By Dirk Jena
Women showcase their handicraft. Dirk Jena suggests an economic system which places people at the centre and thereby protects their natural talents and resources. Picture: SUPPLIED/UNFPA
IN November last year, the Pacific Institute of Public Policy chairperson Nik Soni wrote, “We need economic policies that are tailored to our individual needs” in a paper where he argued that blanket application of modern economics cannot work for our ocean of islands.
This view is increasingly popular after four decades of attempting to move our island nations beyond the “developing” stages. Most of our islands are now punctuated with some of the main causes of chronic breakdowns of our global megalopolis: reckless urbanisation, mass production, heavy capital investments (destroying irreplaceable natural resources), centralised planning (usually devoid of resource owners’ concerns), increasing household debts etc.
Centralised decision-making and development planning contribute to the fragmentation of traditional structures and social capital which, without an alternative economic system to support its organic operations, collapses and forces villagers, hopelessly dependent on the market economy, to abandon their homes to seek new beginnings and livelihoods.
The renowned economist Ernst Schumacher predicted these impacts by modern economics. He supported smaller enterprises which utilised people’s talents while they provided for their families, on a scale that allowed for the recovery of natural resources being used.
Humanity has always worked better in groupings, which is why such age-old ways as practised in iTaukei villages for example, could realistically be used for development planning and implementation. Such understandings complement very well concepts like the Integrated Household Resource Management (IRHM) which already espouses shared responsibility for the benefit of all.
If this approach was then to be supported by an appropriate economics, the reporting slate of development effectiveness in our region could be very different.
For example, if we were to treat handicrafts as capital as opposed to merely an income then weavers would be more protective of the natural material they use, more efforts would presumably be made to protect indigenous knowledge of these practices and the mother-tongue would be appropriately (re)valued as vessels of such knowledge.
However, the dependency caused by the wisdom of contemporary economics is threatening such indigenous knowledge and skills which could be easily dismissed without an honest attempt at trying it as an alternative development approach: all for the ‘privilege’ of being part of the global economy.
Schumacher’s economics of ‘small is beautiful’ places people at the centre of economics and thus development, as opposed to treating them as statistics.
He was not alone: Gandhi preached the empowerment of village-based artisans which would ensure a solid foundation that would then support national development. He believed the poor could not be helped by mass production but by the production of the masses.
“Why care for people?” Schumacher asked. “Because people are the primary and ultimate source of any wealth whatsoever. If they are left out, if they are pushed around by self-styled experts and high-handed planners, then nothing can ever yield real fruit.”
* Dirk Jena is the director and representative of the United Nations Population Fund Pacific sub-regional office.