The View From There

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

I spent a couple of weeks last month in Timor-Leste, the world’s youngest nation. I’d gone to lend a hand to civil society there, to apply a few of the lessons learned in Vanuatu to the communications needs of this nascent nation.

The lessons learned were mostly mine.

Five years of immersion in the day-to-day ritual of mundane, incremental development makes it difficult to keep perspective on the big things. True, we’ve had a few red letter days in the recent past, among them the roll-out of Digicel’s new mobile network and Telecom’s massive slashing in Internet rates. But seen from so close up, the magnitude of these events is sometimes hard to grasp.

Take a few steps away, though, and things spring into focus. Timor-Leste is in a similar situation to Vanuatu when I first arrived in 2003. The government is just now developing the awareness and capacity to think comprehensively about communications. Internet use among civil society organisations is limited almost entirely to the capital, and it what little occurs is mostly between NGOs and outside agencies. There is little domestic inter-organisational communication, virtually none using anything more advanced than a telephone.

Timor is beginning to bloom now like the bougainvillea one sees amid the dust, glowing in the desert light. From one week to the next, the street I stayed on saw new shops opening, or re-opening. Timor is experiencing a quickening of the pulse.

I’m a big fan of pushing pebbles – that is, of finding timely, useful and achievable things that will add to the general momentum, helping larger events happen. This, I am beginning to believe, is Timor’s time. They’ve got the will, the people and the money. Lots can go wrong, but this time, they might just go right.

I had the same sense about Vanuatu, lo! those many years ago when I arrived. I’d read up on what history I could find, and it was clear that Vanuatu was emerging from a regrettable – not to say dark – period of its brief history. Slowly, the tools of governance, formal and informal, were being re-forged and put to use. The situation was decidedly imperfect, but improving in noticeable increments.

And look at what we achieved. Here’s what I wrote about it some months ago:

“When I first arrived in 2003, my job was to improve ICT capacity at the grassroots level. As part of that work, I toured around the NGOs operating in Port Vila. Almost every time, I found the same thing. A single computer had Internet access. It was used intermittently to check a single email account, which nobody really used because… well, nobody used it.

“Computer problems were rampant, but nobody got too fussed about them, because… well, nobody relied on them. PCs weren’t much more than glorified typewriters. People printed everything out, so if the drive went to hardware heaven, nothing was really lost.

“At that time, Internet was really too expensive to use at all. This was because the service was being sold by the minute. Whether it was intended to or not, the pricing effectively discouraged demand, thereby reducing revenues and inhibiting investment.

“But some time in 2003, TVL announced a flat-rate dial-up scheme. Once that product became available, it was possible to create small office networks with shared access to the Internet. Staff were given individual email addresses, and before long, if the Internet connection dropped for more than half an hour, I’d get a half-dozen irate calls asking me what was going on.

“If I could go back in time to 2001 and tell NGO directors that they would be doing the majority of their work online, that Internet-based communication was going to be one of the critical factors to the success of their work, they would have laughed at me.”

Nobody’s laughing now. From Canberra to Apia to Dili, Vanuatu’s leadership and example are being recognised. Breaking ground is a lot of extra work, but when it goes well, many benefit.

Perhaps most notable among Vanuatu’s many achievements these last few years is the degree to which these changes have reflected its national character. There have been heated moments, to be sure. We’ve all felt frustration from time to time. But the fact of the matter is that most – if not all – important changes were achieved through consultation, discussion and, ultimately, cordial entente.

With a few notable exceptions, members of Vanuatu’s online society have demonstrated a more consistently collegial and supportive attitude than I’ve seen anywhere else.

There’s an old, rather painful joke we grey-hairs like to tell about discussion groups of the pre-Web world. It used to be that every September a new crop of geeks would enter university and discover the Internet (private ISPs didn’t really exist back then). These ‘clueless newbies’ would rush forth into every online forum, showing all the tact and consideration of a whale in a wading pool. Older, more urbane members of the community would roll their eyes and gently guide this newest generation of users toward a sense of decorum and manners.

But in 1996, the number of people signing up to online services like America Online had reached such a flood that, as one Internet veteran wryly observed, September never ended.

I propose a new formulation. Vanuatu’s online community is exemplary in its ability to discuss even the most contentious issues with restraint and politeness in the proper measure. I suggest that in the same way we use ‘Eternal September’ as a nostalgic reminiscence on lost decorum, we should begin to refer to the best examples of online comity as ‘just like Vanuatu’.

I’m being a little glib, it’s true, but there’s a very serious point to be made: While Vanuatu’s development experience has been imperfect, and is far from complete, it is nonetheless a solid example for other nations, both in the region and further afield.

Every one of us working in Vanuatu should pull our heads out of our work from time to time and take a proper look at how the others are doing. If experience is any guide, the added perspective will be gratifying and rewarding.

This is especially true of ni-Vanuatu professionals who have devoted their lives to improving this country. The mundane venality of local politics and the more trying aspects of Vanuatu society sometimes serve to cloud one’s perception of all that’s good in this country.

I think a pat on the back is in order.

Lest we get complacent, there’s nothing magic about our progress. We don’t deserve all this praise simply for being who we are; we deserve the praise because we recognise who we are, warts and all, and we figure out how to make things work for us.

There’s a new cabinet in place, and it’s possible that renewed skulduggery could undo much of what we’ve achieved during the last half-decade or so. But looking from the outside in, I find I’m more confident now than ever that Vanuatu will find a way to continue to lead the region in development.