Let’s make Vanuatu the land of ‘getting stuff done’

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post, June 9th 2017

During the week, I was chatting with someone who had recently been working in Papua New Guinea. She was telling me how some provincial government officials laughed in agreement when they heard PNG referred to as the ‘land of planning and policy’.

It is certainly something I notice about PNG. There are (it seems) weekly announcements of policies, roadmaps and frameworks being launched. All of them require workshops, stakeholder consultations, drafts and revisions.

There is no denying that devoting time, energy and (most importantly) thought to big questions is an important and useful exercise. Questions like, ‘what do we need to grow our economy’, or ‘what skills will our workforce need in the next 20 years?’ Well constructed, evidence based policy can provide very useful guidance to how public money is spent and resources deployed to improve the way things are done in our country.

But a policy document is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. I recently reviewed a document in which someone had written ‘this framework achieved…’ My response (after banging my head against a wall) was ‘frameworks do not achieve things, people do’.

And there in a nutshell is my concern with an over emphasis on policies, frameworks, roadmaps and so on. It is too easy to think that developing these things is a primary activity. Rather than a precursor to actually getting stuff done.

Getting stuff done is, of course, not as easy as it sounds. But it is in the extent to which stuff does or does not get done that the rubber really hits the road when it comes to policy. If the investment in developing policies does not deliver an appropriate return in stuff getting done then it becomes increasingly hard to justify it.

I think there are a few tricks to getting that return on investment. And we have lots of opportunities in Vanuatu to make use of them (and others) to cultivate a culture of ‘getting stuff done’.

The first is about linkages. Policy documents need to be linked vertically and horizontally. During the recent launch of new policies by the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), the Commissioner of Labour commented that these policies need to be linked to the National Sustainable Development Plan. Quite so. The ‘People’s Plan’ is or should be the foundation document for all policies in Vanuatu, whether developed at ministerial or sectoral level.

Policies such as those launched recently by MOET also need to be linked to a national human resources development strategy. This is something we do not yet have in its fullest form. It needs to be future focused and include an analysis of the skills we will need in the private sector as well as in government. It needs to be linked to how technological and financing changes will affect our economy and our country as a whole.

Another important aspect of getting a return on investment when it comes to policy development is translation. A workshop to ‘socialise’ (which is development speak for show and tell) a policy document is nothing like enough. Those who are going to implement the policy (i.e. get stuff done) need to be able to translate it into recognisable tasks and activities. Are they going to have to change certain procedures, or collect different data or work with different agencies? Or are they going to carry on doing things the same way as before?

It would be silly to think that the impact of a new policy document would or even should be evident overnight. It takes time for the impact of these things to become apparent. But eventually, someone needs to ask the ‘so what’ question. I ask this question a lot, and it often makes me quite unpopular. So what if you have a policy or a framework or a roadmap? More importantly: how has that improved your ministry’s ability to deliver services to the population; how has it made your operations more efficient; how has it contributed to improvements in people’s everyday lives?

Don’t get me wrong, I think that there is a place for developing policy and it is an important step, whether at national, provincial, ministerial or departmental level. But spending time and energy developing policies gets you to the starting line. It’s getting stuff done that runs the race.


How Vanuatu’s culture can contribute to a diversified economy after Cyclone Pam

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.


Building back better: state business relations in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam

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.