China’s rise, Cyclone politics and extreme patronage: Impressions of Vanuatu

Pretty remote
Pretty remote

As part of their support for the How Change Happens book, the Aussie government is also giving me a crash course in development in the Pacific. Last year, they took me to Papua New Guinea (blogs here), then last week, I headed for Vanuatu (small island archipelago, 270,000 population, best known – at least in the UK – for one island’s baffling reverence for Prince Phillip). Today I’ll share some overall impressions, then tomorrow I’ll explore the dual (or even triple) systems within which people live their lives – Chiefs, State and Churches.

Flying in, the first impression was the number of Chinese on my plane. Chinese influence is rising rapidly across the Pacific, with an influx of shopkeepers dominating the retail sector, while the government and large construction companies are pouring a lot of concrete – a huge convention centre now symbolically overshadows the Aussie high commission, being finished off by Chinese labourers in big hats behind the wire fences. I heard numerous complaints about unfair competition and lack of linkages to the local economy (the labourers reportedly even grew their own veg), although no-one was complaining about the low prices in Chinese-run shops. The general consensus seems to be that China doesn’t have a conscious strategy to take over the South Pacific. Most activity is commercial with no more specific aim than winning friends, but the ready availability of Chinese cash does make it harder for other donors to influence government policy.

On arrival in the capital, Port Vila, the half-sunken boats in the bay are a reminder of March’s devastating Cyclone cyclone-pam-vanuatu-640x360Pam – the worst Vanuatu has ever seen. The most striking thing was the success of disaster preparation and response – only 11 people died, according to government figures – all led by the government’s National Disaster Management Office. Unfortunately what happened next has left a lasting distrust between government and aid donors. While overall, NDMO with the backing of major aid donors, did a good job, it had to put up with an influx of disaster tourist NGOs, out of date or unsuitable food (Pepsi and Cocopops? Really?), predatory journalists ‘looking for bodies’ and insinuating themselves into the NDMO office where they were overheard using government wifi to haggle with news editors about the price for their photos. Ugh.

That is complicating the response to the current climate threat – El Niño. The rains haven’t come, and cyclone damage has affected water harvesting systems; in one village I was told ‘most of the crops have died, everything – the bananas and the cassava – has dried up’.

Returning to Port Vila from a field trip, we passed the local prison, where a man was busily painting the walls. Turns out he was one of the 14 MPs currently jailed on corruption charges – just the latest chapter in a story of extreme political instability, with votes of no confidence regularly triggering political crises and new governments (19 Prime Ministers in the last 24 years).

The anarchy springs from patronage politics with few constraints on MPs, who constantly swap parties (and governments) in search of political or financial advantage, and the effect on governance is devastating. One senior civil servant told me: ‘You have to be constantly thinking ‘right, who’s coming in next? How can I work them? You have to work on the dark side to get things done, drink with the pols to get them to sign the right documents, maybe agree to do a couple of stupid things to protect the integrity of the programme – we have even set aside a $100,000 fund for that kind of thing. But why can’t we just work together for our country? It’s too much of a headache – I’m thinking of going back to New Zealand (where he trained)’.

Patronage is particularly resilient because that’s what voters often want – they exchange their support for

mmm, that kava taste
mmm, that kava taste

direct benefits from the would-be MP. ‘People vote for school fee money, coffin money, wedding money. They vote with their stomach.’ Once in office, the MP then has to recoup that money, and more – corruption is endemic and massive. There are some good guys in the system, but until voter attitudes change, they will always be swimming against the tide.

Gender inequity is extreme – all 52 MPs are men, domestic violence is rife, out in the villages ‘bride price’ is seen as effectively confirming wives as the property of their husbands. Yet I met some inspiring women leaders, and change is coming through activism, led by a new generation of educated women in government and politics.

Needs garlic. And red wine sauce
Needs garlic. And red wine sauce

That all sounds like a cocktail as bitter as the national drink, kava (which anaesthetises your facial muscles and makes you spit a lot – can’t say I took to it), but doesn’t really describe the feeling of the place. Much more welcoming and less violent than PNG, and once rated (according to the new economic foundation’s ‘Happy Planet Index’) the world’s happiest country. Go figure.

Oh, and flying fox is overrated, even in a red wine sauce. Like eating gamey meccano – thanks to Essi Lindstedt for the comparison.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss Vanuatu’s fascinating parallel systems of governance – chiefs, churches and the state.

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