A Bushknife Wedding

Max bursts onstage, tears his mother’s headscarf from her head, covers himself with it and dives into the darkness, hiding among the audience members. Moments later, Sonia, his on-again-off-again girlfriend, appears. She demands to know where he is. She too disappears offstage, returning moments later with a bushknife in her hand and murder in her eye. The ensuing chaos brings the entire community out, and in the course of a raucous meeting, a chief decides that the only choice for these ‘Tom and Jerry’ lovers is for them to marry.

Wan Smolbag Theatre’s new play, a musical titled Laef I Swit (Life is Sweet) tells a tragicomic tale of passion, love and life in Vanuatu. Max and Sonia are a mismatched, all too typical modern couple. Sonia’s idealised dreams of love as a means of escape from the dangers, tedium and frustration of life as a downtrodden woman are dashed when she encounters Max, a sweet-talking, mercurial and charming –but utterly unreliable– man. Nothing can make them happy together, but the prospect of being torn apart seems too much to bear.

Thematically, Laef I Swit is a smaller play than usually emerges from playwright Jo Dorras’ pen. But this only adds to its power. The forces that act on Ni Vanuatu society are compressed into a domestic drama that is poignant, fleetingly sweet and often outright heartbreaking. Director Peter Walker’s staging is, as always, engaging and inventive. He blurs the line between audience and actors, driving the action right in among the seats. It’s a reminder that this play is not simply to be observed. It’s our story, not someone else’s, happening quite literally in our midst. Continue reading

The birds arrive

The birds arrive at six, begin to feed.
Petulant and raucous, their harangue
stifles the belief they ever sang.
Squirrels make off with all the fallen seed.
The chickadees are orderly in greed;
The jays are not: on suet left to hang
they find a perfect stage for sturm und drang.
Only poets could decry this simple creed.

This is no scene of joy, but satisfaction
flies on stronger wings than love or beauty.
Think good thoughts, but in the end it’s action
(applied with elbows) that defines our duty.
Feed the masses, let the poets rue it.
Their verses nourish less than lumps of suet.

The best PM we never had

Jean Sese, lifetime public servant, passed away on November 8, 2013, aged 55

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post]

I last saw Jean Sese a few hours before he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was at his customary seat at chief John Tarilama’s nakamal. We shared a few pleasantries and he was kind enough to chuckle at my feeble humour.

I’d always been nervous around him, and more than a little intimidated, even though he gave me no reason to feel that way. He could be effortlessly charming, even gracious, and if he seemed at all forbidding, it was by virtue of his implacably calm demeanour. He was a deep current untouched by storms. And in a country often roiled by the tempestuous passions of its leaders, his influence was immeasurable.

Vire Dare Naure Jean Sese was director general of the prime minister’s office in Vanuatu for years. I was only two weeks in-country when I first met him. I had been asked to brief the PMO on a matter that required an impartial analysis, and given that I didn’t know jack about Vanuatu at the time, I was as impartial as could be. Mr Sese listened to me patiently for about an hour and a half, asked some pointed, probing questions, then thanked me for my time.

If this is the calibre of the senior civil service, I told myself as I left, then Vanuatu has a lot going for it.

Over the years, I got to see him at work, and came to admire him more than just about any other leader in the country. He was calm, confident –even cool– and one of the very few people in national politics who emerged untainted and admired by all.

Prime ministers came and went, but Jean Sese remained. Continue reading

Talking Shop

The Internet Governance Forum is sprawling, unfocused and formally useless. You should go.

I hate talking shops. Most sensible people do. If you are involved in any way in policy making, advocacy –or heck, if you just have to work for a living– the last thing you want to do is waste time talking. The Internet Governance Forum is a global conference that draws together governments, telecommunications interests, standards & technical management bodies, NGOs & social development groups… well, pretty much everyone who gives a fig about the internet. It was one of very few tangible results to emerge from the 2003 World Summit on the Internet Society, a UN-sponsored get-together that attempted (and ultimately failed) to address a widely-held perception of US dominance of the internet’s governance structures.

The IGF, quite deliberately, was designed to have no regulatory authority, no policy levers and indeed, no formal mandate to advocate even for issues about which the entire world is in screaming agreement. It can’t even publish findings. And that is its genius.

It’s a sprawling, unfocused event with disparate interests. Discussions cover everything and anything even remotely related to internet governance, from human rights and freedom of speech to child protection to spam and cyber security to standards development and law. It draws thousands of attendees from all walks of life. It’s uneven in quality and sessions range from the enlightened meeting of minds to fractious verbal brawls. As Winston Churchill might have said, it’s the worst possible forum we could possibly have, except for all the others. Continue reading

Buddies in bad times

Pacific island countries could –and should– do more to help one another

[Originally published on Pacific Politics.]

The recent breakdown of Vodaphone Fiji’s investment in Papua New Guinea’s BeMobile is just the most recent in a series of missed opportunities in cross-investment that could not only improve small island economies, but mitigate against some of the worst aspects of large-scale development projects in the Pacific.

Pacific island nations possess a chronic, unfixable weakness: With few exceptions, their economies are so small and fragile that a failure which might cause only ripples in a larger economy can hamstring theirs for years. Furthermore, their diminutive markets make them unappealing to most investors. Although they’re often put in the same basket as Caribbean states, their distance from other markets renders them unique – and in the eyes of many, uniquely unsuited for investment.

It serves no one’s interests to imagine that the development and financial approaches that work well in other developing states can simply be cut-and-pasted into the Pacific. And yet, far too often, this is the hole into which our development pegs are hammered. Although development banks and donor nations offer loans at extremely low interest rates, the assumptions under which funding is offered are sometimes unrealistic. And because return on investment is generally smaller than just about anywhere else on the planet, governments are expected to offer either guarantees or exclusive concession rights to investors, or to become shareholders themselves, and sometimes both.

Continue reading

Who is this ‘they’ you keep talking about?

It’s like clockwork, really. Someone stumbles across a story purporting to show the benighted and backward peoples of some far corner of the world, and everyone jumps up, bemoaning the fact that, in this day and age, people are still capable of ignorance, superstition and occasionally, brutality to others.

This month’s installment comes to us courtesy of new media. Mobile phone photographs of the torture and execution of a woman from the highlands of Papua New Guinea caused a global furore, typified by the Global Mail’s supercilious headline: It’s 2013, And They’re Burning ‘Witches’.

Who is this ‘they’ you keep talking about?

It’s really hard to know where to begin with a story like this. Yes, witchcraft, magic and sorcery are still practiced widely – not only in Papua New Guinea, but in many parts of the world. To give you an idea how ingrained it remains in some societies, Vanuatu recently saw a man plead guilty to it. Yes, he himself believed that he had injured someone by magical means.

Happily, in the rest of the world, such superstitious folderol no longer exists, right? In place of magic, we have graduated to ghosts, angels and auras, terrorists, extra-terrestrials and illegal aliens. Honestly, do we even pause to see what’s on the (so-called) Discovery channel before writing headlines like this?

Sure, you reply, but at least we don’t lynch people any more. We don’t drag them from their home, cut them with bush knives, shave their head, douse them with acid and then burn them alive. That would be a fair point, if it were true.

Read any national news service long enough and it’s bound to come out – whether it’s a gang rape in India, an honour killing in Pakistan or in the London suburbs, murder of albinos in central Africa, race-baiting in the American south or gay-bashing in Moscow… it’s still there. Everywhere you look, the weak and the outcast are preyed upon. It’s not happening everywhere all the time, but it’s happening.

And yes, it’s unutterably wrong.

It’s also innately human. It may come from our most bestial nature, and rule of law does sometimes operate to curb it, but cruelty, victimisation and scapegoating remain essential, albeit shameful, parts of human nature. If you live in a society with a functioning police force and a more liberal set of social standards backed by solid legislation, you may be able to operate under the illusion that such inclinations have somehow been expunged from your nature. As someone who is dealing (not abstractly, but right here, right now) with the threat of violence in a society that condones it, let me assure you: it has not.

Good laws may help, if only to raise awareness and make it a matter of public record that violent abuse, no matter what motivates it, is simply wrong. But having laws on the books serves no purpose if society itself chooses not to reject this behaviour. And frankly, that won’t happen if one half of it is busy sitting back and castigating the other.

There is nothing easier than name-calling when someone’s already called you names. So my advice to you holier-than-thou commentators is to try a different tack. Start from the assumption that we are, all of us, beasts at our core, with only social opprobrium and the policeman on the corner to hold us back.

Napoleon’s famous observation about a world power built from a nation of shopkeepers can guide us to a useful next step. The more our day-to-day lives are invested in peace, politeness and order, the more reason we have to use the state’s resources to defend good behaviour. Never forget that, no matter how difficult it may be to accept, the violent abuse of vulnerable people is more often than not punishment for social transgression. The secret therefore, is to change what is seen as transgression. We achieve this by embracing others, welcoming them into the fold, and sharing our prosperity, wealth and values.

Facile, mocking headlines decrying the Other take us in exactly the opposite direction.

By the way, did nobody else remark upon the fact that, were it not for mobile technology, this killing –like the countless others that came before– would never even have been remarked upon? The very fact that the criminal act was recorded and disseminated speaks to an opportunity for change. If, that is, we get past our own prejudices and embrace it.

[This was originally published in Pacific Politics.]

The Revolution May Not Be Digitised

The internet is putting down tenuous roots in the Pacific – but do we really understand how to foster its growth?

Over the last year or so, we’ve seen a string of articles and papers about the small but sudden growth of the internet throughout the Pacific region. Ranging in tone between cautious optimism and untempered –and often uncritical– enthusiasm, few capture the essence of the struggle that Pacific island states face even keeping pace with the rate of change in the world of telecommunications and the internet.

When I first arrived in Vanuatu the better part of a decade ago, the entire country was sharing only slightly more bandwidth than I’d had at my personal disposal back in Canada. To add insult to injury, the cost was roughly ten times greater even for the paltry amounts on sale. Getting access to what would be considered even a nominal connection in the developed world involved expenditures equivalent to thousands of dollars a month.

Now, following years of consistent and determined effort, Vanuatu has widely available commercial internet in its urban areas. But prices remain high. As this piece is being written, the cost of a 2 megabit connection (the lowest tier of what is considered broadband in many developed nations) starts at about AUD800 per month, and rises quickly once usage fees are factored in.

In spite of this, internet service providers have found inventive ways to get people started, offering small (cynics might say paltry) connection speeds and bandwidth limits. Comparisons aside, such packages are at least sufficient to move the uptake indicator from effectively zero to… something slightly more than zero.

Make no mistake; that first step is a doozy. It’s allowed tens of thousands of people who never had any access at all to begin using the internet on a regular basis. As many a breathless commentator (including myself, on occasion) has noted, this has led to a vast increase in public dialogue online. This has led in turn to equally breathless speculation about the likelihood of a coming revolution in political awareness and activism, social justice, education and countless other shibboleths of progressive idealism.

With a few notable exceptions, commentators ignore key details about this incipient social revolution:

First, this ‘revolution’ resembles Iran’s Green movement more than Egypt’s uprising. In the vast majority of Pacific countries, price and availability limit access to all but a tiny proportion of the population. And these people are almost exclusively urban, affluent and educated. In short, they are already the best informed and most engaged. Simple arithmetic leads to the conclusion that limited access to internet limits the scope of its impact as well.

The internet is a ‘force multiplier’, in the sense that it renders many kinds of labour-intensive tasks vastly more efficient. While the impact on the minority who have recently begun to access it daily is immense, how much greater it could be if the other number in the equation (the sum of the population using it) were to rise even higher.

Second, the results of public dialogue, awareness and coordination on politics are measurable, but decidedly mixed. In Papua New Guinea, we saw a number of new faces in Parliament whose election can at least in part be attributed to the profile they garnered by participating in online fora such as Facebook’s Sharp Talk group. But we also saw many familiar faces returned, some of whom were widely reviled online. The same can be said of Vanuatu, where populist MP Ralph Regenvanu repeated his record-setting electoral performance, successfully expanded his base and managed to elect three other MPs under his Graon Mo Jastis (Land and Justice) banner. Regenvanu is the first politician since Independence to run an entirely issues-oriented campaign, and his appeal has only been amplified by his consistent presence online.

But popularity didn’t help Regenvanu on the tactical level. He won enough votes individually that, due to the vagaries of Vanuatu’s Single Non-Transferable Vote system (which elects multiple MPs in each constituency), he could have got three MPs past the post. Failures in messaging and on-the-ground organising, however, meant that his party’s second candidate in the capital constituency missed capturing the necessary votes to number him among the winners.

More to the point, Vanuatu too saw many familiar faces returned to Parliament. While its future seems uncertain, the current cabinet is nearly identical to the one that led the country to the polls only weeks ago. Even if it is ousted in the coming days, the champions and heroes of the small but growing online community can hope for a minority voice at best in any new government.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, commentators and researchers often underestimate the fragility of this flowering in the digital sphere and overstate its importance relative to other uses of digital communications. Despite the occasional public bun fight over self-censorship and media standards, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Fiji government has been quite successful in its efforts to, in its words, ‘raise standards’ across the spectrum of media, both online and off, and to introduce ‘balance’. The stifling effects of official disapproval on certain kinds of commentary and content in Fiji are making themselves felt throughout the online community. They reach so far that it’s becoming harder to engage writers to perform any kind of independent analysis of government policy, ironically, even to praise it.

But to express unmitigated dismay at this outcome would be naïve, to say the least. Given that Fiji has the most highly developed telecommunications infrastructure in the region, and that the current regime has presided over its significant growth and improvement, why should we be surprised if they prove adept at making sure it serves their purposes? There is a very real chilling effect generated by the imposition of state views on the public dialogue, that’s true. But simply to write off the region-leading gains that have been made in telecommunications pricing and availability –as a recent Lowy paper did– is a textbook case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In last week’s budget speech, Voreqe Bainimarama committed his government to building ten new telecentres in the coming year, and to removing duties entirely from smart phones in order to encourage uptake across the board. Informal reports indicate as well that there are plans afoot to provide broadband access to ‘almost 100%’ of the nation’s schools within the next four years.

The plain fact is that Fiji is a regional leader in understanding and embracing the importance of broad and deep investment in telecommunications capacity. They see their role in the coming years as that of a ‘knowledge hub’ for the Pacific.

Improved communications capacity, therefore, does not necessarily equate to increased freedom of speech, nor indeed the flowering of a diverse and broad-based social dialogue. This should not be news to us.

Melanesian and Polynesian societies all feature tight familial bonds and a preference for dialogue over confrontation. It’s not at all surprising, then, to see online groups arise whose membership comprises the majority of the online community. Hunger for change is generally evident, but it’s not overwhelming. There are in fact deeply conservative aspects to Pacific societies that can counterbalance and often quash an individual’s ability to enact change. Wantok-ism and a long tradition of respect for the so-called Big Man can overwhelm the desire to challenge the status quo.

If only to view the development of internet in the Pacific more clearly, it’s useful to look at online discourse and the networks that make it possible as separate, but linked endeavours. Building out infrastructure widely and deeply are necessary preconditions to achieving the progressive ends we most commonly associate with social media. But in and of themselves, they are not sufficient.

When we look at the landscape through this split prism, we can learn important lessons about how to achieve the former. The same paper that was so quick to toss aside Fiji’s recent gains ascribed the massive expansion of mobile services in the region to ‘deregulation’. Actually, the opposite is true. Virtually every successful step taken in this sector has been the result of increased government engagement in telecommunications: by negotiating (sometimes foisting) competition on incumbent monopolies, intervening when players tried to ignore or alter the rules, by closing the door to the back room and by giving their regulatory authorities the ability to bite back.

This may discomfit some, but in the Pacific it seems that more government, not less, is the recipe for success in terms of making the internet a part of their peoples’ lives. While Digicel’s example may have shown that even small markets can be profitable, the relatively large investments required to build out international fibre-optic links and robust nationwide networks carrying more than token bandwidth to the entire country are enough to make even the most risk-loving enterprise blanch. Simply put, no matter how much demand ensues, the capital investment costs per customer are astronomical.

It’s been argued that the only way a commercial entity can countenance such an investment is through a monopoly arrangement –the very thing that Pacific countries have spent the better part of a decade getting out from under. But even when other approaches are tried, the numbers are daunting. Tonga’s undersea cable connection to Fiji is heavily subsidised by the World Bank, and it’s being developed on a consortium basis, but the government the largest shareholder by a wide margin. Even with all of these interventions, prices promise to remain extremely high.

Simply put, it’s nearly impossible to make a profit-based business case for the kind of connectivity that will be required to provide affordable, widely accessible internet services in the Pacific. And those voice and data companies who do invest in the region will go to great lengths to protect their investment, up to and including interfering in the political process. The Pacific’s success (or failure) in embracing information technologies, therefore, will be determined by the level of commitment and firmness of will shown by government.

Even under the best possible circumstances, any gains will likely be tenuous. Renesys, the internet consulting group that broke the news of national internet blackouts in Iran, Egypt and more recently in Syria, recently used their international traffic monitoring tools to find out which countries were most vulnerable to disruptions in internet service. Needless to say, Pacific island countries were over-represented among those faced with ‘Severe’ or ‘Significant’ risk. Not even Fiji managed to find its way into the ‘Low’ risk category.

Renesys was worried mostly about the ease with which a government could turn off the internet tap on its own people. That may be a worry for some in the region, too, but those very same attributes that make national networks vulnerable to political interference also make them vulnerable to systemic threats. In 2004, the failure of a single satellite resulted in numerous nations going entirely dark, some for days. As the Renesys survey shows, little has changed in the interim.

If –and as we’ve seen, it’s a big if– Pacific nations do somehow succeed in integrating the internet into people’s daily lives, we still have no guarantee a flowering of awareness and online dialogue will necessarily follow. Once again, those in power will play an over-large role. No matter what decisions they make, there will be winners and losers at the top. Canny politicians and parties will follow the example set both by the insurgents in Vanuatu and PNG and by the incumbents in Fiji. Those who are adept at messaging and dialogue will likely flourish. Those who remain aloof, who ignore or refuse to take up these new social tools, will slowly (too slowly for some) but inevitably find themselves pushed to the sidelines. But they may succeed in slowing development for years before that happens.

The revolution, in other words, may not be digitised; there may not be any revolution at all. Every outcome, for better or for worse, will be determined by the will of governments to act.


The cuckoo’s egg

[Originally published with a slightly longer title in the Vanuatu Daily Post]

It’s fairly natural in business to want a return on one’s investment. That’s pretty much the point of capitalism, after all. But investment implies risk, too; if you put your money into play, you are accepting at least a small likelihood that it will be lost. Normally, the riskier the venture, the higher the expected return if things go right.

In some endeavours, however, the risk is unavoidable and the reward is slow in coming – if it comes at all. Telecommunications infrastructure is one such area. Especially here in the Pacific, capitalisation can require investment levels that –rightly– make the average investor blanch. It’s no accident, therefore, that private sector players often seek institutional backing before embarking on large-scale projects.

The plain fact is that in this global marketplace, some sort of inducement is needed in order to make investment in the comparatively tiny Pacific market attractive. Pretend for a moment you’re an investor. Given the choice between backing a fibre-optic cable landing in Port Vila or one that lands in Jakarta, which would you choose?  All other things being equal, you’d be a fool to choose the former.

Competitors have cried foul in the past when concessionary financing was used to induce increased private sector participation in various Pacific telecoms markets, but experience shows that healthy competition has raised revenue levels across the board. Competition, even with its attendant risks, is better for all concerned.

The challenge, then, is how to make the capitalisation phase, with its necessary reduction in risk, lead seamlessly into a competition phase, with a level of risk characteristic of a healthy marketplace?

Continue reading

Mystery & Wonder

plongeeAccording to Andrew Sullivan, Alexis Madrigal claims that flocking behaviour is “… a beautiful phenomenon to behold. And neither biologists nor anyone else can yet explain how starlings seem to process information and act on it so quickly.”

That second sentence is just false, as even a quick visit to wikipedia is sufficient to discover: Current research shows that this vastly complex behaviour requires no interaction between all points, and no orchestration by some unseen hand.

Flocking behaviour can be simulated in computers by creating groups of simple bots, each of which responds independently to three simple rules:

1) Separation – avoid crowding neighbors (short range repulsion)

2) Alignment – steer towards average heading of neighbors

3) Cohesion – steer towards average position of neighbors (long range attraction)

Some researchers have even gone so far as to create real, flying drones that exhibit this behaviour.

The miracle is not that this grand ballet is so complex, but that it’s so damn simple in its essence.

Look, I marvel just as much as the next person when watching vast flocks of starlings. And there are few things more graceful and poignant than an entire school of sardines arcing over the waves in consecutive leaps as they flee from predators. There is little in life so exhilarating as being engulfed in a pocket of azure space as a school of reef fish flow soundlessly around you.

These are all examples of of simple creatures following simple rules, collectively iterating and permuting in patterns whose complexity the human mind finds attractive, even enthralling. Because it cannot follow the linear progression of individual acts in such a vastly parallel pattern, the brain hits the overload switch, which results in our sense of wonder.

It is, almost literally, mind candy. But that does NOT make it a mystery.

I’m not asking that we put aside our wonder, but can we please accept that many of these so-called mysteries are NOT mysterious. (Well, not any longer, anyway.) I’m as big a fan of exaltation as the next person, but I cringe when we allow it to curb our perceptions and our ability to learn.

Warring Stories

[Note: Tim Bray is conducting an interesting exercise in public debate over on Google+, testing its commenting capabilities to see how it fares in civil discourse on contentious political topics. His efforts are well worth following. I’m re-posting one of my comments below for posterity – as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s.]

There seems to be a nearly universal preference for narrative over fact in most (if not all) of the US debate over economic policy. People invest the issue with their own biases (a common propensity) then construct or defend the most closely aligned story.

In short, people have been led to believe that the whole situation:

a) makes sense;
b) can be simply expressed; and
c) has a straightforward solution, if only the rest of the world can be made to see it.

This explains not only the refusal even to grant that a debt policy must of necessity consider revenue generation AND reduced spending, but also the tendency to draw the Hayek/Keynes/Friedman debate as a zero-sum argument.

Government, at the best of times, is more a clusterfuck than anything else. It requires a level of opportunism and ideological/ethical/moral compromise that few of us can stomach. Tragically, it breeds people who can stomach it far too easily.

Human society requires narrative in order to make sense of this otherwise senseless situation. (We can’t all be Sartre or Clauswitz – and really, who wants to be?) But its desire for narrative has been cynically abused so consistently and for so long by propaganda that the possibility for civic (not to say civil) discourse has been reduced nearly to zero.

The increasingly (irretrievably?) fictional rhetoric driven by the various camps within the anarchic village that is Washington has made mutual understanding (and therefore compromise) impossible. We can, in other words, no longer talk usefully amongst ourselves.