Shifting Ground

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

Much has been written since New Year’s about the rise in bus fares. Scarcely a day goes by but someone submits a long and thoughtful letter deploring the increase and suggesting ways to help drivers earn more without charging more.

The reasons for this are obvious. If someone takes the bus to and from work every day, they now spend 6,600 vatu a month just for the privilege of keeping their job. And that’s ignoring using the bus for anything but work. Add in a trip to the market on the weekend, a few visits with family in the course of the week, bus fare for the children to get to and from school… suddenly transportation takes a bigger slice of the household income than just about everything except rent.

We’ve known for some time that it’s very hard for the average ni-Vanuatu to make a living wage. Just about every family I know supplements their cash income via informal channels. They run tiny little mom-and-pop nakamals and road markets that are profitable only because family in the village send them produce at only slightly more than cost. They sew or repair much of what they wear, and wear it until it’s unrecoverable. They grow what they can on whatever land they have. They hold fund-raising when cash shortages become critical.

None of that is enough. The plain fact is this: The more people depend on the cash economy in Vanuatu, the more poor people we will see.

Moving from a completely land-based to a market-based economy is never easy. Nowhere in the world has the transition been painless. France, England, the US and Australia have all gone through agonising hardship and even military conflict as a result of this process.

We’re not going to start fighting any time soon in Vanuatu, but unless we take special care to protect ourselves, we will soon be seeing real hardship.

This country finds its greatest strength in the land. Much of kastom is based on ownership and place. Status, rank and inheritance in all their many permutations are reactions to the particularities of each island environment. Our country’s fertility has given its people a resilience that allowed them to survive a series of technological and cultural transitions that have impoverished others.

It still does, too. Vanuatu’s bounty means that, in large parts of the country, people don’t want for a lot of cash and therefore don’t bother to extract the full potential from their land. The cash economy remains small in rural Vanuatu because the cash economy is only a small part of the whole picture.

When some desirable product (like mobile communications, for example) is introduced, the perceived need for cash increases. In the short term, this puts stress on the pocket book, but things work themselves out through a nominal increase in the amount of cash being generated. Sell a little more kava or coffee and everything is back to normal. Add to this the increased efficiencies that come hand in hand with better communications, and we see more prosperity and economic activity – in cash terms – than less.

In other words, this is not a zero sum game.

But once the inherent economic elasticity in this system is used up, poverty sets in. People planting cash crops in places once reserved for food crops soon learn about hunger. It’s a fine line between building the cash economy and building dependence on the cash economy in such as way that a person’s outputs can’t meet their costs.

And that is exactly what’s beginning to happen in town. People have already leveraged their ties to the land in order to make their move into the material world possible. They supplemented their income with food and family support in order to use that monthly 20,000 vatu for essentials.

A market economy is a mobile economy. Where life in Vanuatu seldom required more than one’s legs or a paddle for transport, now we find ourselves bound by the need to cover large distances every day. And you can’t grow a bus.

Worse, Port Vila’s size and density are increasing. There are fewer and fewer places left to plant food or even keep chickens. Because wages have always relied on the agricultural backbone for subsidy, people in the workforce today are finding it harder than ever to get by. Agricultural and family support are receding faster than earning power is increasing.

We need to act now. The government has recognised this, but unfortunately the legislation that resulted was not carefully considered. The carrying capacity of both the cash and traditional economies need to be carefully measured and balanced.

Bus fares had to increase. They’ve been stagnant for nearly a decade. But further steps need to be taken to ensure that people can earn the extra money they need in today’s economy. Playing with the number of buses isn’t enough. We need comprehensive answers.

The ground is shifting under our feet. Government, business owners, employees and villagers alike need to work together now to leverage Vanuatu’s land wealth into economic health.