it more leeway to lobby government without fear of biting the hand that feeds it.

None of this improves Ni Vanuatu access to credit or financial services. And it’s telling that not a single representative from our retail banks saw fit to attend the Minister’s consultation. But at very least, we begin to level the playing field, and allow a simpler set of rules to be enforced without fear or favour.

It’s not sufficient in itself, but it’s a good start. Consultations will continue till the end of August.

Construction equipment at the end of the road in Erangorango, overlooking the airport.

Action and Reaction

Written for the Vanuatu Daily Post

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s true in politics as well as physics

“Toktok no tumas. Aksen nomo.” These words, originally attributed to the famous—or infamous, depending on who you talk to—politician Harry Iauko, capture in simple and direct terms the nation’s growing impatience. People are rightly asking when are we ever going to see the benefits we’ve been promised for so long?

It should come as no surprise then, that in word and deed, the current government is intent on moving forward, and moving fast.

The more cynically minded among us could remark that the 2016 general election is just around the corner. But, after all, that’s what politics are all about. This is quite literally a popularity contest, and voters are right to ask, “What have you done for me lately?”

So nobody should be surprised when the minister of Public Works redirects earth-moving equipment from their current sites in Ambae and Maewo and has them sent to his home island in Pentecost.

Nobody who’s travelled the roads in Pentecost can deny that they are in desperate shape. Traffic comes to a complete halt after a heavy rainfall because of the lack of infrastructure.

But that’s not to say the roads in Ambae or Maewo are any better. And here’s where action and reaction become difficult to manage. Continue reading

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Power play

Written for the Vanuatu Daily Post

UNELCO’s star rose considerably in the days and weeks after cyclone Pam. Consistently rated among the best power companies in the Pacific islands, the utility exceeded even these high expectations, restoring electricity and water to critical locations sooner than expected in many cases.

Yesterday, the company confirmed that they had finalised a plan to complete the handover of Port Vila’s streetlights in time for Independence celebrations this year. In the past the municipality struggled to provide this service reliably. Now, the utility has promised more lighting for longer hours using more efficient technologies.

Soon, it will begin extending its power grid in Malekula to an estimated 300 new households.

But in spite of these successes, it still tries to duck around its responsibilities to the Utilities Regulatory Authority, and has reportedly appealed directly to politicians instead.

A 2004 World Bank report identified issues with the company’s tariff calculation methods. It recommended that an independent body be established to oversee power generation and water supply.

The Utilities Regulatory Authority made a number of missteps in its early days, but has since enhanced and regularised its operations, thanks partly to significant assistance from the Australian government’s Governance for Growth programme.

In spite of this, UNELCO seems unwilling to recognise the regulator’s authority. Continue reading

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UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Written for the Vanuatu Daily Post

More than three months after cyclone Pam devastated the country, much remains to be done. Governor General of Australia Peter Cosgrove’s visit to Port Vila and Tanna highlighted the continuing need of Vanuatu’s affected population.

Anyone who claims that Tanna has received an unfair amount of aid has only to visit the island to see how wrong they are. The destruction on the island was widespread, and even now, signs of damage are everywhere. Lenakel hospital is still struggling with the after effects of the cyclone, and continuing health issues in the communities only compound the problem.

Melmel Lawawa, from south Tanna, is barely one year old. She has an extensive skin infection and has just arrived in hospital. Her family home was destroyed during the cyclone. While the family has received food support, they have yet to receive tools or materials to help with the reconstruction of their home. She lives in cramped, unsanitary conditions, and now her suffering is adding to the workload at the hospital.

But Lenakel hospital is also facing challenges with water and sanitation. Several large capacity fibreglass water tanks were blown off their bases and sent careening down the hillside by the cyclone’s unprecedented winds. Staff at the hospital claim they’re doing what they can, but current water capacity is severely limited, sometimes running out by lunchtime. Continue reading

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Anything less than defeat is a victory

Originally published on the Pacific Policy Blog.

Last week’s Solomonic decision by the Melanesian Spearhead Group to cut the baby in half and boost the membership status of both the ULMWP and Indonesia is an example of the Melanesian political mind at work. Valuing collective peace over individual justice, group prosperity over individual advancement, and allowing unabashed self-interest to leaven the sincerity of the entire process, our leaders have placed their stamp on what just might be an indelible historical moment.

Last week marked the first time the indigenous people of West Papua were not entirely defeated. And that, in itself, is a victory.

Thousands gathered to celebrate in Timika and elsewhere in the western half of the island of Papua. Praise for Manasseh Sogavare’s depiction of the decision as a ‘test‘ of Melanesia’s respect for human rights was widespread. Domestically, his role in the decision seems to have bolstered his standing as a statesman and leader.

But a more dry-eyed look at the process reveals a cost that will undoubtedly prove quite high for proponents of West Papuan independence. David Robie’s depiction of Papua New Guinea and Fiji’s stance on the issue as a ‘betrayal‘ is starker than many others, but it’s not wrong.

Voreqe Bainimarama’s disingenuous insistence that Indonesia’s territorial integrity cannot be challenged begs the question of the legitimacy of Indonesia’s continuing occupation—one which, notably, the UN has still to answer. Likewise, Peter O’Neill’s insistence on ‘mandated’ representation for the Melanesian peoples of West Papua would be laughable if it weren’t so callous. The whole reason that the people of West Papua are seeking legitimacy through the MSG is because they are disenfranchised at home.

Sato Kilman took advantage of the clouded complexion of the domestic political scene to keep his proverbial head down, sending only a senior administrator to the Honiara summit. In fairness to him, from a tactical perspective he really had no choice. From a strategic perspective, his handling of the issue could only leave him weakened. Social media commentary in the Solomons was particularly unkind, portraying Vanuatu’s PM as lacking the nouse to stand with Mr Sogavare, letting down West Papua ‘at its hour of greatest need.’ Continue reading

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A hard choice, but a simple one

Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog

There’s nothing complicated about the MSG’s decision on whether to include West Papua as a member, but that doesn’t make it easy

No matter how we slice and dice the issue of West Papuan independence, it always comes down to this: Do the indigenous peoples of a distinct and discrete land mass have the democratic right to self-determination or not?

The answer, according to international law and standards, is an unequivocal yes.

Even a cursory examination of history reveals that Indonesia has systematically ignored and subverted the desires of the people who share the island of Papua with their cultural and ethnic brethren and sistren in Papua New Guinea. They have oppressed these people using military force, and their policies in the region have from the beginning been designed to silence the voice of the indigenous people there.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s protestations notwithstanding, there is no free press in the Papuan provinces. Police and military continue to claim in the face of incontrovertible evidence that there is no cause for unrest. And still they claim that even advocating for independence is a crime. Attending a peaceful demonstration is considered grounds for arrest and incarceration. Political activity can get you tortured or killed. Virtually all of the independence leaders living in exile have faced systematic persecution extending across borders. After he escaped prison and fled for his life, Benny Wenda faced years of forced immobility because of a flagrantly erroneous Interpol ‘red notice’, which falsely accused Mr Wenda of arson and murder.

Just last month, Mr Wenda was denied entry into the United States following an interview with US Homeland Security personnel. No reason was provided at the time. Presumably, the terrorist watch-list, or a similar international mechanism, is being used to curtail his visibility on the world stage.

It needs to be said that Jokowi, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono before him, would do more if they could. But the plain truth is that civilian rule of law does not extend to the Papuan provinces. Continue reading

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CREDO

In journalism and in life, it helps to believe in a few things:

I believe in long answers to short questions. I believe that each question raises more questions. I believe that wisdom consists mostly of raising more questions than others do. I believe there is no higher vocation than trying to understand.

I believe that people confuse clarity with simplicity. I believe that sometimes things are perfectly clear, but rarely are they simple. I believe that simple solutions are never right enough to be useful.

I sometimes believe that it’s Us versus Them, but then I remind myself that Us is all of us.

I believe that short, pithy statements are all well and good, but useless if taken alone. I believe that, eventually, all slogans become lies.

I believe that faith unchallenged is weakness. I believe that unquestioning faith raises walls rather than breaking them down. I believe that unquestioning belief is a kind of blindness.

I believe that truth is often painful, but learning is a glorious thing. I believe that, just as we exult in the physical exertion of sport, we can exult in the psychic pain of learning and improvement. I believe that correcting someone is a sign of respect. I believe that it is respectful to believe someone capable of learning and worthy of our help. I believe that we should embrace correction from others.

I believe that we are wrong more often than we are right, and even if we’re not, we should act as if we were. Continue reading

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Three plays in two days

Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post

Right after Sato Kilman stage-managed the ouster of Joe Natuman’s government, Wan Smolbag debuted their latest Youth Drama group play. The title, Yumi Stap Wea (Where Are We?) is the same question several MPs must have been asking themselves in the whirlwind of changing allegiances.

One of the plays was tightly scripted, engaging and thought provoking. It avoided easy answers to long-standing problems in Vanuatu, and took a dry-eyed look at some of the key difficulties that we face as a country.

The other gave us a new Prime Minister. Continue reading

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About those $83m dollar houses…

The focus of today’s minute of hate appears to be the NPR story about how the American Red Cross managed to waste hundreds of millions of dollars and to build only six houses in Haiti.

It’s pretty scandalous, there’s no doubt about that. They appear to have been awash in cash, without a clue about how to spend it. From the reporting, it appears that (surprise surprise) parochialism and a refusal to engage local skills and knowledge led to mistake after mistake, and years of delay.

As the internet worked itself into a righteous froth over the incident, we witnessed the familiar refrain that international NGOs are bloated, useless appendages designed for no other purpose than to provide salaries for over-privileged and under-qualified nabobs.

One rather under-informed commenter offered the following:

UNICEF [USA’s] expenses of 52 million dollars in expenses related to management and fundraising (out of a 600 million dollars budget, and that’s one of the best managed ones out there)

They are actually complaining about an administrative overhead of 9%? Seriously? Continue reading

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On be(com)ing happy

Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog

Yesterday, during an interview for a documentary film about climate change, I was asked how Vanuatu came to be known as the Happiest Country in the World. On the face of it, the title is quite apt. Wherever you go in Vanuatu, you will find smiling faces, warm welcomes and open hearts.

Even in the aftermath of cyclone Pam, which directly affected half the population and badly damaged dozens of their islands, Ni Vanuatu people still managed to smile and laugh. I confess that even after a decade living here, I found it astonishing that people would show such grace in the face of adversity.

In the badly affected Malapoa Waetwud neighbourhood, a man calmly described how he and his family would live off fallen fruit for a few days, then they’d dig up whatever hadn’t rotted in the ground; but after that, he wasn’t sure where the next meal was going to come from. On the southern island of Tanna, which was utterly devastated by 230 Kph winds, I sat with a group of mamas in the shade of the only remaining tree trunk in that part of the village, and we laughed and gently teased each other as we passed the time.

And it’s not that they were oblivious. On the contrary. Only half an hour earlier a village elder came up to me, looked me in the eye and spoke with brutal simplicity: ‘I nogat wan samting.’

‘There’s nothing left.’

It took me days—weeks to be honest—to understand how people could remain light-hearted in the face of the loss of everything of value in their lives. Continue reading