Cargo Culture

The phrase ‘cargo cult’ is well known here in Vanuatu, and probably better understood than anywhere else in the world. Pop anthropologists, TV crews and trivia hounds love to belittle the ‘silly’ idea that performing the proper rituals will result in good things happening. They snicker at the uniformed, marching figures in Tanna, wondering what kind of person could believe such a simple tale.

The fact is, we are all, to some degree or other, members of a cargo culture.

Magical Thinking is the term applied to the kind of behaviour that assigns more importance to a sequence of events than to actual causation. We indulge in this kind of behaviour when we put on a ‘lucky’ shirt on important days, or avoid stepping on spiders for fear of bringing the rain. It’s in our daily horoscope and a significant number of expressions that we use everyday.

We use Magical Thinking when we touch wood, say ‘God bless’ to someone who sneezes, keep a rabbit’s foot on our key chain, or sing a certain song to ward off bad luck. We also use a certain degree of Magical Thinking when we smoke a cigarette, drink too much or practice unsafe sex. We assume that certain rituals can make good things happen or keep bad things at bay.

We also use a fair amount of magical thinking when we start our computers in the morning, when we make a phone call or send an email.

Years ago, a colleague of mine coined a term called the Magic Happens Box. Imagine asking someone to draw a technical diagram of a telephone call, for example. It would look something like this:


There aren’t many people in Vanuatu – or in the world, for that matter – who can fill out that diagram to show exactly how the call is actually connected. Likewise, the act of accessing a website is a slightly magical event to most Internet users.

The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ The phrase is often used by technical people to illustrate what happens when technologically advanced societies come into contact with more primitive ones. But it’s equally applicable to denizens of ‘advanced’ societies, too.

We are all creatures of ritual. We all, to some degree or other, associate results with the gestures that precipitate them, rather than with the actions themselves. And more often than not, this modus operandi works just fine.

It can be argued that many – if not most – development projects in Vanuatu consist to some degree or other of ritual. In many cases, it’s more important to follow the forms than it is to get actual results.

One anecdote that springs to mind is of a project to introduce market forces into the islands by building up small-scale fishing operations. Forms were filled out, boats delivered and the project declared a success. Some time afterward, it was suggested that the project would be even more successful if the boats had motors. More forms were filled out, the motors were sourced and delivered, and this new project was also declared a success. Today, there’s been no significant increase in fishing to speak of, but the island taxi service has expanded quite nicely.

Aside from providing an opportunity to laugh at the way development projects manifest themselves in Vanuatu, this object lesson is a perfect illustration of the patience and wisdom of aid recipients here in Vanuatu. People here know how to bring the cargo. Reason and technical discussion are not nearly as important as appeasing the powers-that-be; getting along is more important than being correct. A smiling welcome, an agreeable meeting, a few forms filled and a thank you ceremony are all important elements in ensuring that the boats are provided. What gets written on the form itself is sometimes only of peripheral interest.

Obtaining computers, finding ways to power them, configuring them to work, getting phone service and hooking everything together is an activity that is going to happen regardless of the efforts of those of us who work full-time in ICT for Development. Our high-minded goals are commendable and, to the extent that they coincide with people’s priorities, achievable. But we need to bear in mind that, for the vast majority of people (technical folks included), most of the process is a ‘Magic Happens’ box. People will happily go along with most anything we suggest, provided that it delivers the cargo.

Let’s not labour under the misapprehension that this is entirely a regrettable circumstance, or that it places those who see no magic on a different plane from those who do. I’m of the opinion that, most of the time, there’s a great deal more wisdom and insight being brought to bear by those who know how to get the cargo than by those who provide it.

That said, I don’t agree with that approach. To my mind, understanding and engagement are indispensable, integral elements of the work we do.

Earlier this week, the Vanuatu National Training Council (VNTC) held a workshop for members of their Industry Advisory Committees in construction, tourism & hospitality and in IT. They introduced a smart, ambitious plan that gives industry the opportunity to provide guidance to learning institutions, to ensure that students emerge properly prepared for the workforce.

I was among the attendees at this workshop, and I was greatly encouraged to see the effort and commitment that the VNTC staff and volunteers showed. It was, however, unfortunate to see just how few IT professionals were willing to step forward and participate in this process.

Virtually every development project I’ve worked on has been marred by a lack of engagement. Not just in Vanuatu, either. It seems symptomatic of human society that the majority of people everywhere are content to sit back, fulfill the rituals and wait for the benefits to accrue.

Granted, it would be a little much to expect every single person in Vanuatu to become a geek, and spend every waking moment arguing the costs and benefits of a particular processor architecture or operating system. It would even be a lot to expect people to plan years ahead based on something they’ve little or no experience with.

But for Vanuatu’s IT professionals, these excuses don’t wash. We spend far too much of our time wanting things to be better, and far too little time actually doing something about it. This week, the VNTC has provided us with a golden opportunity to begin plotting the course for the next generation of IT graduates. We would be worse than remiss simply to treat them as cargo.

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