We’re cruising along 35,000 feet above the South Pacific, en route from Honiara, Solomon Islands to Brisbane and finally Canberra, Australia. The long flight offers a good opportunity to reflect on governance and accountability reform in the Pacific — what makes it easy, what makes it hard, and what makes it unique.
During the past two years, Global Integrity has had the unique opportunity to carry out national level assessments and Dialogue workshops in several Pacific island countries. In fact, I’d argue that we know a heck of a lot more about what’s going on with governance reform in the Pacific than the majority of multilateral donors, international NGOs, and expert consultants working on the issues.
I’ve personally had the pleasure of organizing workshops in Timor-Leste, Vanuatu, Solomons Islands, and Tonga, and my colleagues Raymond June and Jonathan Eyler-Werve led our efforts in Papua New Guinea last year.
What have we learned that’s unique to the Pacific? Here are a few things to chew on:
1) Wontok matters… but don’t exaggerate it.
Wontok — extended family and kinship relations basic on common geography and/or language — certainly drives much of the way society operates in the Pacific, especially in Melanesia. It acts as a default social safety net, filling a gap where government can’t provide basic services. Political leaders and senior civil servants often view their positions of authority as opportunities to distribute resources to their wontok, with the national interest taking a back seat to “delivering the goods” to ones family and hometown network.
While wontok is indeed abused in a corrupt way in many Pacific countries, I wonder whether or not we’ve gone too far in exaggerating the wontok effect as the fundamental driver of corruption in the region. There are a host of other compelling (and really big) drivers of corruption in many of the countries we’ve worked in recently — tit-for-tat competition between Taiwan and China; the role of multinational extractive industry interests; and good ole’ fashioned lack of resources and capacity, to name a few. So while the “wontok effect” should certainly be factored in when designing any accountability and transparency reforms in the Pacific, let’s not let it overwhelm (or over dilute) good ideas.
2) Capacity matters… it really, really matters.
This should go without saying, but until small islands nations (whether in the Pacific or the Caribbean) stem the “brain drain” and are able to consistently fill key government positions with well-qualified and highly educated professionals, none of the “best practice” reforms are going to take hold. Coupled with severe infrastructure challenges facing many of these countries, the capacity deficit looms large for these countries. The idea of implementing a world-class Freedom of Information law in, say, Solomon Islands, is just plain goofy when you look at the shortage of professional civil servants and the country’s crumbling (or non-existent) infrastructure. Where capacity is so weak, better approaches may be the implement less-than-perfect but still helpful partial reforms. In a country like Solomons, this could mean simple practices to make governmental decision-making public without passing an ideal FOI law.
3) The best prospects for governance reform globally may lie in the Pacific.
No, that is not a typo. Despite the massive capacity issues cited above, I come away from all of our work in the Pacific convinced that the prospects for short-term reform may be best in these small, close-knit countries. This is where wontok and the “everyone knows everyone” effect comes in quite handy. In larger, more complex countries — think Nigeria, the United States, Indonesia, or India — it takes years and years to get anything moving. In Tonga, a country of 110,000 people, you only need a handful of key decision-makers and civil society stakeholders to back a reform in order to jumpstart it. Rather than ignoring the Pacific as a backwater, international organizations should look towards the region as a ripe opportunity to accelerate reforms without the baggage typically encountered in larger countries.
— Nathaniel Heller
Image: Papua New Guinea, 2008. cc/by Global Integrity.
That's an interesting post. Like you, we are also doing our share in promoting "social accountability" in the region (East Asia & Pacific). However (this is the tricky part), since "social accountability" is a liberal invention, (O’Neil, Foresti & Hudson, 2007:40) i suspect, that it should also proceed from the same liberal entitlements or infrastructure, e.g. rule of law, respect for individual rights, private property, etc.
I suspect that since EAP is mostly young or emerging democracy, we still need to learn the ropes of how democracy works. Hence, the snags that we encounter in promoting "social accountability" in the region.
For example, in the Pacific ". . . strengthening social accountability mechanisms might in fact result in more violence, especially if communities seek to hold corrupt leaders to account (Haley 2008)."
In most of EAP also there seems to be ". . . a strong, rhetorical commitment to social order, stability and 'harmony'" (Wexler, Ying, Young 2006:10). Hence, "officially" there is no space for "protest", since you have to make the leaders "save their face".
Conflict, scandals including corruption seems to be treated as a family affairs. It should be dealt with within the government (family).
"I am giving you all these goodies, why do you complain? (the state as provider, much like a father as breadwinner)"
In the same manner, complaints or protests seems to be treated as an affront by leaders (Much like family does).
Social accountability also stems from the basic human rights of the person. In the "communal environment" of EAP this seems to be counter-intuitive. Since, the state or society should come first, where does "individuality" or "individual rights" come?
That's the conundrum we are facing, if you promote social accountability with government you might be held in suspect, for fear that it might undermine their power or the state.
On the other hand, if you promote it with individuals, there is no basis for it in their culture. For example "'advocacy' (changdao [倡导] and tichang [提倡]) in the Chinese language means "guidance by moral, political and intellectual authorities" (Ibid) which is quite contrary to the notions of advocacy as it is applied in the West as "activism" & "adversarial" (Ibid:9).
So where do we place our advocacy for social accountability within these contexts?
Thanks & more power.
But why would a Pacific islander after gaining "world class" qualifications in say UK, Australia or New Zealand return to their home society entrenched with the problems you outline, where the only realistic employment is in government agencies, and abuse of power is the only way to earn anything vaguely reflecting the sort of income which would be available to them by moving to Sydney or Auckland where many already have family connections. It is not just rugby players from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga who know their skills have an international market. Aid projects identify the best and brightest and fund their overseas education. It is a strong test of human nature after succeeding in corruption free communities to return to the Pacific where few would share your optimistic view that improvement can be effected.