The greatest asset a country such as Vanuatu (eg; Solomons, Samoa, Fiji, etc in the Pacific) has to combat the damage a natural disaster such as cyclone, a tsunami, an earthquake or a volcanic eruption – is the resilience of the local people and the tried and tested traditional technologies they have deployed in the past.
But these economies are bifurcated – there is the traditional village culture and traditions, the traditional infrastructure such as grass huts, homegrown food and traditional methods of food preparation, local medical practices, traditional agriculture and so on. The ‘other’ economy is largely centred around tourism, the machinery of pan-tribal or national government, the community of expats and the foreign aid industry. The “bright lights’ of towns like Port Vila, Apia and Honiara are a mixed blessing that put to the test the resilience and stability of the island economies.
Yes we all aspire to the modernised lifestyle that typifies much of Europe, America and Asia but the reality with these island economies is that they host two worlds – traditional village life where by far the bulk of locals reside, and the activities that hang off all the various First World activities. Slowly, slowly the benefits of the First World presence filters through society, sometimes to everyone’s benefit, sometimes to some people’s benefit, and sometimes to nobody’s benefit.
Perhaps the greatest downside of this partial modernisation is that it draws the brightest from the village communities and they drift to the capitals, gutting the villages of the much-needed talent that would otherwise provide leadership and innovation. It is not always the case that those that leave return anything to their villages. In addition a problem with development aid can be that it promotes a dependency. As communities receive aid they can come to expect and depend on more. This is why so often with projects it’s essential to ensure the recipient community has ‘skin in the game’ – something tangible at stake that ensures their longstanding interest in the project’s success. Often this is the contribution of labour to constructing infrastructure for instance, sometimes some of the materials. But there is a need for well thought out interventions so unintended consequences don’t swamp good intentions.
Often local politics can be lethal in getting projects of any scale off the ground. If an infrastructure like a water capture and reticulation scheme for instance, requires villages or tribes to collaborate and share the benefits, then often squabbles between village leaders can spell doom for the project. Another common example is school projects that see families denied the child labour on which their traditional way of life depends. Also Western-style education can end up being worse then useless for children who will never know anything apart from traditional village life. In such cases it unrealistically raises expectations and instils belief that the only thing between the recipient and a cash income is an education. Nothing could be further from the truth in many of these island communities so all that’s produced is a simmering resentment that can boil over with the slightest provocation.
But it can be worse than that. The loss of traditional skills in a village community weakens it and takes away the resilience built up over centuries.
This is not to say by any means that all development aid is bunkum, but rather aid has to be properly evaluated before success is assured. It is not a simple case of dumping old and unwanted goods from the donor on the recipient’s doorstep. Most often that type of unsolicited aid is a disaster – yet in the donor countries it is a common behaviour. When you see products like nutrition-less biscuits from the West or rice and noodles past their used-by date pouring in from China, you know it’s nothing but trouble. Mindless donors creating diabetes are hardly a value-add for the recipients. Thankfully much of these useless donations are intercepted and dumped before they can do harm.
Then there’s the issue of so-called tied aid. China has championed this through the Pacific of late and it’s a disaster. Building or repairing a road in return for open access to a nation’s fishery is definitely a way of robbing these vulnerable economies blind. And the competence and intentions of the local political leaders can actually foster this extraction – I remember looking at the royalty Zambia charged the Chinese for access to its zinc and copper. It was a pathetic 3%, nowhere near enough to benefit the local community but sufficient to buy a lot of guns to keep the local ‘Big Man’ in power.
New Zealand under National has turned much of its foreign aid budget into a foreign development one. What that means is more of our so-called foreign aid is given in a tied form – such as funding the construction of a wharf so long as a New Zealand contractor constructs it. I describe that as foreign policy rather than foreign aid. It contrasts hugely with the type of emergency relief aid we offer unconditionally and is worthy of far stronger critical analyses in determining its true benefits for the recipient.
Cyclone Pam caused a lot of injury through flying corrugated iron coming off roofs and mangling people. For sure there were some buildings with iron roofs that remained intact (mainly around the capital) but they were built to a far higher standard. These are the exception not the rule in a country like Vanuatu. So what’s the solution? To pursue building codes with modern materials that are akin to New Zealand’s or better? Or to rely more on traditional housing techniques that use thatch and timber on forms that historically have weathered Pacific style storms?
The answer is if we can’t build the building properly with modern materials, then use traditional. So that means far, far fewer buildings with corrugated iron for instance.
All I’m pointing out here is that where there is a clash of civilisations as there most certainly is in the Pacific Islands world, replicating New Zealand style solutions can more often than not do more harm than good and serve the purposes of someone apart from the recipient. Providing effective development and social aid requires the genuine full participation of the recipient community. Too often the agents involved have another agenda.