Learning to Govern Again

What does a culture of corruption actually look like? Vanuatu.

It’s often difficult to see exactly where the rot sets in. The pressure of corruption is often quiet and always insidious. It impacts on public institutions, on their ability to manage themselves, to plan and to perform useful work.

Corruption creates a culture of impunity. Bad deeds go unpunished; good deeds and hard work go unrewarded. Each is as dangerous as the other.

2015 will almost certainly go down in the history books as Vanuatu’s annus horribilis, a year so bad we hope it will never be repeated. Between the cyclone, the drought, the collapse of government and the failure of critical infrastructure, it’s hard to see even a glimmer of light.

But we need to understand that it was a long time coming. Arguably, it all began in the days immediately after Walter Lini’s ouster, when the deposed leader and his confreres stripped the government offices bare before their departure.

Over the years, Vanuatu’s leaders have developed and defined a style of government that may have worked on the village and family level, but has condemned the country to failure.

Many—if not most—of Vanuatu’s power and political arrangements are personality-driven. Whether through charisma, force of will, or outright bullying and intimidation, most of the people who have risen to power over the years have done so not because they were team builders but because of their individual control and influence over others.

Witness the effect. Serge Vohor famously said that in Vanuatu you don’t have a Prime Minister and 13 advisors; you have one Big PM and 13 Little PMs.

Policy development, programme planning, inter-departmental cooperation… all the things that comprise the lifeblood of a functioning government have been sacrificed at the altar of personality.

Five consecutive governments put together five conflicting plans to deal with the Bauerfield runway. None of them worked. We’ve had a decade to get our financial house in order and to take steps to curb money laundering. In ten years—ten years—we’ve managed to fully comply with only one out of forty recommendations.

Ministers and MPs need to understand their role: They are not managers. They are not chiefs. They are not responsible for service delivery. Their job is to determine the nation’s priorities, to coordinate with their colleagues, to accept the guidance of the Prime Minister, and to set the course for their individual departments.

Mostly, this means they need to get out of the way. Many—if not most—of the problems plaguing government departments today can be laid at the feet of politicians who meddled too much in departmental affairs.

Over the years, the Daily Post has recorded a litany of such sins. Land leases handed out like candy. Dodgy public works contracts. Unconscionable laxness in the licensing and certification of local shipping. Massive overspending on scholarships awarded under questionable criteria. Mismanagement at the wharf. NISCOL. AVL. Air Vanuatu. VTO.

The list is painfully long.

In every case, the problem is people working alone, uncoordinated, in the dark. Every action is ad hoc, in reaction to an irritant or emoluent.

This has to change. We need to find a way to collaborate, but more than that, we need to learn to stand together. The main reason cheekiness and bullying behaviour thrives among our so-called Big Men is because—time and again—we fail to stand up for each other.

It starts at the top. Enough with the Little PMs. It doesn’t matter who you are; the nation’s needs are greater than yours. A leader is nothing if he can’t also serve.

Coordination. Support. Integrity. Consequences for misdeeds and rewards for good works. If we can manage that, the rest will come.