Gift Economy

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

The chief sat down, massaged his swollen hand in its cast and regaled me with the story of how he got the road cleaned up.

Numerous neighbourhoods in Port Vila are notorious for the condition of their roads. Some become impassably muddy, some become lakes when it rains, some are worn down to rocky tracks suitable only for goats. In a few cases, the road should never have been constructed where it was. In others, years of neglect have worn away what little engineering might have gone into them in the first place.

This chief was not the first – and will certainly not be the last – individual to wage a personal campaign to see conditions improved in his neighbourhood. His approach was typical, too. He worked his way through a network of brokers, often smoothing the conversation with kava, cigarettes and other blandishments, until he finally got the ear of the Minister. A brief, impassioned appeal to the big man, accompanied by a review of voter numbers and allegiance, was greeted in the end by the assurance that something would be done.

Sure enough, within a few days, the Minister is striding through the department offices, commandeering trucks, equipment and men to the site in question and ordering them to clean things up right quick.

The chief was rightly proud of what he’d achieved on behalf of his community. I must say I admire him, too, for his patience and commitment. Others would have given up or walked away long before.

The cast on his arm, you see, was the product of a confrontation between the chief and a drunken lout who, following a public chastisement, attacked him with a club, breaking his arm in two places. That might have been enough to make a smaller person turn his back on his community.

I fear I am a smaller person than he.

Now, I don’t want to take anything away from that process of patronage and mutual support that underlies many of the power relationships in Vanuatu. But here’s the thing: Why should anyone have to beg for road repairs?

Why, for that matter, do our neighbourhood chiefs have to tolerate the significant loss of status that town life has conferred on them, forcing them to plead, hat in hand, to the same government officials who can’t even keep them safe in their own streets?

No one doubts for a moment that government resources are less than anyone would want. No one denies the fact that our aspirations will exceed our ability, likely for generations to come. But it’s precisely because of this that using these resources to prime the patronage pump seems so wrong.

Another example: I happened across a community meeting recently whose attendees came to the decision that they would write a letter to a Minister, requesting his support for electrification in their neighbourhood. Now, every grassroots endeavour requires an influential champion to help move things along. I find it curious nonetheless that assistance from the Minister of an unrelated portfolio is considered useful in convincing Unelco to extend its services to the other side of the road.

Surely a simple collection of signatures and spending commitments would be enough to make the case? And surely it would make more sense to meet with Unelco first?

On the face of it, that seems like a more appropriate plan. And, half-ironically, it might actually work, if anyone bothered to try it. But that’s simply not how things work here.

Regular, scheduled and reliable government services are actually deleterious to the position of some of our highest ranking members of society. Without the ability to bestow – and withhold – gifts, they lack the leverage necessary to maintain their rank. If, heaven forbid, people should actually come to expect that police will patrol the neighbourhoods, that roads will eventually be serviced (maybe late, but not never)… well, that would be the end of it.

If the people of Vanuatu were to begin thinking about access to power, water and other basic infrastructure as their right, rather than a privilege to be bestowed pre-election from some big man or other, how would the party bag men keep a hold on their constituency?

It’s a perversely counter-intuitive situation, but it amounts to this: Vanuatu has grown exactly as it knows best, but by applying its own most effective social tools, it’s closing its eyes to certain possibilities. And the most significant of these are reliable, consistent basic services.

In fairness, it must be said that there are more than a few in high office who care quite deeply about this problem, and who would do more about it if they could. There are several projects underway to bring a modicum of predictability and reliability to public services. The most notable are the sub-projects designed to strengthen Public Works in their ability to service and maintain the new MCA roads.

But too often, our big men are content to manoeuvre within the confines of the traditional patronage systems and to make a gift out of that which is rightfully ours.