Of MPs, chiefs and churches: Vanuatu’s parallel governance systems

This second installment of posts on my recent trip to Vanuatu covers the country’s dual (or even triple) systems of Vanuatugovernance.

Vanuatu’s parallel systems came into sharp relief when we left the capital, Port Vila, and headed for the village of Epau, passing the tree wreckage of Cyclone Pam en route. Conversations in the capital had all been about government, parliament and aid; in Epau, they all seemed very distant. Here, the chiefs are in charge, all nine of them – primary chief, assistant chief and the chiefs of the community’s four tribes.

According to a mixed meeting of chiefs, villagers and church leaders, the chiefs meet every Monday to decide what communal work is needed. They are decided by bloodline. When I ask what they do if a chief misbehaves, the villagers look nonplussed – ‘we’ve never had a problem, but I guess the village would meet to discuss the problem and work it out’. When money arrives from outside organizations, the chiefs ask for volunteers to manage it – they prefer not to do so themselves.

From the local to the national
From the local to the national

When the cyclone hit, the chiefs called the community together and decided that the priority was to clear the road to allow in help, then start rebuilding the destroyed homes. The first outside help (the Red Cross) arrived a week later. In contrast, the villagers’ MP sent a single kilo of rice per household two months after the cyclone. He didn’t even come in person – just sent his representatives. The scorn is tangible. ‘Now we look down on him – we expected him to be the first here.’

In practice the formal, Western system of police, courts, government and parliament is tightly interwoven with the chief system – some observers don’t even think they can usefully be separated. When riots threatened to break out over the management of the Vanuatu National Provident Fund, the police sent for the local chiefs to calm people down. Moreover, the division of labour between formal and customary systems if constantly evolving. This from former Minister for Lands, Ralph Regenvanu:

‘These days, there are ‘traditional’ songs about mobile phones – it’s organic and fluid. There is an evolving division of labour: the chiefs have agreed that rape, murder, incest, and theft that is large scale or from foreigners should be dealt with by the police, partly because it is too divisive, and partly because they can no longer apply traditional sanctions (killing the perpetrators)’

In contrast, the management of land seems to be ever more in chiefly hands, not least because of Ralph’s role as Land Minister in pushing through legislation to strengthen the hand of the customary system. He believes ‘Chiefs are the ones genuinely trying to build community governance, more than  Churches or civil society organizations. They are working tirelessly for no money, day in and day out. No-one wants to be a chief – you’re the unpaid chaser and fixer, it’s the ultimate voluntary job. Chiefs are a fantastic asset.’

Churches too are more present in many people’s lives than the formal state. One young professional wondered ‘why

Traditional chief
Traditional chief

is it that people obey the Church so easily and not the rule of law? You know where you are with the Church – it’s a code of belief, not just a threat of punishment’ (and quite a remote threat at that – people are more scared of divine punishment than human variety).

The chiefs v state division partly reflects a different world view – the chief system focuses on the collective, whereas the formal system, for example the legal process, privileges the rights of the individual. Customary law is often about making peace and reconciliation, rather than establishing guilt and redress.

That may sound good, but it is pretty disastrous when it comes to gender issues. According to Merilyn Tahi of the Vanuatu Women’s Center, domestic violence is widespread, but ‘compensation in reconciliation processes is often paid to the family rather than the women who have been abused. Formal systems are better at directly looking after victims. Yes we should make peace between communities, but women victims need [formal] courts.’

Nelly Willy, an exfamer who now runs the Pacific Leadership Program in Vanuatu, reckons ‘If we want good governance, we should go back to the chiefs – people are more connected to them than to their MPs. Yes there’s a lack of checks and balances, but it’s still better than the current system.’

According to one local academic I talked to, the clash between the chief system and imposed western models of governance also lies at the heart of Vanuatu’s corruption problem, because the modern system ‘criminalises social obligations’. Finding a way to reintegrate the two might be the best way to sort it out.

OK, so how might that work – could aid donors work much more closely with chiefs? The first challenge is a knowledge gap – there has been some work on the dual systems, e.g. Miranda Forsyth’s book, A Bird That Flies with Two Wings, but given how much it varies between islands, over time, and according to issue, an in-depth understanding of the customary system would be an essential starting point. That would allow donors and NGOs to think through change strategies, identifying, for example, the issues on which the chief system performs well/badly, the  potential for building alliances and multi-stakeholder approaches with chiefs and others, the structures and incentives within the chief system, and how they could be influenced, and the critical junctures in chiefly life.

Modern chiefs: PM Sato Kilman and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Modern chiefs: PM Sato Kilman and Chinese President Xi Jinping

But there is a fundamental problem here. A key aspect of the chief system is that it is organic – it varies according to time and place and is highly fluid. But the urge of outsiders is to codify and pin down. How to do that without killing the essence of the customary system?

Overall conclusion? Vanuatu’s system of chiefs and customary law is varied, pervasive and far more stable and legitimate (in terms of public acceptance) than the formal state system. But like any system, it is influenced by power and (increasingly) money. Donors and NGOs need to understand and work with the customary system, supporting ‘careful hybridity’ as Vanuatu changes, urbanizes and grows, but they also need to identify and address its weaknesses, notably on individual rights, especially of women.

If you want to read more about Vanuatu, I recommend this 2007 Drivers of Change paper, which is still very relevant

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


2 Responses to “Of MPs, chiefs and churches: Vanuatu’s parallel governance systems”
  1. Hi Justin. I think one consideration that needs to be highlighted is that the chiefly system is essentially a conservative system. Because it is instituted as both the product and the instrument of tradition, it can prove a hindrance as much as a boon. Merelyn Tahi is right that when she observes that respect for individual rights and freedoms is not often reflected in Kastom. You can make solid arguments about whether that’s a Good Thing or not; in my experience, it’s swings and roundabouts.

    Bottom line, it is important not to overstate the role of the chiefs. I’ve often said the key is to make sure the mamas support you, because they’re going to do all the hard work anyway; and make sure the chiefs don’t oppose you, because they can stop you in a trice. In short, acquiescence is a more realistic expectation than support.

  2. Tess Newton Cain

    Dan’s comment is valid and important. And one aspect of hybridity that is not considered here is the role of the area councils which is the point at which formal and customary governance systems/approaches intersect with chiefs forming part of these groupings. After Cyclone Pam, it became apparent that where these area councils worked well they were a key asset to the response and recovery actions and they also are (or should be) a key focus for preparedness activities.

    I also think that the ‘fact’ that chiefs do all that they do without payment is way too much of a gloss. Island councils are largely inoperative because chiefs don’t want to meet if there is no money to pay them a sitting fee. The recent introduction of a process to allow for dual citizenship has generated a very nice income stream (apparently totally unregulated) for chiefs whose approval is required. That is not to say that there are not many instances of chiefs carrying out customary duties (and more) without cash payment but this, as with most things, is variable.

    The fact is that ‘Vanuatu’s system of chiefs’ is a misnomer as there is no system and, in all likelihood, neither should there be.