LDC Graduation – Milestone or Millstone?

This analysis was prepared for the Vanuatu Business Review. It appeared in this month’s edition of the magazine.

“…graduation is a waypoint, not an endpoint” – LDC Graduation Strategy Report

It is tempting to talk about Vanuatu’s twice-delayed graduation from Least Developed Country status as an achievement.

It’s more useful to see it as a landmark on the long road to prosperity.

That landmark doesn’t simply disappear once we’ve passed it. It will remain visible in our rear-view mirror for some time to come. Vanuatu’s LDC Graduation Strategy report says it could be useful to continue measuring our progress against the old metrics for some time yet.

But what does graduation actually mean?

Measuring development

The idea of a list of Least Developed Countries arose in the 1960s. It was intended to be a special category for countries with the greatest social and economic development challenges and the least achievements so far.

The list was adopted by the UN in 1971. Within a decade, 31 countries had been rated as LDCs. Vanuatu joined the Least Developed Country club in 1985.

Vanuatu is only the sixth nation to have graduated so far. (One LDC was de-listed when its territory was integrated into another’s.) Samoa was the first Pacific island country to graduate, in 2014. Vanuatu was originally scheduled to follow it in 2015, but the devastation of cyclone Pam led to a request to defer that moment by five years.

Solomon Islands is slated to be the next Pacific island country to graduate, in 2024.

Is it time?

On paper at least, Vanuatu is long overdue for graduation.

When you look closer, though, the picture is less optimistic.

The LDC Graduation Strategy states that these high-level numbers hide “the reality that Vanuatu is a very unequal society, and that graduation does not reflect a large improvement in lifestyles for the majority of people, particularly those living in new urban settlements without access to land, and those living outside Port Vila and Santo.”

Ignoring the slow-rolling disaster that was 2020 for a moment, it is objectively true that Vanuatu has improved since independence. Lives, livelihoods and opportunities are far better now than they were then.

But we still have a long way to go. Assuming no major setbacks, the Graduation Strategy states “it would take over half a century to reach high income status.”

Graduation’s impacts

Most experts agree that Vanuatu’s graduation from LDC status is mostly symbolic. It’s a rite of passage more than a fundamental change.

Economist Nikunj Soni told the Business Review that the impact is effectively neutral “It is simply a change of category. Vanuatu will lose some trade preferences but nothing that is economically significant. Even in these cases there will be a five-year adjustment period, and even after that they could be continued bilaterally.”

Dan Gay agrees. He is a trade advisor who has worked with the government of Vanuatu and the United Nations. He is an expert on Least Developed Countries, and is one of the authors of our LDC Graduation Strategy.

 “I don’t foresee any major changes as a result of graduation,” he said.

Three major areas are affected by LDC status, he added. Countries are expected to receive easier access to Overseas Development Aid (or ODA); they get preferential trade access; and their membership in international organisations such as the UN are subsidised.

But donor countries don’t do as much for LDCs as they’re supposed to. As a result, development aid is likely to remain unchanged. In Samoa’s case, says Dan Gay, “aid actually went up (and loans down) after graduation in 2014.”

All of our largest development partners have all signalled that there will be effectively no change to the amount or kind of assistance they’re prepared to offer. This includes the EU, ADB, Australia, New Zealand, China, France, Japan, and the USA.

One expert suggested that Vanuatu has access to more aid than it can use at this point in time, so a nominal change in financing terms would have no impact. In any case, our most important relationship—with Australia—is a bilateral one. It’s been negotiated independently of our LDC status, and change is unlikely.

Modest decreases in assistance from France and the UK were going to happen anyway, and never played a very large role in the overall aid picture anyway.

China is the only case where even marginal concerns have been raised about aid continuity, but again, Vanuatu’s development status doesn’t really come into it. The real fear here is related to geopolitical concerns that will exist regardless of how worthy we are of development assistance.

China lacks formalised criteria for aid worthiness, but that’s a symptom of their more diplomacy- and policy-driven approach to overseas assistance.

Trade not likely to change

A survey of nine international trade agreements and treaties also shows minimal impacts.

Lost revenue opportunities with the EU, for example, are likely to impact less than 1% of government revenues.

One useful lever to ensure things don’t get out of kilter overnight is a regime called the Generalised System of Preferences, or GSP. It’s different from Most Favoured Nation status, which is used between trade partners at the World Trade Organisation to ensure equality.

In a nutshell, MFN states that the tariffs you offer to your best friends should be the same you offer to me.

The GSP, meanwhile, is a regime aimed specifically at Least Developed Countries. It provides them with special access to markets that is not available to others.

When Samoa graduated, it negotiated an extension to its GSP status with China, Japan and Europe. A similar extension would protect Vanuatu from future shocks, especially for kava and noni juice exports to China.

Even if we do nothing on the trade front, though, our anaemic export levels mean that the few products and services that might face increased tariffs won’t have any large-scale effects. Individual businesses may see localised drops in profits, but they aren’t likely to prove fatal.

The most likely scenario is their products will become marginally less competitive in those export markets.

Citizenship by (actual) investment

One useful idea that from the Graduation Strategy relates to our Citizenship by Investment programmes:

“The government should also leverage any means at its disposal to persuade potential foreign players to invest in priority products. At US$150,000 plus fees, Vanuatu citizenship is among the least costly in the world, and investors are not currently obliged even to visit the country, still less invest there. Vanuatu citizenship appears to be in such demand that the government could perhaps leverage this interest by obliging buyers to invest a certain sum in priority products or geographical areas.”

The Graduation Strategy notes that the USA, EU and numerous other jurisdictions require large local investment in their programmes. If Vanuatu were to follow suit, it could have several positive side-effects.

Requiring local investment would allow the country to get more economic bang out of each citizenship sale. It would also place every new citizen under additional scrutiny. Recent financial reforms involve close monitoring of commercial activity, and this could make us more confident that all our new citizens are good citizens. It would also slow the rate at which new citizenships are granted, which would make the programme look less like a short-term bonanza and more like a viable source of long-term revenue.

All of that would make the programmes easier to defend to the EU and China, both of whom are already asking awkward questions.

Domestic production needs more emphasis

The Graduation Strategy says that “by far the biggest challenge remains building domestic production rather than securing international market access”.

It adds, “The development of productive capacity is increasingly recognised as the critical challenge for trade development in LDCs.” 

Links exists between our graduation criteria and expanding productive capacity, but they’re not the key factor. Nonetheless, the strategy paper says, we should be focusing our policies on improving our ability to make goods for our own consumption. It suggests that measures should include industrial and trade policies, as well as macroeconomic measures and an active effort to enlist development support.

This would require more involvement for stakeholders: “a briefing with the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry in October 2019 was the first time that several members reported having been given a full appraisal of the implications of graduation. If nothing else, such consultations and information sessions will reduce misinformation and avoid unnecessary complications in the run-up to December 2020 and afterwards.”

That hasn’t happened in a meaningful way. But it should, according to the government’s own document:

“The use of participatory techniques and public consultations is critical to all kinds of policymaking, not just LDC graduation. There is widespread recognition that participation brings political, legal and social benefits, improves compliance and reduces the risks of opposition. Participation can be costly but it is usually worthwhile. Stakeholders need to be kept up to date and made aware of the consequences of graduation.”

Something to celebrate?

Was Vanuatu’s graduation from LDC status worth a week-long shindig costing tens of millions of vatu? Yes and no.

Vanuatu is only the sixth country in the world to graduate. In that light, it’s a model global citizen, and can rightly be held up as an example to others.

One economist with significant experience in Vanuatu argued, “Graduation is a success story for all Vanuatu. It was triggered and supported by the important work of Vanuatu’s diplomatic teams in the past two decades, but it’s an achievement that involves everyone.”

He continued, “Graduation can be a powerful marketing tool to say to the rest of the world that Vanuatu is growing and is ready to do business.”

But in light of the dire economic prospects imposed on us by the COVID crisis and the death of tourism, any celebration at all seems ill-timed.

And external risks remain high, no matter what our status.

Dan Gay says, “Covid was just the latest calamity…. Peripheral nations like Vanuatu will always be exposed. Priority should be on resilience—which means… building up sources of domestic investment and financing which are not vulnerable to the vagaries of international markets.”

The list of challenges remains long, he says. The history of “attempting to expose the economy more to market incentives is a history of failure and dashed expectations. Goods trade as a percentage of GDP has gone down in Vanuatu over the last 20 years…. Foreign investment has been weak…. Trade negotiations haven’t delivered enough. Tourism, as we have seen, whilst being a valuable source of income, employment and foreign exchange, can also be very volatile”.

Nonetheless, says another economist, “It’s a positive sign to not be associated with the poorest—and in some cases worst-governed—states on the planet, and it also gives Vanuatu more weight in bodies like the UN.”

LDC graduation is like emerging from your teenage years and becoming an adult. On the face of it, you’re only a day older. Yesterday’s risks and opportunities remain. The future is no brighter or dimmer than it was.

Our responsibilities, though, are greater. And we have fewer excuses if and when we make mistakes.

If we take this moment to mature as a country, then perhaps we’ll have something to celebrate after all.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Hard rain

“Pacific island countries feel the effects of climate change more than other countries do, and the issues are real. The mitigation issues are real, the adaptation issues are real, and Australia very much wants to partner and work on those issues. And I think you’ll see a lot more intent in that regard, especially through our infrastructure financing facility focused on mitigation.

You’ll also see, I think, announcements that are listening and receptive to any work that Pacific island countries want to do to mitigate against climate change.

We believe that we’ll meet our Paris targets, and we’re very firm about that. Australia always meets its international targets. We’re a good international player. Not every … country does meet its targets. Some of them fail very badly, and don’t take the environment seriously. We do take the environment seriously, and we do believe that we have to listen very carefully on climate change to Pacific needs.

Do you see climate change as an emergency, as it’s being portrayed in Pacific island nations?

“Well, look, the language of climate change, I think—you know, coming from the field of politics—is often used in a way that isn’t helpful to discussion. That happens a lot in every country at the moment. Whatever language you use, the Pacific feels the impacts of climate change more than other countries do. There’s no doubt about it. That’s the real issue, and we accept that. And we accept that we have to do as much as possible to help with this.

But the language, of course, often gets hijacked by activists worldwide. It isn’t an issue between us. The issue is what we’re doing. The issue is whether we’re responsive and listening, and I think you’ll find that Australia will be there listening.

Alex Hawke, Minister for International Development and the Pacific
August 2019

The Pacific region is feeling the effects of climate change. More than many places in the world.

It’s costing us more and more as the years go by…

… in dollars, and in lives. We’ve gone from fatalities as a once in a generation event to death by weather as part of the landscape.

We need more than listening. We need a realistic global plan to get to zero. With a global target of 1.5 degrees total global temperature rise, we can console ourselves that this annual devastation will at least not get much worse.

Anything more than that will see all of these trends become much, much worse.

This is an emergency.

Never Plan

Yesterday, I sat down to a gloomy cyclone forecast and decided to play out the scenario of what would happen to Vanuatu if the worst were to happen.

I put the last grace notes in [sic] last night, and scheduled the result for distribution to all of you this morning.

This morning, I woke to find the forecasts were markedly less dire. The path projections had shifted markedly, and as I write this, Vanuatu might not get worse than a muddy, blustery week.

Which is fine. Because this is Vanuatu. We can do muddy, blustery weeks.

So this missive is just to tell you that the online version of my post differs somewhat from the one you received. I’ve updated it to reflect the current scenario.

[Vader Voice]: I am amending the essay. Pray I don’t amend it further.

Anyway, here’s the link. Thanks to every single one of you for subscribing, and please feel free to feed back to me with ideas, questions or comments.



The Last Straw?

Well, 2020 is here to tell us it ain’t over yet. Vanuatu woke up yesterday to a cyclone warning.

Merry ****ing Christmas!

If things play out the way they’re looking today, then we’re likely in for a weather event affecting the half of the country that wasn’t badly affected by April’s cyclone Harold. Instead, it’s the half of the country that only just recovered from cyclone Pam in 2015.

uh, yay.

Now to be fair, today’s models show the path of the storm threading the needle between Fiji and Vanuatu. We pray that holds. But cyclones are like mad elephants. You can’t tell them where to go, only try your best to be where they’re not.

This was composed when the outcome looked a lot more dire than it does today. Nonetheless, I think the points made remain valid.

If the disaster response played out the way it did in April, we’re in trouble. It would not be the last straw for us, not nearly. But it would put us in a hole that would be very difficult to climb out of, economically, socially and politically.

It would make it impossible to avoid falling into that Lowy calls a Pacific Lost Decade.

But I don’t think it will. Here’s why:

  1. The bloom is off the COVID-19 rose. We’re used to it now, and much more capable of dealing with logistics in suboptimal circumstances.

  2. The planes are actually flying, and if we needed assistance from outside, there would be ways to manage that. This applies especially to emergency cargo flights, which were inexplicably held up by authorities last time.

  3. This is callous, but I believe it’s accurate: It’s happening to Us. It shames me to say it, but my sense of things is that the people of west and south Santo, Malo and Pentecost didn’t have access to, or leverage over people in power that folks in Port Vila and Tanna do. I think there will be a great deal more concern and hurry this time.

    (I hope it’ll be better, regardless of the motivation. It’s hard to imagine what worse looks like.)

  4. The logistics of the response are different, and are better-understood by all. We went through a storm that followed an almost identical path five years ago. April’s cyclone, on the other hand, consisted of a series of separate responses across dramatically different terrains, each with different constraints and requirements.

    Some of the areas struck by the worst winds hadn’t seen a really powerful storm since all the way back to independence. And when it came, the winds in the worst-affected areas were multiplied because of a unique combination of the wind’s force and direction and the terrain. Harold was—in some places—a perfect storm.

Vanuatu is better at dealing with cyclones than most places because we get so many. We can joke about naming the coming storm Cyclone 2020AintOver, but the fact is it’s just another of the many we’re going to see.

We know what the climate scientists have been saying: No likely change in frequency, but more severe storms are expected, over a longer season.

And for your sins, that’s what we’re getting.

But three national disasters in one year will dent any nation’s pace.

And this is not a healthy nation. The government still has some cash in hand, thanks to passports, but most people don’t. Businesses are distressed, shuttered or wobbling. Individuals are tapped out. Bank sales and personal vehicle sales have jumped. One realtor has resorted to mass SMS messaging to try and find buyers.

Next year, we’re supposed to claw back many of the losses we made this year. Or rather, we were. This will shorten the horizon on a lot of livelihoods.

And of course, COVID’s not over yet. With damaged living spaces, reduced access to clean water and sanitation, and massively increased hurdles to conducting any kind of vaccination programme, not to mention an overstretched and massively under-resourced public health service, any outbreak now would be made worse by this.

We’ll get by. We always do. But it will be harder this time, I fear, than at any time since independence.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Reserved Occupations are not the answer

Before we can discuss employment, we need to establish a few facts:

  • Every single business owner in Vanuatu prefers to hire locally.

  • Hiring someone from overseas costs more per year than a similarly skilled Ni Vanuatu. Relocation, permits, insurance, taxes and assistance are all expensive, as are inducements for the person to move to Vanuatu.

  • Local workers are a better deal for everyone.

  • Skilled Ni Vanuatu are already in high demand.

  • There is no shortage of employment for citizens with advanced professional skills and experience.

Job creation is a responsibility of the private sector and growth should bring an increase in number of positions available overall. The private sector, government, ministry of education, and all of society should work together to increase the number of skilled and experienced Ni Vanuatu to fill those positions.

Broadening the employment base and improving access to technical, executive and management positions is a goal we all share.

The 2018 National Human Resource Development Plan is an excellent guide. It contains data and insights that are critical to any plan. Its findings should form the basis of this country’s employment plans in the future.

Basic principles of employment and economic growth

Education = employment

Until recently, successive governments neglected education. Even as late as 2013, less than 2 out of 10 young people managed to complete high school. While governments provided scholarships for many of these graduates, they spent hundreds of millions on the fortunate few, and far less on primary and secondary school students.

That has changed recently. The current primary school population will be better prepared for advanced education and training than the last one, but that’s years away.

The Human Resource Development Plan spends much of its 140 pages discussing education opportunities for the next generation. Focusing on education to drive employability and to provide professional and technical training is the right choice.

Even before the final report came out, the government of Vanuatu had committed massive funds to improving our education system. This is the right place to focus. It will take time and immense effort, but it’s the only way to ensure that employment levels improve for the next generation.

This country needs to give its existing policies time to work. There are no quick fixes here.

Skilled Ni Vanuatu workers are already in high demand

Vanuatu citizens with professional and technical skills seldom have trouble finding a job. The people who struggle most are unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

The Human Resource Development Plan makes it clear that of the small fraction of the workforce with work permits at the time, nearly all were in areas with a shortage of skilled Ni Vanuatu workers.

The only real exception to this was for missionary workers.

The problem Vanuatu faces is not demand for workers. It’s supply.

Employers prefer to hire locally whenever they can, because it saves them money. Why would they spend months of time and millions of vatu if they could find the right person right here?

Limiting the skills pool limits growth

Employers everywhere have to work hard to find people with the right skills and experience. The Human Resource Development Plan shows that Vanuatu has lots of people with the right attitude. But we have a shortage of people with key skills.

Here is what the Human Resource Development Plan found:

·      64% of all respondents agreed that ‘we cannot find enough staff with the skills we need’.

·      70% agreed that ‘most locally trained staff have only basic skills’.

·      89% agreed that ‘our staff have a good attitude toward their work’.

·      67% agreed that ‘we have to employ foreign staff’.

Employers would hire more local staff to these roles if they could. But there just aren’t enough of them. The problem is finding staff with higher education.

·      75% of respondents disagreed that ‘it is hard to find staff with secondary school qualifications’.

·      82% agreed that ‘it is hard to find staff with basic teaching qualifications’.

·      65% agreed that ‘it is hard to find staff with technician-level qualifications’.

·      63% agreed that ‘it is hard to find staff with relevant degrees and post-graduate degrees’.

Looking at who does get hired from overseas makes that clear. Aside from NGO workers and missionaries, only finance professionals numbered more than 20 in 2018.

By any measure, the number of foreign workers is very small. We’re talking about a dozen jobs or less here or there. Employers hire overseas when they cannot fill the position locally. In many cases, this is because the role requires specific qualifications or certifications.

Employers do not hire internationally if they don’t need to. That means they can’t do without these positions.

If we impose a shortage on these few key positions, we could slow down the entire economy.

Open economies are prosperous economies

All of the world’s most successful economies—both the largest and the most prosperous—have derived a key advantage from opening their labour force to all. The UK, France, Canada, the USA, China, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore… the list is long.

Open economies are healthy economies. Just ask our thousands of Ni Vanuatu seasonal workers.

The USA and China both relied heavily on skilled worker visa programmes to establish their world-class tech industries.

The lesson is clear: Skilled worker visa programmes build economies, and restrictions slow them down.

Employment breeds more employment

In a growing economy, the number of jobs increases faster than the population. Opening the door to more skilled workers means more businesses will set up shop here. More businesses mean more jobs for everyone.

The other side is equally true: Taking a job away from someone doesn’t mean it goes to someone else. It could just as easily remove the job entirely.

In many cases, removing the job of the skilled worker will mean several other jobs disappear as well.

If you stifle even a single business, you take many jobs out of the market. Not just the employees, but the mamas who sell them food, the store keepers who sell them goods and the staff who help them shop, the bus and taxi drivers who get them to work and back, and the people they employ when they save and build a home.

This can create a negative multiplying effect, a vicious circle of lost opportunities that can slow or even stop growth.

If we want to create more opportunities for Ni Vanuatu, we should create more opportunities for everyone.

Markets drive economies

Everyone needs rules. Fairness, openness and honesty are necessary for a market economy to function.

But that doesn’t mean that more rules make a better economy. Freedom is just as important. Companies, investors and workers all need to be free to make their own decisions. Putting too many restrictions on businesses is just like squeezing a balloon. Businesses move away from where the pressure is greatest, and set up where it isn’t.

In order for markets to work, governments need to understand and accept that the private sector can grow and develop on its own. And when companies prosper, they gladly contribute taxes, wages and wealth to the society that gives them a home.


It is incumbent on businesses to show that they’re acting in line with market forces and for the common good. We support reasonable oversight in this area.

Some of the fields on the proposed reserved list (auditor, accountant, project manager) are required to have professional qualifications. No such qualifications exist in Vanuatu and our preferred default is usually ANZ or Fiji standards. This presents a challenge. Currently only small numbers of Ni Vanuatu with such qualifications exist. There is a risk of these positions remaining unfilled.

  1. Positions requiring professional certification should not be included in the reserved list, as the adverse effect on the economy would be too great.

  2. Positions up to VT 400,000 per month in salary: Reasonable efforts must be taken to locate and recruit Vanuatu citizens before a non-resident can be hired.

  3. Professional/executive positions paying over VT 400,000 per month should be open to competition, but subject to the same Immigration and ‘fit and proper person’ requirements as already exist.

I fear that the value of competition is being overlooked. Competition and the right to trade freely are the core of every market economy. We should all applaud every effort that helps Ni Vanuatu compete more effectively, and grown in success.

But the proposed measures would shrink the employment market, not grow it. They would achieve the opposite of what they intend.

Don’t feel much like dancin’

This week’s announcement that the government is spending two days and VT 37 million celebrating Vanuatu’s graduation from LDC status isn’t just tone-deaf. It’s a sad commentary on how disconnected our political elite have become from the daily reality of life and livelihood.

Today, I suspect there’s a little bit of Jonathan Edwards in all of us.


We’ve got good reasons to feel down.

The December edition of the Vanuatu Business Review includes a troubling assessment. Yes, COVID-19 and TC Harold have driven many businesses to the brink, but they were already headed in that direction before either one occurred.

For years, the rope has been tightening around the private sector’s neck. Policies designed to make life better for Ni Vanuatu are instead throttling development. The Customary Land Management Act was intended to clarify and simplify the process of deciding who had the right to lease land. It tried to shoehorn kastom and its myriad permutations that vary from village to village—let alone island to island—into a single unified system. It is unworkable.

Not a single piece of kastom land has been leased since it took effect.

Fees for work permits, visas, forms and approvals have increased beyond all reason. It now costs thousands of dollars for an investor just to reach the starting gate. The government appears to see these fees as income, not cost recovery.

Vanuatu is 107th overall in the ease of doing business rankings, but it drops another 30 places where starting a business is concerned. And it’s among the worst in the world when it comes to getting a building permit and enforcing contracts.

Businesses large and small are singled out by government officials, and subjected to orders that are sometimes unlawful and unjust.

Fairness is seeping out of the system. And without fairness, markets can’t function.

The motivation for many of these measures is commendable. Ni Vanuatu deserve a fair shake. After a century of colonial oppression, they are finally masters in their own house.

We shouldn’t be importing talent when the talent already exists here. When we do bring someone in, they should try to work themselves out of a job by providing training and assistance to local counterparts.

These are all fine ideas. Even if they weren’t, it’s not my place to prescribe policy.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t note the impacts.

There is a common but false assumption that if a job is created and given to an outsider, that same job can simply be handed over to a deserving Ni Vanuatu. That’s just not how things work.

If you stop a company from hiring an outsider with specific skills, you’re not forcing them to hire a Ni Vanuatu. You could be stopping them from hiring anyone at all.

Every single business owner in Vanuatu prefers to hire locally. Hiring someone from overseas costs way more than a similarly skilled Ni Vanuatu.

Local workers are a better deal for everyone. Everyone knows that already.

If a business can’t create that position, no Ni Vanuatu will ever fill it. Or be trained to fill it one day. Maybe the company won’t expand. Maybe the company won’t even get off the ground.

Maybe other jobs in the company depend on this one, and more positions evaporate.

Ni Vanuatu deserve a better living wage. But increasing it three times in 4 years, a total of 30%, only ensures fewer low-wage jobs.

Doubling severance payments for retirees creates a perverse incentive to cash-strapped companies to fire their older workers before they reach retirement age.

These measures are theoretically good, but practically disastrous. They drag down the economy, making business owners pathologically risk-averse. They’re unwilling to speak out against even the stupidest ideas, because they know they’ll be singled out if they do.

It happens all the time. I know. It happened to me.

And that’s crazy, because we’d love to help achieve those goals. As the song goes, ‘How much does it cost? / I’ll buy it!’

We really would. But difference of opinion is seen as opposition. The market for ideas just as beset as the markets of commerce.

Part of the problem is that the people who make the rules aren’t affected by them. Most MPs are career politicians. Most civil servants are career civil servants. They lack private sector experience because our tiny private sector doesn’t offer the same opportunities the public sector does.

And that’s partly because the public sector makes a living throttling the private sector.

The river of money flowing in from citizenship sales has made things worse. Politicians are no longer attentive to local businesses. They don’t need to be. They can get more support in a month from a single passport agency than a local business can offer in an entire election cycle.

And now—only now—can we begin to contemplate the damage done by two cyclones, a crisis in our aviation sector, and the death of our tourism-related economy.

Things are dire. But they wouldn’t be a lot less dire if we weren’t the most disaster-stricken country in the world.

So when the government announces that it’s splashing out nearly half a million bucks on a party to celebrate our graduation to a better economy… well, we don’t feel much like dancing.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Banning Facebook is a bad idea…

Solomon Islands’ cabinet today announced their intention to ban Facebook.

I Have Thoughts.

1) Banning Facebook is the wrong response, of course. It’s a massive abridgement of human rights, for one thing. It is an unwarranted restriction on the media, who rely heavily on social media to establish their credibility, and also to reach and communicate with sources who might not have been accessible before.

2) Doing nothing about social media abuses is not a reasonable option either. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how corrosive to society an unregulated social media environment can be. What with Brexit and the US presidential election, we’re watching two of the oldest democracies in the world coming apart at the seams. Our democracies are already fragile and vulnerable. We don’t need anyone pouring acid on them.

3) I’m not convinced the SI government can be trusted to make the right choices to safeguard the basic freedoms of conscience, expression and association for its citizens. I’m also not convinced that Australia is willing or able to meaningfully help. Its partisan and polluted media landscape makes it nigh impossible to avoid pot/kettle recriminations. Nor am I convinced that the MSG or the PIF Secretariat are particularly well-positioned either. I’m not sure we’d like the result if they did assist. New Zealand, on the other other hand, probably could address the issue with some credibility. But who knows whether it would risk its standing on this?

Ignoring reality for a moment, let’s look at the ideal scenario:

Social media should be decolonised and regulated locally. I’ve presented the reasons why before in this newsletter. Social media would be required to establish a local legal presence, and content originating within each territory should be subjected to the same legal restrictions as any other media company.

Technically and legally, that’s perfectly workable. Practically though, Facebook would rather withdraw its services entirely from the country and sow the ground with salt than subject themselves to a precedent that would ultimately lead to the fragmentation of the company into hundreds of franchises, and increase its tax bill to… well, to the levels that the rest of us pay.

I’ll have more on this soon, but let me end with this:

As a member of the Melanesian Media Freedom Forum, I am utterly opposed to the unwarranted restriction on the fundamental freedoms of conscience, speech and association that banning Facebook would create. It’s not only immoral and wrong; it just won’t work.

Banning Facebook will only drive public discourse into even more dangerous venues, such as the right-wing funded Parler, or Chinese-controlled WeChat.

Prime Minister Sogavare needs to rein his cabinet in on this matter, and plot a more thoughtful and effective course. He should cooperate with his regional partners to increase the odds of success.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Can we stop being the enemy now?

Does the Overton Window have shades? If it does, can we please draw them back over the bit where the media became the enemy?

I’ve been holding this in for a long time, so don’t be surprised if it sounds a little feisty. But you know what? It’s the hardest thing in the world to sit in a press conference feeling like you’re the only people in the room who care about right and wrong. The only ones who’re thinking about others. The only ones who’re being honest. The only ones who care remotely about the truth.

The only ones who would rather lose everything than lie.

For those of you who don’t know my story, here’s the skinny: I got turfed out of my job as the head of editorial for Vanuatu’s only daily newspaper for ‘administrative reasons’. Those reasons are the subject of an ongoing judicial review, so I won’t comment on them, save to say that I don’t think they’re really why I was denied the right to do my job.

It galls me that I can’t even speak in my own defence, but I’ve been advised to avoid doing anything that might queer the legal pitch. So I’ll just say I’ve spent the last 13 months unemployed—and effectively unemployable—while the issue wends through the courts.

I am, needless to say, a bit tired of being the enemy. I’m tired of having to risk my family’s future just to tell people what’s what.

I’m tired of China’s petulant and bitter intolerance to any Hong Konger who so much as looks at them askance. I’m tired of Donald Trump’s calculated, flagrant disdain. I’m tired of Murdoch’s decades-long campaign to subvert trust in us, and to denigrate anyone who hold faith with the public good.

I’m tired of us being arrested, persecuted, intimidated, imprisoned, and even assassinated.

I’m tired of being the only one in the room who dares to ask the question, or says the thing that needs to be said. I’m tired of having to remind people that we all have a right to do that.

I’m tired of the relieved looks when I do open my mouth. I’m tired of people telling me in hushed tones how they support me, but there’s too much at stake for them to actually say it aloud.

They’re right, and I’m tired of that, too.

I’m tired of correcting lie after lie after lie. I’m tired of confronting liars. I’m tired of the fact that it gets harder every day.

I never want to worry if I’ll ever see my family again. I’m sick of being unemployed, and unemployable. I’m sick of my right to seek the truth being curtailed by people who know I’m right, and still persist. I’m literally sick, living with depression.

I’m sick of the brazenness, the shamelessness of it all. I’m sick of the fact that even writing this bowdlerised screed is a dangerous act.

So now that we’ve reached this inflection point in history, can we please just stop being the enemy?

Now that we’ve reached the time for healing, could you start with us?

All I’m asking is that people stop trying to murder the truth. Stop pretending that the public good doesn’t matter more than private interest.

Stop pretending the media are somehow driving this soul-destroying descent into chaos.

Reporters aren’t special. We’ve got exactly as many rights as you—along with more responsibilities. But we’re the first ones to fall. We cop the flak so you don’t have to. We may be the first ones to be silenced, but we’re not the last.

If reporters aren’t free to speak, to question and confront, then no one is.

So can we stop being your enemy, please? Can we just be allowed to do our job? Can we maybe, I dunno, get a bit of encouragement, or at least the chance to make a buck at it?

You don’t have to do us any favours, really. You don’t have to put kid gloves on. You don’t even have to be nice.

Just stop them fucking with us. Stop pretending we’re the enemy. You know we’re not. So maybe stop saying it.

Can we do that now, please?


The Media.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Secretary for Climate

The betting shops are confident enough in a Biden victory that they’re already paying out. Despite this, things are going to be messy for a while in the United States.

When he finally emerges, Joe Biden is going to need a unifying message, not just for Americans, but for those who look to America for leadership.

That message will be climate change. It has to be. He doesn’t really have another.


Twitter avatar for @JoeBidenJoe Biden @JoeBiden

Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it.


The U.S. has officially left the Paris Agreement, three years after Pres. Trump announced he would leave the international climate change forum. https://t.co/2dfSy9wxgJ


But even though he’s not spoiled for choice, Biden’s got a lot of upside if he goes hard on the climate bandwagon. Domestically, it’s a job-maker. He can throw billions into the Rust Belt and California’s eastern provinces of Nevada and Arizona. Mitigation and infrastructure dollars will be badly needed in Florida and the Gulf states. Tech, mass transport and household energy efficiency initiatives are all great for small business.

Spending is at the House’s discretion, and voters in most of those states are persuadable enough that an obstructionist Senate would likely be signing its own death warrant.

He might even shore up Texas for a win next time, putting the final nail into Nixon’s Southern Strategy.

Internationally, climate change is the only thing that leaders can agree on. It is Biden’s one chance to engage positively with China, and it offers him a unique opportunity for rapprochement with Europe, India and southeast Asia without poking any bears—or pandas.

I could be wrong, but my bet is that the next Secretary of State will lead have serious diplomatic chops and likely significant experience in deal wrangling.

This puts countries that are out of step on climate change in a tough place. Australia would likely have it toughest of all. With China already telegraphing that it will reduce its reliance on Australian coal, the Coalition will be hard pressed to resist US overtures to stop shilly-shallying about on the platform and get on board the Paris train.

How Scott Morrison and his cabinet navigate between that Scylla and Charybdis will be interesting to see. It’s unlikely Murdoch or Palmer will suddenly turn on them. (Where else would they go?) And it’s not at all sure that Labor can stage a miraculous turnaround and unite the country on… anything, really.

But Australia will have to move. The tide is rising and the ship is either going to make headway or the current’s going to carry it. Either way, it moves.

The only leverage Australia has with China right now is trade, and that’s tenuous, as we’re seeing. Coming on board with climate change gives Australia the chance to play the middle ground between Xi and Biden, using its import/export markets to its own advantage in the process.

It also means jobs in a seriously depressed economy. Not as many as in the USA, but a lot.

It pulls the Pacific more firmly into its orbit, and builds the moral argument for closer alliance.

But most of all, it means survival. Not just for the parties, but for the country.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular series of analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Air Vanuatu Investigation Raises Questions

An aviation expert has questioned the decision to fire the Air Vanuatu captain who flew ATR twin engine that veered off the runway during an emergency landing.

Air Vanuatu’s history has been blessedly unexciting. Over the last 40 years, we’ve seen only two aircraft lost, and only one of them with the loss of all hands.

So when one of our domestic flagships veered off the runway, crashing into two other small planes, we all breathed a sigh of relief that despite the damage, no one was injured and no lives were lost.

The accident investigation was conducted by Papua New Guinea’s aviation investigator, because Vanuatu lacks the capacity and expertise to do this sort of thing.

The report is troubling for a number of reasons.

Anyone who wants a detailed and insightful overview of the investigation should watch this video explainer by ATR pilot/instructor Magnar Nordal.

I spoke for over an hour to Nordal. He has been flying ATRs professionally for years, including the specific variant involved in flight 241 to Port Vila. He is a pilot/instructor who has flown in the Maldives, which is similar to Vanuatu in important respects.

What went wrong, I asked him?

Lots of things.

Engine Woes

The malfunctioning of the right engine of the ATR 72-500 was what set events into motion. It failed spectacularly, with loud bangs and large volumes of smoke that quickly filled the cabin.

The engine had been sitting idle on the shelf for an extended period. It was sent to Germany for a complete refurbishment, was re-certified, and then installed on the ATR at a certified aviation facility in Fiji.

Within days, low oil pressure was noted during a flight. The fault was found, a part was replaced, and the plane was returned to service. On the next round trip, the engine unexpectedly lost oil pressure again. It was serviced again, the same part replaced, and this time a flight test was required before it was returned to service.

On the next round trip, the engine failed, apparently due to a wear on a bearing ring designed to smoothe the rotation of the engine parts. This rapidly built up friction, and ultimately resulted in numerous fractures, which released quantities of smoke into the cabin.

This frame grab from a video taken during the flight gives an indication of how thick the smoke became.

But the loss of a single engine is not an emergency. Aircraft like the ATR are designed to fly on one engine, and pilots train regularly to fly and land with a single power source. It was only when smoke entered the cabin that the pilot issued a MAYDAY to air traffic control.

Nordal agrees that was the right thing to do.

One of the first steps in the preflight checklist is to review the aircraft’s maintenance history. What would Nordal have done, given the recent maintenance issues this plane had logged?

Nordal told me he would have made a mental note, but continued with the flight. But when the engine began to make noises, that information would have been in the front of his mind.

Taking Control

When the engine started malfunctioning, the captain elected to take control of the aircraft from his copilot, who had extensive experience on the Twin Otter, but only 55 hours flying the ATR.

But following the checklists is actually the harder task. Should he have left the co-pilot in charge of flying the plane? Not necessarily. Nordal cited the popular film Sully, which tells the story of an Airbus 320 that ditched in the Hudson river when it lost both engines to bird strikes.

“Captain Sully took control of the aircraft. He even had an experienced first officer. Together they had 55,000 hours,” said Nordal.

“But in this case, you have a new first officer with very limited experience. I think the captain felt he should take control, because of the lower experience of the other pilot.”

Do we have any basis for saying that one decision would have been better than the other?

“No, I don’t think so.”

Training Inadequacies

Both flight and cabin crew were not up to date on important safety training, according to the accident report. Nordal notes that the captain’s “smoke training had expired in fact.”

Whose responsibility is that?

“You have to look at the company, how they managed the training of the crew,” he said.

Keeping good training practices is a constant challenge for small airlines.

“You always have budget constraints. You have a limited number of aircraft, with only a few pilots. Only two [ATR] aircraft, so you only have a handful of pilots. And you cannot take everybody out of production for training. You have to do them one by one. And that means you have an instructor taken out as well to do the training, and you have to repeat it many times.

“You use a lot of resources in training, so you have to do the best [you can].”

Lack of smoke training is not disqualifying, but “it should be done. It’s the responsibility of the company.”

The flight crew’s lack of training led to what Nordal suggests was a series of mistakes, each one compounding the other. They started one checklist, then interrupted it to begin another, then went back and restarted the first. As a result, a crucial detail was missed, and that resulted in the smoke problem becoming worse, and the ATR being misconfigured for landing.

“They didn’t do the complete checklist here. They rushed. They did it too fast.”

But Nordal adds that we should not be quick to judge.

“You fly thousands of hours, and never have a problem with an engine, or smoke. I have 9,000 hours total time, 5,000 on the ATR, and never had serious issues in the aircraft. So I’m very good at flying under normal conditions. That doesn’t mean I’m very good to cope with a problem like this, because I’ve never experienced it before.”

The report also indicates that the cabin crew were unaware of the smoke procedures, did not circulate in the cabin to assist passengers, and did not don breathing equipment when instructed to do so by the captain.

“I find that very serious,” said Nordal. “Very often, you think cabin crew is there for the service. But that’s secondary. The main job for them is to save the passengers. They should be properly trained in smoke procedures.”

But again, he pleads for understanding.

“There are no simulators in Vanuatu where you can practice for smoke in the cabin…. That means you do it in a classroom. You teach them, ‘do this and this and this’, but it’s very different when you say something in a classroom—that’s very different from really doing it in an aircraft.”

I asked him, would you take a plane off the ground if you knew that your cabin crew lacked the training to deal with a smoke event?

“If I knew that beforehand, I would say, ‘My cabin crew has not received proper training, so I consider I’m not fit to fly.

“But how can I know what kind of training they have? I know they are trained by the company and the company has released them and said they are fit to fly.”

Regulatory Inadequacies

The accident report states that Civil Aviation’s oversight of Air Vanuatu’s training and certification practices was ‘inadequate’.

In aviation, the regulatory environment is designed to encourage what’s known as a Just Culture. “You’re not punished because you did a mistake. But they will ask questions if you don’t report it.”

Responsible behaviour is expected and rewarded, and provided mistakes are owned and fixed, they’re not punished. Irresponsible behaviour and hiding mistakes, on the other hand, is cause for concern.

Nonetheless, said Nordal, “there were mistakes made. But nobody died. Nobody got hurt. Which is a positive outcome.”

Captain not to Blame

“I hear that the captain has been fired.” said Nordal. “I don’t agree. Because I am sure that the captain will never make that mistake again. He learned something important here. That alone should not qualify to fire the pilot.

“I’ve seen in other cultures how they fire the pilot for tiny, tiny mistakes. That caused other pilots to be afraid. They are scared of making mistakes. And when you focus on not making mistakes, guess what happens?”

He continued, “I question their decision to fire the captain. Unless there was something else we don’t know about. I think it’s not fair to blame the captain alone, because as the report says, his smoke training was overdue. That goes back to the company. It’s not only one [person] responsible here. The captain made the decisions, but behind him you have a culture and an organisation.”

Many have already called for the captain of flight AV241 to be commended, rather than have his career called into question.

But as the accident report states bluntly at the beginning: Readers should note that the information in AIC reports and recommendations is provided to promote aviation safety. In no case is it intended to imply blame or liability.

The most worrying aspect of this entire episode is that the accident report was not circulated at all in Vanuatu, nor was it discussed. As Nordal underlined repeatedly, if you hide your mistakes, and spend your time worrying about people finding out about them, you not only don’t improve, you create fertile ground to make more of them.

Simply firing the pilot and sweeping the underlying contributing factors under the carpet is a recipe for further disaster. If Air Vanuatu wants to grow as an airline, it has to recognise its deficiencies, own them, and treat them responsibly.

Who would fly on an airline if they thought it was hiding critical safety information from them? The only way we can build confidence is through robust regulatory oversight, and complete transparency when mistakes do happen. Because they inevitably will. And if we don’t learn from them, we are sure to make more.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular series of analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.