[Originally published in the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]
A number of Port Vila schools have recently begun to take the Internet seriously. Assisted by veteran and novice IT volunteers, they’ve invested their meagre computing resources in an undertaking designed to help teachers create a richer and more open learning environment.
As with all things, it started small. Circumstance threw a few IT professionals together and led them to collaborate to improve their own children’s education. One thing led to another, and now we’re beginning to see the first fruits of integration of technology with teaching in Vanuatu.
The story begins five months ago when four parents, all of them seasoned IT professionals, began to chat about how to improve conditions at Central School, where their children were enrolled. Before very long they were at the core of a group of over 30 parents and teachers, all devoted to taking advantage of computers and the Internet in order to improve the quality of education.
This may sound familiar. It’s not the first time in Vanuatu that parents have moved mountains one pebble at a time to supplement their school’s limited resources. Nor is it the first time that teachers have been able to indulge their personal and professional enthusiasm for their vocation by working with the community at large.
But there are a few unique aspects to this story.
[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]
I grew up in a border town, in a border generation. One side of the river was majority French, the other English. My elders held tight to decidedly parochial views about their respective cultures. The English felt the ascendancy of their language (and subsequent control over business, government and education) was an inevitable and unavoidable result of their conquest of French Canada in 1760. The French, on the other hand, used their language as a cultural badge of courage, an undying assertion that they had never been conquered in spirit.
During the 1960s and 1970s an intense and occasionally violent cultural revival swept the French-speaking province of Quebec. Language became a weapon, leveraging access to public and private services.
Many of these reforms were necessary, long past due. Pierre Trudeau, the bi-cultural, bilingual Prime Minister at the time, had agitated for social justice in his youth. He was, nonetheless, a strong federalist, and opposed growing cries for Quebec’s secession from the Canadian confederation of provinces.
Vanuatu and Canada’s respective histories reveal more than a few parallels. Though different in detail, many common themes emerge. In Vanuatu, French and English camps were pitted against one another in the run-up to Independence, with the largely English Lini camp charging full-blown toward freedom and numerous, largely French-speaking, elements advocating a go-slowly (or not at all) approach.
[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]
“Being rich is having money. Being wealthy is having time.”
Vanuatu is rich in time, if little else. Everywhere you look, you’ll see people loitering, chatting, sitting together, wiling away the hours.
Doug Patterson’s Kranke Kona cartoon contrasts the Vanuatu way with the outside world’s hurry-up approach to life brilliantly: Two amiable men, sitting under the coconut tree, see an expat scurrying by, briefcase in hand, mobile phone pressed to his ear. They ask him why he’s in such a rush. He replies that if he works without respite every day, some day he’ll be able to slow down and enjoy life.
I sympathise more with the two brothers under the tree than I do with the expat. But the real humour lies in the juxtaposition. As enamoured as we all are with having the time to do things well, time is, nonetheless, a finite resource. And while it’s easy to say that time is money, we need to ensure that we don’t focus too much on its price and not enough on its value.
Throughout history, the distance between technology and society has been a defining characteristic of nations, empires and peoples. While it’s tempting to say that the most technologically sophisticated societies represent the pinnacle of human achievement, that’s not necessarily true. Some would argue that keeping social values paramount and learning how to adapt technology to human needs is a more effective means to ensure the health of a society.
Unfortunately, health, happiness and social justice can’t always be judged using objective economic measures. How does one measure crimes that don’t happen, meals that don’t get missed, sick days not taken?
Economic indicators do serve a number of useful purposes, of course. The Pacific Economic Survey – I wrote about it here – includes some extremely useful and instructive data concerning the effects of market liberalisation on communications. It also pointed out some inherent weaknesses in Vanuatu and elsewhere in the region, particularly with regards to technical know-how.
People in Vanuatu could teach many an economist a thing or two about what makes for a meaningful and contented life. But isolation is part of what has made life in Vanuatu simpler and more relaxed, and as that isolation erodes, we find ourselves facing significant technical challenges, some of which have a steep learning curve.
The small group of individuals who have taken leadership in opening the telecommunications market in Vanuatu have been remarkably successful thus far. People close to the process agree that the settlement agreement and the new licenses are extremely well framed. They have learned by the example of those countries who went before, and have created a comprehensive and detailed framework with very little ambiguity. This allows Digicel, Telecom Vanuatu and future entrants to focus on doing business rather than bogging themselves down in legalese, negotiation and other distractions.
But there remains much to be decided, and much to be done: