By Howard Aru

Read the original publication

Just because people still manage to keep smiling doesn’t necessarily mean they are happy.

Hardship is eating and burning into a lot of people’s lives today. It is widely believed that smiling means a person is happy. However studies have shown this is not always the case. From a study reported by the BBC in April 2017, ‘of 19 different types of smile, only six occur when we’re having a good time. The rest happen when we’re in pain, embarrassed, uncomfortable, horrified or even miserable. A smile may mean contempt, anger or incredulity, that we’re lying or that we’ve lost.’

Today’s article focuses on the dual subjects of Joblessness and Unemployment, and what we can do to help alleviate these issues and put some genuine smiles back on our people’s faces. Our popular ‘Adviser’ at Trade has unceasingly reminded us of the need to ‘put money in the pockets of farmers’. I agree with him 110%. Not just farmers but the rest of the citizens of this country who are able to work but who are unemployed, who need to work, who want to work, but who aren’t given that job opportunity to work.

Jobs for the Unemployed

There are numerous competing interests in our country today, far more than there ever were. We tend to focus on the things that create visibility and which address the big picture, which is ok. But ultimately people’s lives, their livelihoods and wellbeing matter more. All they really care about is how they survive the next day, what food their children will eat tomorrow, whether those kids will have bus fares to go to school, whether they’ll have the money to foot medical bills when their children are sick, etc. For these they desperately need jobs. The VT20 markets are simply not enough. I say this having lived through poverty myself. How it feels, how embarrassing it is, the mental pain and how terribly bad it hurts.

I wrote a bit of my own story about all these back in February this year in an article entitled ‘Life is Hard: Study Hard, Study Well.’ I remember vividly well the afternoon I asked (i.e., begged!) grandma Margaret (my teacher) for a bit of money so I could purchase some kerosene to prepare for my Class 6 Leaving Exams. Today, at Yumi 41, we still have families around us who suffer these kinds of poverty. We say we care, and we say we are by them and for them, but maybe we aren’t so in the truest sense of the word?

Outcomes of the Inaugural Press Klab Blong Vanuatu

Hearty congratulations to VBTC and all its sponsors for organising the inaugural Press Klab Blong Vanuatu (PKBV) event on Thursday this week. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” This country is our country all together. So our voices are just as important as anybody else’s.

With honour I salute our country’s very first Head of State Ati George Sokomanu for the words of wisdom he shared at the event to guide and keep the country on track vis-à-vis the issue of citizenship. I also sincerely thank my colleague panelist and speaker, former MP and Minister – the esteemed Chairman of the Citizenship Commission Mr Ronald Wasal for his courage to be part of the panel given the very sensitive nature of the subject of discussion. Yes, there are risks to our sovereignty and independence, the negative international reputation, overdependence and sustainability, and implications on scarce resources, especially land. BUT the fact remains, these citizenship programs have provided a crucial lifeline and have been the lifeblood of an otherwise totally devastated economy since March 2020.

If not the citizenship programs, then what?

Pre-Covid, international tourism always attracted the lion’s share of the Government’s budget to the ‘productive sector’. Remember “Shared Vision 2030” of reaching 450,000 tourists by 2030? Yes, it was a very ambitious dream alright. But that dream has unfortunately turned out sour in March 2020. We then switched policy directions to Agriculture. The efforts have been great and progress to date commendable. But we must bear in mind, as economists will tell you, the fact that the rate of return on investment in farms and agriculture is generally slow compared to say agro-processing, though the latter is componded by Vanuatu’s comparatively high cost (and ease) of doing business – which will be the subjects of a major Investment Forum to be hosted during the first quarter of 2022.

Globally, Vanuatu has faltered and floundered in its Ease of Doing Business (EoDB) ranking. We dropped 48 steps from 59th place in 2010 down to 107th place in 2020 – this was actually pre-Covid. The elements of business referred to above concern both domestic and more so foreign direct investment (FDI). Dispite its inherent weaknesses and limitations, GDP growth is still important in our calculations of economic growth. GDP ‘is a monetary measure of the market value of all final goods and services produced within a specified time period, which is often annually.’ FDI is a key component of GDP. As such, we can very confidently argue, NO FDI = NO GDP GROWTH! How should this translate to how we treat FDI? I have written extensively on this subject in the past, so will leave the rest of the discussion till the 2022 Forum.

At the Press Klab event I used an analogy.

Analogy of the floating Boat

In a way our shattered economy has been like a small boat fuelled principally by revenues gained through the citizenship programs. We’ve been tossed to/fro in the midst of a vast, stormy and troublous ocean heavily inflicted by a global pandemic. Can you imagine what things could have been like had it not been for the revenues we’ve saved over the past few years from the citizenship programs? Untold chaos, anarchy? We watched protests and riots through our TV screens everywhere else in the world, yet we paraded and celebrated Yumi 40 in style for an unprecedented 9 consecutive days followed by numerous other events in 2021. Even yesterday, we marched again to mark our 2nd edition of the NZ/Vanuatu Expo and Fun Day!

Back to the boat analogy, two important challenges confront us. Firstly, an oversupply of fuel; and secondly, other missed opportunities with the fuel supplier.

Oversupply of Fuel: following the presentations made by the speakers during the PKBV event a question was posed, ‘Of the billions we have generated out of our citienship programs, how have our population in general benefitted from them?’ Chairman Wasal referred to a couple or so examples of areas where people have been supported. The broader issue for us to ponder as we refocus on plans for the New Year is, if only we could translate the windfall gains from our various citizenship programs to jobs for our thousands of unemployed fathers, mothers and youths in Vanuatu today, that would perhaps be the greatest justice we’ve done to them post-Covid.

Missed Opportunities from the Fuel Suppliers: a lot of our new citizens under the citizenship programs are extremely rich and wealthy individuals. Imagine if 10-20 of them actually invested in certain export-led enterprises in Vanuatu in 2022 and created on average 100 jobs each, this would reduce the massive unemployment in our country today. Are we innovative and determined enough to make this happen? If so, when? There’s so much more that we still need to follow up and follow through.

Howard Aru is current CEO of the Vanuatu Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (VFIPA) and former Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity, and the Ministry of Health.