The Wisdom of Crowds

The successful development of Vanuatu in this day and age is contingent on improvement in communications. In geographic terms, the majority of Vanuatu has little or no access to even basic communications services. In terms of population, the situation is better, but not by a lot.

We’ve known about this problem for a long time. We also have a very clear understanding of the limitations we face. Those of us who are devoted to solving technical problems in Vila, Santo and the islands have an intimate and detailed knowledge of the problems that can afflict us. Those working in development in more general terms have become adept at working around the shortcomings that poor communications place on us.

It’s clear as well that most – if not all – of the stakeholders in this game have some pretty clear ideas about how these problems can be addressed. It’s therefore difficult to understand why these issues continue to dog us as they do.

A couple of examples:

The PFNet project in the Solomon Islands has demonstrated itself as an effective, even admirable way of providing low-cost access to information in island communities. We’ve known about this project since its inception, we’ve done the ground work, we’ve measured interest, identified the best partners and done significant ground work to pave the way for an implementation here in Vanuatu. And yet, after four years of preparation we have absolutely nothing to show for all our efforts.

There are good reasons for this. A quick analysis clearly demonstrates that the problem lies not with local partners, but with a donor organisation whose inertia has stopped the entire project dead in its tracks. Attempts to address this problem through numerous avenues have all proven ineffective. Some of those involved in the project have therefore moved beyond frustration to apathy. We’re stymied, in effect, because one partner’s inability to care has infected us all.

Likewise, mobile phone service in Tanna has been in planning for years. It was originally supposed to happen within a very short time of the initial service roll-out in Port Vila and Santo. Instead, more than four years later, we’re only just beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Again, the reasons for these delays are clear. Speak with anyone from TVL, and they’ll quickly state that the slow roll-out has nothing whatsoever to do with a lack of desire on their part. Land disputes, coupled with the need among everyone involved to be absolutely sure about the status of the project, have led to what would appear to be unconscionable delays anywhere else in the world.

Anyone who has spent any time at all working in Vanuatu knows very well that things proceed at a slow pace here. And those who stop to think about it will realise that there is wisdom in this patient approach to change. The rest of the world could actually learn a thing or two from the careful consensus-building that is so common here.

In village life, nothing is more important than maintaining the peace. We all have to live together, so for better or worse, we have to find a way to continue getting along. The Christian message of turning the other cheek is not easily ignored in a place where everyone not only knows everyone else, but is also family with a great many of them.

In a big city, it’s possible to get away with being anti-social, because if push comes to shove, one can simply move on into another community. This is not an option for the majority of people in Vanuatu. So it makes sense to practice a greater degree of tolerance than others might, to be patient beyond the comprehension of most outsiders.

No social system is perfect, of course, and such patience and tolerance comes at a price. It only takes one reluctant individual to cause problems for the entire community. A single namele leaf, a single signature on a document, even a few words in a public meeting can stop an undertaking dead in its tracks. Without considering whether this reluctance is the right choice or not (that needs to be decided on a case-to-case basis), we must recognise that this effect can often slow development to a crawl.

But let’s look at this from the other side for a moment. When the traditional form of decision-making does work, it’s a formidable thing. We don’t always remember the good things, but if we take a moment to reflect on the number of times a family, a village or an island has united itself to act, we have to recognise the power and effectiveness that collective action has unleashed. It’s not necessary to look further than the Independence movement to see what’s possible.

Some very fashionable thinkers in the technology world have been rediscovering what they’re calling the Wisdom of Crowds, but which we in Vanuatu might prefer to call Kastom. According to James Surowiecki, the man who coined the term, the Wisdom of Crowds consists of a number of concepts that ni-Vanuatu will recognise immediately:

Cognition is the term Surowiecki uses to describe the fact that combining many perspectives on a particular problem is the most effective way to find the most appropriate solution. Anyone who has attended a meeting at the village nakamal knows that our chiefs rely implicitly on exactly this process.

Coordination, according to Surowiecki, is achieved when groups of people with a common understanding organise themselves in ways that are more effective than any imposed order can achieve. The most effective organisations in Vanuatu all recognise that we here in Vanuatu are perfectly capable of taking on significant tasks with little or no overt structure, provided that a common understanding and purpose exist.

Cooperation needs no explanation in Vanuatu. Here, we call it family. It is a powerful unifying force, impossible to ignore.

Nothing is perfect in this world, and this kind of organising principle comes at a cost. Disunity lies at one end of the continuum, but equally dangerous is the lack of incentive to approach problems creatively and dynamically. These problems are well understood by those who work in Vanuatu, and the best leaders manage to maintain a proper balance at all times.

The biggest tension that exists today, however, is that between Kastom that we know so well, and the traditional European ‘business model’, consisting of arbitrary groupings of individuals given legal rights and mandated to operate in particular areas. People are united for the purpose of commercial gain, and their roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. This is an effective and efficient way to deliver products and services, but it does not always serve to foster coordination and cooperation.

Most importantly, when decision-making is limited to a few leaders sitting together behind closed doors, it’s possible to make decisions quickly, but it’s also possible to be very, very wrong. Surowiecki describes this phenomenon thusly: “Put a bunch of smart people into a room and they emerge dumber than when they went in.”

We have a tremendous opportunity right now in Vanuatu. While the rest of the world is just beginning to rediscover what we already know, we can charge ahead. In technological terms, there are tons of collaborative tools available that will allow local groups to create a virtual nasara.

The Vanuatu IT Users Society (VITUS) already does this, and we would be happy to assist others. We invite all IT stakeholders to join in the ongoing dialogue. With a little time and a willingness to work in a manner that’s appropriate to Vanuatu, we will all emerge from the room wiser than when we entered.

National unity and common purpose have been difficult to achieve in the past, but improved communications makes the idea of a national nasara a possibility. All it takes is a little coordination and cooperation.