Wellbeing trumps wealth in Vanuatu study

Updated 6 December 2012, 10:38 AEST

Money should not be the measure of how well the people in Vanuatu are coping with their lives according to a recent report.

Wellbeing trumps wealth in Vanuatu study (Credit: ABC)

The “Wellbeing in Melanesia” report uses statistics and the language of economics to show that people with very few resources can live happy and contented lives.

A similar study will be undertaken on Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea in the coming years.

The , tells Australia Network Pacific Correspondent, Sean Dorney that the report is one of the most important and interesting documents produced in the Pacific Islands this year.

Presenter: Sean Dorney, Australia Network Pacific Correspondent

Speaker: Kirk Huffman, Honorary Curator, Vanuatu Museum

HUFFMAN: Sean, it’s really interesting and really important. The report came out in September and its proper title is “Alternative Indicators of Wellbeing in Melanesia”. To put it simply: to try and show to economists that money is not what it’s all about, particularly in the Western Pacific. To try and show to economists that wellbeing, contentment, security of traditional land tenure, community relations are actually more important than money. Not only is it a study to try and clarify things for, at this stage, the Vanuatu Government and then for Melanesia in general but also to show to economists, you know, “Wake up! Get into the modern world and try and learn what it’s all about! Don’t just be focused on old fashioned subjects like GNP or GDP and just think that money is the answer to everything.” In Melanesia it’s not!

DORNEY: Who has been involved in this, Kirk?

HUFFMAN: This particular section comes under the Malvatu Mauri, the Vanuatu National Council of Chiefs with the Vanuatu Government National Bureau of Statistics and with funding from the Christiansen Fund. And there are other institutions that have been linked in – the SPC in Noumea. It includes an awful lot of people and an awful lot of organisations working with good will and focusing on things that are really important for Melanesians.

DORNEY: Could you explain some of those? What has the study shown?

HUFFMAN: Traditional lifestyles or modified traditional lifestyles actually give an awful lot of security and contentment. They are not poor! This is the mistake that economists make. They think, “Oh, they’ve got no money so they’re poor.” That’s wrong. The province in Vanuatu that’s got the highest levels of contentment and satisfaction and everything is Torba Province right up in the far north which is the area of Vanuatu that receives the least of various glitterati things or the bling things from the modern world. And that’s where the levels of contentment and happiness are actually the highest. It turns out that some of the most important things of course is land. Something like 92% of people surveyed have access, traditional access to land in Vanuatu. Now, here in Australia or the rest of the so called developed world you don’t get that high percentage of people who actually have land. They use the term in this report T-W-I – that Traditional Wealth Items: pigs, mats, yams, kava etc. Those are the things that Melanesians, at least in Vanuatu, regard as really valuable. And they’re used in traditional exchange. And they are actually in certain forms real money. These traditional wealth items in Vanuatu in this survey – 97% of Ni-Vanuatu have access to them. And out of that 97%, 66% have free access to all of these traditional wealth items and 31% have free access to some of them.

DORNEY: I remember back in Papua New Guinea at one stage a reference to people living in a traditional lifestyle – the description was subsistence affluence.

HUFFMAN: That’s it. Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you’re a Melanesian living on your traditional land and that is very fertile land as, for example, it is in many areas of Vanuatu, my gosh, you’ve got food coming out of the ground hitting you as it’s coming out of the ground. You’ve got food falling on top of you as you walk through the bush!

DORNEY: Kirk, what’s been the reaction to this Wellbeing Report?

HUFFMAN: Well, it only came out in September. It’s the first part of a long thing. I think from next year it’s being spread out to the Solomons and to Papua New Guinea to get them involved. And this is through the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Basically for many Pacific Islanders out there in the Western Pacific and for Ni-Vanuatu basically what it’s reporting on everybody out there knows. They already know this. What’s useful about this report is that for people who don’t know about this, people from the outside world, the economists and whatever that don’t know about this, for the first time they’ve got these sorts of things available in data form, in statistics, in the form of statistics and things like that. And, hopefully, those people, the economists, the aid people and stuff like that will actually read it and, hopefully, their minds will be open enough to actually say, “Oh! This is really important stuff!” In the English speaking world these sorts of things tend to be ignored. Everybody, unfortunately, in the English speaking world seem to be more concerned about money, bling, jobs and all that sort of stuff. It’s very different, interestingly enough, in the French speaking world. “The Alternative Indicators of Wellbeing in Melanesia Report” is already available online in the French speaking world. The French economists – it’s very interesting – French economists and French philosophers and thinkers picked up on it immediately. Absolutely immediately. And even though the report at the moment is only out in English it’s available on French websites that deal with important philosophical questions. The French speaking world is living in the Age of Enlightenment sort of period where there’s intense debate on philosophical questions of great importance. The English speaking world has lost that! The English speaking world is, sort of, unfortunately, become more concerned with just business, jobs and, you know, bling and various things like that.


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