The Wisdom of Crowds

The successful development of Vanuatu in this day and age is contingent on improvement in communications. In geographic terms, the majority of Vanuatu has little or no access to even basic communications services. In terms of population, the situation is better, but not by a lot.

We’ve known about this problem for a long time. We also have a very clear understanding of the limitations we face. Those of us who are devoted to solving technical problems in Vila, Santo and the islands have an intimate and detailed knowledge of the problems that can afflict us. Those working in development in more general terms have become adept at working around the shortcomings that poor communications place on us.

It’s clear as well that most – if not all – of the stakeholders in this game have some pretty clear ideas about how these problems can be addressed. It’s therefore difficult to understand why these issues continue to dog us as they do.

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Getting Out of the Way

I’ve got a friend visiting right now, a colleague of mine from my previous life in the world of software start-ups and corporate manoeuvring. For about as long as the World Wide Web has been around, we’ve been part of a community of explorers, people who defined the Web, extended it and made its strengths our own. From the mid 1990s through the so-called Dot-Com Boom, we had the sense that we were pioneers, marking trails across a new and exciting space. The frontier seemed to have infinite possibilities.

Human history shows us that after the explorers come the missionaries, and after the missionaries come the colonists. Carpet baggers, speculators, misfits and refugees seeking a better future away from the centre of things – these are among the first to arrive. Then come the homesteaders. Then come government, roads, taxes and schools. Before long, the landscape begins to look like the one they left behind.

In this version of events, those who get least mention are those who were there first. Those who, rather than shape the world in their own image, adapted to the shape of the world until it was impossible to tell where one began and the other ended.

This column’s purpose is neither to re-hash the history of Vanuatu nor to moralise about past actions. It is nonetheless useful to understand the shape of human trends, and to understand the forces that drive them. This is especially important because of Vanuatu’s nearly unique position as a country whose family- and village-based culture and ways have remained more or less intact.

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Network Effects

Let me tell you a story:

Sese is worried. Her son Kaltaso has his heart set on getting a new toy for Christmas. She’s not quite sure what it does, exactly, but it’s the latest thing overseas. At least, that’s what Kal says. He tells her all his online friends have them, that it’s really fun to link them on the Internet and play together.

The toy is expensive, but not too expensive. Sese has talked it over with her husband, and he agrees that it’s good for the boy to spend time online with friends from around the world. If this toy helps with this, then it’s worth it. But there’s a problem: It’s not for sale anywhere in Vanuatu, let alone here on Pentecost.

Sese knows that you can buy things online, but she doesn’t have a bank account yet, let alone a credit card. So she sends an SMS to her cousin-sister Lily in Port Vila, asking for help. Lily works as an administrator for one of the online banking operations that opened up after the fibre optic link was installed. She knows about these things.

Lily texts back, saying that she’s checked on eBay and found exactly what Kal wants, at about 30% less than anywhere else. She’ll just send the cash from her PayPal account. She knows Sese doesn’t have a lot of cash so she asks if Sese could send 20 kilos of kava on the next ship. One of Lily’s boys is going to be circumcised soon, so it will save her a lot of expense. Kava costs about 40% less if you get it straight from the island.

Sese checks with her family, then writes to Lily to say that she’ll put the kava on Wednesday’s ship. But Lily has to promise not to say a word to anyone. Kal chats online all the time with Lily’s second born son, and if he gets word about the gift, it will spoil the surprise.

This little story is fiction, of course. It’s a description of how things could be in two or three years, if we do just a few little things.

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