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Well-Being for Melanesia

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11 Sep 2012

Vanuatu Daily Post

Surveys and reports are not generally riveting reading. Here is an exception. “Alternative Indicators for Well-being for Melanesia” - a Vanuatu Pilot Study - is compulsive reading. It proves a lot of things we have suspected all along.

For example:
• 79% of ni-Vanuatu have access to customary lands (92% of those living in rural areas).
• 90% of ni-Vanuatu know their customary land boundaries.
• 88% of people feel they have enough or more than enough customary land to meet their needs.
• 95% of people with access to customary lands make their homes and grow food for personal consumption on that land.
And all that is just for a start.

The pilot study report “Alternative Indicators of Well-being for Melanesia” was launched at the Chiefs’ Nakamal on Thursday. The study is a joint report of the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs, Vanuatu National Statistics Office, and Vanuatu Kaljarol Senta (VKS). It has been greatly assisted by the Christensen Fund and Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and endorsed twice by leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

Jamie Tanguay, co-ordinator of the project to establish indicators for well-being in Melanesia, started his presentation by explaining the need to change the way progress is measured in Melanesia.

On the one hand, Vanuatu is regarded as a Least Developed Country (LDC). The broad criteria involved in being awarded LDC status are low gross national income: we are down at 141 on the World Bank’s latest listings. Then there is “weak human assets”. With a labour force of less than 100,000 and only 30% of the country receiving secondary education, we are definitely weak. And then there is economic vulnerability, and especially for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Earthquakes and natural disasters like cyclones also bring us down to LDC level. That said, LDC countries tend to be typified by war, genocide, disease, starvation, homelessness, pollution and lack of clean water. We have none of those.

And on the other hand, the New Economics Foundation and Lonely Planet have seen fit to describe Vanuatu as the ‘Happiest Country in the World’.
Jamie Tanguay emphasizes that for far too long economists have used income and expenditure patterns to paint a picture of a society’s well-being. “We have failed to develop an international standard for measuring well-being.”

He continues: Vanuatu is lucky. Because Vanuatu still has a vibrant traditional economy that has served it well for thousands of years. It has supported a population several times larger than the present one with enough healthy organic food for all men, women, and children, and continues to do so for most ni-Vanuatu today. It supported living conditions for extended family units – with housing, cooking and sanitation facilities – supported community organization by providing places for congregation and interaction, and continues to do so for most ni-Vanuatu today. The traditional economy is culture. It is how society organizes itself to provide for the livelihoods of its members.

Jamie Tanguay knows the Vanuatu economy to be different to one based on cash. It has been the task of his team of economists and statisticians to establish the values that count most in Vanuatu. They reached to the furthest corners of the country (where people are clearly mostly happier than their cousins in Port Vila and Santo). It was interesting that on the day before the study report was released, a VBTC lunchtime talkback had an elderly Efate man counselling listeners in outer islands to vote wisely. “No letem ol aelan blong yufala i kam olsem aelan blong mifala, Efate.”

Ni-Vanuatu decision makers, says Tanguay, “risk steering their country in a direction guided by Western values and not the professed Melanesian values they once vowed to uphold at the time of Independence.”

True Melanesian values were the basis of discussions amongst many groups, of people. These values went far beyond land and resource access. Cultural practice and community vitality were important. The outlook of women and church leaders had also to be considered. And ceremonial activity was also critical.
Jamie Tanguay mentioned policy implications and aspects of the methodology of the research, and many other interesting things in his address at the launch of “Alternative Indicators of Well-being for Melanesia,” but, and I quote Jamie:

Perhaps the most intriguing finding from this study on ni-Vanuatu well-being is that of TORBA Province, the northern most province in the country with the lowest GDP per capita and least access to effect the most “economically handicapped” and, coincidentally, the Province with the highest subjective well-being (or, happiness) of any other province by a significant amount. It is also the province with the highest perceived equality, highest levels of trust in neighbors, most positive assessment of traditional leaders, highest rates of community interaction, and the list goes on.

An extremely talented film presentation from the VKS production unit was shown at Thursday’s event at the Chiefs Nakamal. It is to be made available as DVD and made available for public viewings toward the end of September. It is important for us all to be reminded of how well-off Vanuatu really is. It is also important for us to be grateful. I believe all those attending the launch of “Alternative Indicators of Well-being for Melanesia” were particularly pleased with what they learned.

The PDF of the full report is now available for download through the VNSO website ( and the government website at and the raw data available for interactive use through SPC at

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