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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