Paradise Dreams

Over the last few years, investment in Vanuatu has boomed. It’s been estimated that the amount of cash in the economy is increasing by an astounding 150% per year. Compare that with the period between 1990 and 2004, when economic activity grew more slowly than the population.

But for most of the residents of this so-called paradise, little has changed.

Prices have increased somewhat, but curiously many of the more common expenses have not. Bus fares, for example, have not budged even though fuel prices have soared. Consequently, Vanuatu’s minimum wage has about the same buying power today as it had years ago.

That’s not entirely good news….

20,000 vatu a month is not enough to properly raise a family on here in town. Not without cutting a lot of corners. You can squat on unoccupied land in a house that you and your relatives build from scrounged materials. Or you can build in a corner of a family member’s yard. That will keep housing costs down.

If you wait long enough in the morning, you might be able to board a bus belonging to your tawian, so you can save on the fare. You can share baby clothes with other young mothers in the family.

If big expenses arise that can’t be ignored, you can hold a fund-raising. And if things really get tough, you can always send your children to live with other family members for a while.

For the vast majority of people in Vanuatu, living on 20,000 vatu per month – and it’s usually far less – is possible only because of the strength of family obligations.

Lest it be said that this is an unalloyed good, let me quickly point out that family pressures can be overwhelming for those who want to improve their lot in life. Dig around a bit and you’ll hear stories about people in well-paying jobs arriving home on payday to a literal queue of family members waiting for a hand-out. As a result, people sometimes spend years working in top positions without accumulating any savings at all.

The biggest part of having nothing to worry about is having nothing at all.

The best and worst of Vanuatu are encapsulated in family: As long as everybody stays close, society remains strong. This means that those who try to elevate themselves inevitably get dragged down. One need understand nothing else to make sense of the constant churn of Vanuatu politics. To coin a phrase, Vanuatu’s motto seems to be: Keep your friends close, your enemies closer, and your family closest of all.

The strength of kastom is in preservation. It asserts the primacy of collective over personal good, of peace over justice, of moral suasion over physical force. It resists pressures by subverting them. The simple knowledge that it only takes one person’s disapproval to bog an undertaking down for years – that’s often enough to stop even the most modest of dreamers.

The static nature of things is in no small part responsible for prices of certain key commodities remaining flat while costs elsewhere increase. Bus fares don’t increase because drivers fear the backlash that might arise. Kava prices rise and fall at the wholesale level, but the price of a shell never does.

It can be argued that poverty would be making itself much more sharply felt in Vanuatu were it not for the strength of its culture. You could say the same about wealth.

This is emphatically not what gets sold in the estate agent’s brochure. Even the VIPA website says only, “The population is renowned to be the friendliest in the region with little if not no [sic] resentment towards expatriates based in the country.” It does not explain that there’s little overt resentment because ni-Vanuatu and local expatriates live in separate worlds that seldom overlap.

I often wish they would. I wish there was a requirement that new investors live on minimum wage themselves for a while. I wish that people could recognise the efforts of the shop assistant who works 10-12 hour days with only one day off every 2 weeks in order to earn that much.

I wish that employers would stop calling people lazy if they don’t like to work alone. Every single aspect of life in Vanuatu militates against going solo.

I wish that they would realise that silence is not consent.

But that’s just not going to happen. Capitalism has been packaged as rugged individualism for far too long. There’s no backing off now. A confident smile and a jaunty ‘I’m all right, Jack’ are the very mark of a modern-day mercantilist.

Family solidarity has long since succumbed to the siren song of private ownership and wealth. The idea of being one’s brother’s keeper is saved for Sunday, and handled as gingerly as the collection plate.

For many expats, nothing’s going to change that. Let’s face it, most people don’t move here to be part of something; they come here to escape. What motivation does someone moving to a tax haven paradise have to take on the burdens of others? Nobody ever got rich by spending money.

To an extent, that’s just fine. Everyone gets along more or less, no one starves and only a few get hurt that wouldn’t otherwise.

Economic planners speak of introducing market forces and creating wealth; they treat growth as if it were axiomatic. Yet Vanuatu is a world apart. It resists growth because growth is change. It punishes the entrepreneurial spirit among its own, because individualism costs the community. It asks little of investors (and offers little too) because they serve no purpose until they invest in the community itself.

There are two dreams of Vanuatu today, neither one recognisable to the other. I don’t know that this explanation will help much, but here’s the thing: If we don’t understand where we are, we’ll be condemned to continually repeat the same mistakes.

And that’s just boring. If we could just see Vanuatu as it is, perhaps we can move on to newer, more interesting mistakes instead.