This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on May 26th, 2017
Over the last little while, I’ve had a couple of conversations with people in which the issue of geography has played a key part. In particular, how the physical geography of Pacific island countries affects development.
When we think about the ‘context’ of development in Vanuatu and other Pacific island countries, we often talk about politics, cultural structures, economic challenges, gaps in capacity and so on. But often the context of the physical terrain in which people are trying to work is overlooked. Until it becomes apparent that it can no longer be disregarded. Because it is there, in all its glory, getting in the way of what we are trying to do.
When I hear stories of how people had to walk for 20 minutes up a mountain to take books to a school or how their project was delayed because a road was washed out and they couldn’t get building supplies to a site I usually respond by saying ‘Good’.
Not that I wish physical hardship, delay and general frustration on people generally. My reasoning for thinking it is good to hear this type of report goes like this:
We often hear (especially from ‘donors’ of all types) that the reason development is slow or non-existent in rural areas is because of corrupt governments, lazy public servants, a lack of capacity, or a combination of all three. But the geographical realities of Vanuatu and many other countries in the Pacific island region mean that even if we had a perfect government and a public service filled with well-qualified and committed people, it would still be hard. Really hard.
Don’t get me wrong, getting rid of corruption and making government systems more efficient and effective will almost certainly makes things easIER. But it won’t make them easy.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that the geography, physical terrain and all that goes with it has. It affects the extent to which government can deliver services. It is a key factor in whether businesses can start and grow. It has a big impact on how communities access essential services. It affects planning, costs (hugely), staffing, and so much more.
For people who have never lived or spent much time in rural and remote areas, it can come as a shock just how much of an impact things like rivers, mountains, coastlines and volcanoes can have on getting things done. And that is before you add in the effects of weather. General weather brings its own set of circumstances to deal with and then there are the extra impacts specific events like cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides will have.
There are some indications that technological innovation can assist in overcoming some of the challenges. Vanuatu’s ‘Universal Access Policy’ envisages more than 90% of the population having access to broadband internet by the beginning of next year. Access to internet provides new opportunities in terms of how education, health and other services are delivered in hard to reach areas.
I’ve been at the airport in February and seen the boxes of books the Ministry of Education is trying to get to schools all over the country. It is a time-consuming and very expensive exercise. If resources can be delivered virtually using the internet that could be a real breakthrough.
There are also opportunities for government and donors to partner with private sector operators to overcome challenges of remoteness and difficult terrain.
One of the most important areas of partnership could be around knowledge sharing. If I were going to build a school in a remote area of Vanuatu, I would have whoever has built a shop or a resort in the same location as top of the list of people to talk to.
They will have really useful information about how to get materials to where they are needed. They are likely to know what skills are or are not available in the local area. This sort of knowledge, held in the heads of people who have already done this sort of exercise is worth its weight in gold. Or it should be.
The physical nature of our country is what it is. It is a source of many gifts, which we value greatly. It is also a provider of many challenges.