Masters in our own House?

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

Economic hardship is expressed in the simplest terms in Vanuatu. The price of rice, of diesel and cooking gas, the selling price of copra and kava – all of these hit closest to home. The most pressing question facing our new government is how best to insulate Vanuatu from the worst of the economic turmoil affecting the world’s economies.

The question for all ni-Vanuatu is how to hold the new government to account.

Economists describe Vanuatu’s position as that of a ‘price taker’. In layman’s terms that means we don’t get much of a say in how prices are set. OPEC members have never heard of us, and are content to keep it that way. Commodity exchanges deal in volumes that give Vanuatu no more say over prices than a corner shopkeeper.

Nonetheless, government decisions echo throughout the local economy. It’s limited in what it can do, but what it does affects us directly.

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All the Young Turks

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

How the mighty have fallen. As Vanuatu counts the votes from Tuesday’s election, it’s becoming increasingly evident that some of the figures who have dominated the political scene in Vanuatu since Independence are falling by the wayside.

In my last column, I argued that policy and principle had suffered such neglect in recent years that Vanuatu voters had turned inward, trading their votes for the most direct and straightforward rewards. Saucepans and bags of rice had become the currency of the electorate, because promises never came to anything. A week later, we appear to be witnessing the demise of some of the strongest proponents of this practice.

According to some, that’s not entirely good news.

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Practical Policy

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

Election season is well underway. For most people, it’s unrolling as it always has. The usual gifts are handed out to the usual suspects. A chief receives a free vendor stall at the Independence ceremonies in exchange for delivering his community’s support. A prospective candidate rounds up a few dozen friends and spends an evening doling out kava and chatting. An MP tours from village to village with a truckload of pots, pans and bags of rice. A prospective MP buys the truck itself.

Generally, these transactions are notably free of platform or policy discussions. The tradition doesn’t really work that way. It’s not that candidates don’t have agendas; they do. Nor are they hiding anything, necessarily; it’s just that, at this level, they don’t play the policy game.

As they’ve done for thousands of years, leaders invest their time and wealth in buying the support of the dominant personalities in their community. They do so by the most direct means possible: bags of rice, pots and pans, a favour here, a favour there. It’s simple, direct and tangible for all involved. The price of a vote is lamentably low, but that’s just a reflection of the value voters put in today’s government.

Occasionally, though, there arises that rarest of political creatures, a candidate with a conscience, and a policy platform to prove it.

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No Circus

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

“The People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions – everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

The Roman poet Juvenal wrote these lines in his Satires a little over a hundred years after the birth of Christ. He accuses the people of Rome – at the time the most powerful empire in the world – of losing sight of their civic responsibilities, giving everything up in exchange for gifts of grain and public entertainments.

People are always quick to draw parallels between modern USA and ancient Rome in its decline. But we can draw a more direct lesson from Juvenal’s tirade: Whether through a lack of concern or naïveté, our own choices have led us to the apparent security crisis we face today.

At least the Romans got free food and entertainment out of the bargain. Here in Vanuatu, we don’t even get that. We relinquish our societal responsibilities to others, and receive only danger in exchange.

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A Strong Foundation

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

I’m often asked for rental advice by visiting volunteers and consultants. My default response is to say, “Before you decide on a place, look around you.” With only one or two notable exceptions, relatively rich expat housing developments are surrounded by jerry-built shacks constructed of cast-off lumber and a few sheets of corrugated metal.

Housing in Vanuatu

Experience shows that more break-ins happen in places where the greatest disparities exist between expatriate and ni-Vanuatu housing conditions. But the problem of inadequate housing runs much deeper than that.

The majority of houses in Port Vila and Santo have dirt floors. This is not just a cosmetic problem. Scabies, lice, boils, fungal and bacterial infections resulting in ulcerated sores are all commonplace among children in our municipalities. More common, in fact, than they are in our villages.

In Vanuatu, you have to live with the rich to be poor.

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