Alternative indicators of well-being in Melanesia

Posted: September 11, 2012 in Culture and traditions, Land, Pacific Ways, Vanuatu
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Via Vanuatu Daily Post

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 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.

In Vanuatu:
• 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.

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 more happy than their cousins in Port Vila and Santo). Nevertheless, 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.

“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 markets…in 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,” Jamie Tanguay said. “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.”

The VKS production unit have also made an excellent film which to be made available as DVD and made available for public viewings toward the end of September.

The PDF of the full report is now available for download through the VNSO website  here.


  1. The correct link to download the report is:

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