Gift Economy – Ctd.

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

Last week’s column on the relationship between chiefs, politicians and public servants provoked a good deal of discussion at the nakamal over the course of the week. Nobody contested the idea that we need to stop treating core government services as gifts to be doled out to political supporters. But there was some divergence of opinion regarding what changes, if any, were required.

Perhaps most interesting of all, nobody questioned the involvement of cabinet ministers in ensuring service delivery. The question was not whether the Minister should get involved in service delivery, but how he should do so.

Students of government from overseas might find themselves squirming at the very thought of such a question. The strong separation of politics and administration is one of the basic principles of the Westminster tradition. Many – if not most – of the major scandals in Vanuatu politics since Independence have been the result of the politicisation of roles and responsibilities in public service delivery.

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Gift Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fear I am a smaller person than he.

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A Biddable Man

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

I met a clear-eyed and intelligent woman once. Her work was demanding and she took pride in doing it well. Her strength of will and ambition put her at odds with many more traditional types, so when she decided it was time to marry, she chose someone who wouldn’t attempt to clip her wings.

Her marriage amounted to the safest of bets.

The man she chose was nice enough, unfailingly smiling and courteous, but I found it difficult to respect him. He was one of those individuals who completely subordinated himself to others. Whatever his wife did was fine by him. I might have liked them both better if she hadn’t taken advantage of the situation and treated him like baggage.

Now, before we judge this woman too harshly, let’s recognise that this recipe is precisely the kind of match that many men in Vanuatu consider most desirable. If some consider a biddable wife to be a wise choice, why not accept that what’s good for the gander is good for the goose?

It makes us cringe because we know in our heart that it’s wrong. No matter who dominates, male or female, the inherent inequality of the relationship can’t be healthy.

Marriage – or any other relationship, for that matter – should be predicated on respect between equals. It should challenge us to be better. It should require us to be more than we already are. We derive strength and support from it, but we should be required to provide the same.

Many of the most capable and interesting men and women in Vanuatu have singularly benefited from their spouse’s sacrifice and support. Their advice and counsel may go unremarked by others, but it’s always there. Their consistency and moral guidance push their partner to greater heights than they might have achieved alone.

Notwithstanding the protestations of certain members of Vanuatu’s Electoral College, the role of the President is closer to this silent supporting role than that of any other leader.

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Go With the Flow

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

NOTE: In a small place such as Vanuatu, it often happens that one has to wear a number of different hats. I work as an IT consultant, offering advice and information to clients in the private, public and civil society sectors. I am also a writer and photographer. I volunteer some of my time to help with local IT projects, and I serve as interim secretary of the Vanuatu IT Users Society. This column is written under those auspices, but from time to time my professional work bleeds into the area of advocacy and awareness-raising. In cases where I have a professional involvement or interest in a particular issue, I will make that clear within the text of the column.

No writer is free from bias. This is especially true of columnists. While I make every effort to ensure that any facts and statements appearing in this space are properly corroborated, I reserve the right to interpret them according to my own experience, judgement and insight. It’s my job to have an opinion. Unless I state otherwise, the views expressed here are my own.

Knowledge is power.

Everyone knows that expression, and many of us have to grapple with its practical implications every day. When we’re tracking down the person who knows how a particular thing works, digging through arcane data in order to become the person who knows, or whether we’re trying to pry special knowledge loose from a reluctant source, we find ourselves operating in an economy of scarcity.

When we trade in knowledge, we also rely on its scarcity to determine its value. If we have a juicy piece of gossip about someone, we don’t tell it to everyone and their dog. Instead, we parse our words and choose our confidants carefully, sometimes teasing them with partial revelation.

Let’s reformulate that initial statement, then:

Scarce knowledge is power.

If we follow the logic of that sentence, we are prone to conclude that widespread knowledge is therefore valueless. In the cash economy, if there’s too much money floating around, we experience inflation. Dollars lose their value because everyone has them. This has led some barstool philosophers to conclude that opinions, too, are of little value because ‘everyone’s got one.’

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Power Play

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Now that we’ve got the beginnings of truly nationwide communications, we need to deal with power generation. We’ll never generate enough power to run a desktop computer in every house, and community computer centres are expensive and of limited usefulness, so we need to see how suitable things like the emerging class of micro-laptops (like Asus’ new Eee PC or OLPC’s XO laptop) are for use in the islands.

Smart phones and even plain old vanilla mobiles also have a critical role to play in rural access to communications. There are any number of very simple information services that can be deployed via text messaging.

But in order to do this, we need to power these devices. A mobile phone uses very little electricity, to be sure, but in a village with none at all, even a little is a lot.

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Power and Politics – a Sketch

Chief Vincent Boulekone with Duncan Kerr

I had the privilege this week of being asked to take some photographs at the Vanuatu unveiling of the Pacific Economic Survey. The event was attended by two Australian Parliamentary Secretaries and by a number of fairly senior individuals in Vanuatu. The photos I took will be collected here.

I was proudest of the photo above. It’s of two veteran politicians whose approach and presentation could hardly be further apart.

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