In a recent item, Joseph Cheer discussed the importance of economic diversification as part of Vanuatu’s long term recovery and future development. He argues (among other things) that Vanuatu’s economy has become too dependent on tourism, that the growth associated with this sector is not as inclusive as it could be and that what we offer tourists is not sufficiently differentiated from other Pacific island destinations to make longer term growth sustainable.

I agree that there is a need for increased economic diversification and Matthew Dornan and I will be looking at this in more detail in the next little while.

But there is one point that I will address here. And my thinking on this has been further informed by a recent article [pdf] by David Throsby in the Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies journal. In this article, Throsby argues that there are opportunities for Pacific island countries to draw on their rich cultural heritage for economic benefits as well as for social ones.

This is an area of policy development that has not been given a great deal of attention historically either by governments or by development partners. But as we seek to ‘build back better’ in Vanuatu, maybe the time has come to look at this issue more closely to identify the opportunities and challenges it presents. This conversation is one that has been underway at some time at the regional level, especially under the auspices of the Human Development Program of the SPC.

discussed some of the aspects of developing cultural economics last year with Dr Elise Huffer who is SPC’s Culture Adviser. Among other things, we talked about why this area of economic development did not seem to receive much attention at the level of government policy. Dr Huffer identified two aspects of what was needed to rectify the national policy deficit. First, there is the need for the ‘cultural sector’ to be more present in discussions that inform and frame national policy, whether through civil society groupings or through the formulation of national cultural policies by governments. Secondly:

is work that’s … having impact at the international level which is also about re-thinking GDP measures, rethinking well-being. And we know that culture in the Pacific is very important in resilience of communities and in people’s daily well-being. But that’s not something that’s measured. It’s not counted. So it tends to sort of drop off the radar when you’re talking about policy, when you’re talking about national budgets, when you’re talking about projects or programs being carried out in countries.

All 3 of these experts agree that for countries such as Vanuatu that have established tourism industries, there are opportunities to develop linkages between the ‘cultural producers’ and what is essentially a domestic export market. There are, it is true, significant risks that need to be identified and managed, including in relation to protection of intellectual property and maintaining cultural integrity.

But, drawing on cultural heritage and its expression whether through traditional means (dances, handicrafts, custom ceremonies) or more modern ones (Fest Napuan) is self-evidently a way of differentiating Vanuatu as a tourist destination.
Here in Vanuatu, we already have a number of ‘dots’ that lend themselves to being further developed and joined up to inform this aspect of economic policy in the future. They include the work that has already been done on the National Sustainable Development Plan during 2014, in which culture features as a pillar of sustainable development, the Tourism Ambassadors program which focuses on promoting locally produced handicrafts for purchase by visitors and the work of ACTIV which creates a supply chain for rural handicraft producers to sell their products to tourists who may not venture beyond Port Vila.

In his article, David Throsby identifies that no Pacific island country is a signatory to the 2005 UN Convention on Cultural Diversity. This, he argues, is a drawback:

Not only does this exclude them from the ongoing discussion on cultural policy development that parties to the Convention participate in, it also means that they cannot access assistance from the International Fund for Cultural Diversity that the Convention has established. In short there is a danger that Pacific island countries may not be able to realise their full potential for linking their cultural and economic development in the future if they are not adequately connection into ongoing policy developments in the international arena (p8).

Taking the step of ratifying the Convention and securing access to funding to assist in developing this aspect of the economy may be a part of how Vanuatu can ‘build back better’ after Cyclone Pam.


About Tess Newton Cain

With more than 20 years’ experience of living and working in the Pacific, I understand its needs, local customs, issues and challenges, and have built strong networks and productive relationships with policy makers, opinion formers, key institutions, private sector operators and development partners. If you are a development agency or NGO needing more and better information about the Pacific context for your work or a business looking to enter a new and unfamiliar Pacific market, I can provide you with the research, analysis and strategy you will need.

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