Getting Out of the Way

I’ve got a friend visiting right now, a colleague of mine from my previous life in the world of software start-ups and corporate manoeuvring. For about as long as the World Wide Web has been around, we’ve been part of a community of explorers, people who defined the Web, extended it and made its strengths our own. From the mid 1990s through the so-called Dot-Com Boom, we had the sense that we were pioneers, marking trails across a new and exciting space. The frontier seemed to have infinite possibilities.

Human history shows us that after the explorers come the missionaries, and after the missionaries come the colonists. Carpet baggers, speculators, misfits and refugees seeking a better future away from the centre of things – these are among the first to arrive. Then come the homesteaders. Then come government, roads, taxes and schools. Before long, the landscape begins to look like the one they left behind.

In this version of events, those who get least mention are those who were there first. Those who, rather than shape the world in their own image, adapted to the shape of the world until it was impossible to tell where one began and the other ended.

This column’s purpose is neither to re-hash the history of Vanuatu nor to moralise about past actions. It is nonetheless useful to understand the shape of human trends, and to understand the forces that drive them. This is especially important because of Vanuatu’s nearly unique position as a country whose family- and village-based culture and ways have remained more or less intact.

It’s important too because we’re at a point in time where we can use our environment and act upon these outside influences. We can, if we choose, mitigate the worst elements, highlight the best and – most importantly – adapt the information society that we join to us, as well as adapting ourselves to it.

The process we use to achieve this is simple. Simpler, in fact, than many people are willing to believe. But, as a wise man once said, simple does not equal easy. Cutting down a tree is a simple task, but if that tree is a nambanga, it’s not at all an easy one.

First off, we need to accept some things as inevitable. Port Vila and Santo are modeled on Western cities, with all the strengths and weaknesses that this implies. There’s little we can do to change that now, and there’s much to be taken advantage of if we embrace this circumstance and use it to our advantage.

We can, for example, leverage the willingness of overseas businesses to invest in Vanuatu. We can use it to bring our telecommunications infrastructure up to a level that would make us competitive with the rest of the world. Based on recent events, it seems safe to assume that our leaders in government and business are determined to do just this. If we do indeed commit to a fibre-optic network connection with the outside world, tremendous business potential will be created. Vanuatu’s tax haven status will make this country extremely attractive to all kinds of tech-related business investment.

The secondary effects of this kind of investment would be tremendous, especially in terms of education and opportunity for our burgeoning young population. One especially promising aspect of this is that it would no longer be necessary to travel overseas to find employment on the international markets. The Internet knows no borders, so skilled IT workers could work with companies virtually anywhere in the world.

One example: Vanuatu is lucky enough to be almost exactly twelve time zones away from Western Europe. This means that we could provide overnight technical support and systems administration services to European companies without having to adjust our own work day. The superb French spoken by francophone ni-Vanuatu uniquely qualifies them to work with French companies.

The Vanuatu IT Users Society (VITUS) has done much to develop a community of practice among local IT professionals, but imagine how much more effective it could be if our own community of professionals were interacting daily with the best the world has to offer via the Internet. Add to this an influx of talented and interested IT professionals from overseas, and it becomes possible to envision a veritable flowering of learning, literacy and skills development among Vanuatu professionals.

But what about communications on the islands? Well, there’s much to be taken advantage of there, but the challenge is to remember our environment. The approaches and ideas that apply to our commercial centres will never be fully applicable at the village level. It is likely possible to emulate western standards in critical areas – especially health care and education. And we would all benefit from better roads and more reliable shipping. But it’s just not realistic to expect that villages in Vanuatu will have mains power in every home, a truck for every household, and jobs for every person.

Nor is this necessarily desirable. Three thousand years of experience demonstrate that it’s possible to lead a life of plenty, one with purpose and meaning, without unnecessary complexity or stress. A life like that is something most people in developed countries have long aspired to, but seldom achieve. So let’s put aside the desire to emulate the West for a moment, and consider how to transpose the best elements of Vanuatu society into the Information Age.

It’s a simple process, but not necessarily an easy one. It requires a willingness to be flexible, to search for technical alternatives that require more special knowledge than a pre-fab, cookie cutter office layout in Port Vila. It requires that we design and build our own Information Tookit.

And it’s easy to make mistakes. The problem in a country with such limited resources is that the cost of making mistakes is higher, relatively speaking, than it is in a rich, developed country. If a business fails in the US, for example, nobody really takes any notice. But if a single local business fails in Vanuatu, the impacts are significant. If an Australian loses fifty dollars on a failed service, she might curse the inconvenience, but it wouldn’t make much of a difference. If someone in the village lost their five thousand vatu investment in a local concern, they might not be able to pay their children’s school fees.

This means that we need to work at a smaller scale than most outside businesses are willing to consider. We need to find a way for people to pay for services at prices that won’t force them to decide between food, school fees and the service itself. It also means that these information services have to have an immediate benefit for those using them. There is simply no money available for mere convenience.

If we approach it right, these circumstances can be made to work for us. We have everything we need in order to create village-level technical infrastructure at costs that won’t prove too onerous for the average customer. The problems are well-understood; it’s only a matter of putting together the pieces now.

But once we’ve done that, we need to get out of the way. Every island, every village has its own way of doing things, its own protocols, its own priorities and its own understanding of the world. It would be the height of negligence to ignore these and to attempt to impose a cut-and-paste solution. If the service is not immediately useful, it will probably fail. Even if we ignore the cultural impact, we can’t deny the economic effects.

There is, therefore, no useful way for national or international companies to operate at the village level. A micro-business model, working in increments too small to ever appear on a corporate balance sheet, is the only sustainable means to ensure that communications can bridge the Melanesian Last Mile.

More important than money, though, is that fact that each village, each island will ultimately be able to determine how this new resource is used. They will be better positioned to shape their own destinies, to entwine that destiny with that of this fledgling republic, and ultimately with the rest of the world.