Yesterday evening the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) convened a meeting, open to its entire membership. The purpose was for the Chamber’s council to hear from members about how their businesses had been affected by Cyclone Pam and what business owners felt was required, whether from government or donor partners, in order for them to rebuild.
Some of the issues that were discussed will be mentioned in future items that I am working on with Matthew Dornan of the Development Policy Centre.
Here, I want to put forward that an event like Cyclone Pam serves to highlight issues that were pre-existing before March 13th and possibly create opportunities for new ways forward, not only in the immediate response period but further into the future.
State-business relationships (SBR) are not well-established in Vanuatu, as is the case elsewhere in the Pacific island region. In terms of state building, the relationships between government and the business community do not necessarily receive a lot of attention but they are a crucial part of building and maintaining a state that is transparent, responsive and able to maximise opportunities to deliver services and promote development of the whole population.
Rather than examine the reasons for why this relationship is under-developed, I will focus on why it is important that it be enhanced and developed further and how the impact of Cyclone Pam creates opportunities for ‘building back better’ in this regard as in others.
Why are SBR important? Members of the business community are often affected directly by changes in government policy and their employees may also be affected indirectly. This means that the business community is an important constituency for government to proactively engage with when contemplating introducing new initiatives or modifying existing ones.
In countries with limited resources, private sector operators may be well placed to assist government with service delivery activities whether by way of co-financing or providing in-kind contributions such as logistical support. A bedrock of strong SBR provides the basis for these types of partnerships to evolve and flourish.
The private sector in Vanuatu is growing with more and more ni-Vanuatu people entering into businesses in many sectors. They have clear objectives that they want to achieve and strong opinions about what they think government can and should do to support them in achieving their goals. Mechanisms and processes that help to develop and strengthen SBR allow for private sector interests to be aggregated and formulated in ways that are of benefit to policy makers. They also provide opportunities for government to keep this key constituency informed about what is or is not happening and allow for expectation management on both sides.
Opportunities to ‘build back better’
We have already seen, and it was reported at last night’s meeting, that members of the private sector have joined with government agencies to work firstly within the humanitarian response phase and, more recently, to support the conduct of the Post Disaster Needs Assessment [pdf]. This joint activity should contribute to improving understanding on both sides and removing mistrust that may exist and lead to relationships that are more collaborative in nature for the future.
Vanuatu is a small country with limited resources and there are opportunities for policy makers in government to access expertise from within the business community to support their work. There are many retired public servants who are now working in the private sector who are well placed to assist with the development of policy in key areas such as fisheries, agriculture, infrastructure and more. The private sector is home to people who have expertise and experience in many areas often bringing with them examples of initiatives and projects that have been used in other countries. This is knowledge and expertise that government should be able to harness to inform policy development and implementation.
There are a number of aspects to how to support the development of better SBR in Vanuatu. The VCCI is a key component in this and has been working to establish more and better relationships with government, including by participating in the consultations on a National Sustainable Development Plan during 2014. But there is more to be done, especially in extending the reach of the organisation beyond Port Vila and Luganville and ensuring that the Chamber’s agenda is not (or is not perceived to be) dominated by the interests of one particular sector or individual business entity/owner. The VCCI requires extra resources in order to deliver on its mandate and play its part in promoting pro-development SBR in the future.
Both government and business need to be able to engage in a ‘safe but challenging’ space where differences of approach are acknowledged and accommodated within a wider purpose of working together to recover and rebuild. Policy makers need to be able to reassure business owners that commercially sensitive information will remain confidential. They can invite the Chamber and/or individual members of the private sector to contribute to the policy-making process in ways that are respectful and mindful of the constraints that business owners operate under when extending those invitations. The business community (via the Chamber and other peak organisations) needs to frame its approaches to policy makers in ways that promote dialogue and mutual endeavour. They need to be cognisant of the constraints under which policy makers operate and seek ways to inform government about what they can offer as well as what they want.
On both sides there are opportunities to grow pro-development relationships that are based on mutual respect and conducted assertively.