Pushing Pebbles

Last week’s column dealt with the frustration one sometimes feels about the slow pace of change here in Vanuatu. Communications and access to information are fundamental to all aspects of life, and the challenges that we face here make the task of achieving universal access to even basic resources a very difficult one indeed.

Telecom Vanuatu, the government and other important stakeholders are all working very hard to implement a new telecommunications strategy. This includes far wider mobile service coverage and a much more open and competitive environment. These first critical steps are to be applauded, of course. We all look forward to the coming improvements in service.

Notwithstanding these significant changes, a great deal remains yet to be done. The good news is that an improved environment will make all the small steps to follow easier, and in some cases, possible for the first time in Vanuatu’s history.

The process of opening up the telecommunications market in Vanuatu has been a long one, and will go on for years to come. It would be instructive to take a look at how all this came about.

The idea of a liberalised telecoms market has been circulation since the days of the Comprehensive Reform Programme. In late 1999, government officials approached the World Bank to ask for assistance in understanding the issue. In 2001-2002, the World Bank finally responded and began discussions with the government of Vanuatu. They agreed to fund a research into the two major utilities in Vanuatu. It wasn’t until 2004, however, that the study results were finally presented at a public conference in Port Vila.

The recommendations that resulted were taken on board by the government, and after some consideration, they began, slowly and carefully, to position themselves in such a way that a smooth transition between the old monopoly regime and an open telecoms market might be managed.

It took some careful navigation. As shareholder in TVL, the government had to make sure that any changes to its monopoly status would not end up irreparably damaging the company. As guardian of the public welfare, it had to take steps to improve the communications landscape.

These concerns are not mutually exclusive, of course. But convincing a monopoly provider that they need to make room for competition is reminiscent of coping with an only child when their first sibling is born. It requires tact and patience, but ultimately the older child realises that the family is better for the addition, and that his sibling can actually be an ally in some cases as well.

The process is far from complete. Over the next year or so, we’ll probably see telecommunications rolled under the auspices of a new Utilities Regulatory Authority. There will be a great deal of work done to understand how everything needs to fit together, and what the precise roles and responsibilities of the various players will be in ensuring that the average person in Vanuatu has access to affordable, high-quality phone and Internet services at all times.

We have every reason to feel confident about future prospects. As we’ve seen, this new policy is actually the result of actions dating back over eight or nine years. It’s crossed the desk of countless different governments, ministers and civil servants. It’s been batted about between Port Vila, Washington, Canberra and other world capitals. It’s been passed from hand to hand by a long succession of people, all of them devoted to seeing it through.

Given the time and the number of people involved, one is prone to wonder how it ever managed to come this far. Why did it succeed, when countless other great ideas have been lost in the tumult of non-confidence votes, cabinet shuffles, elections and constant political manoeuvring?

One long-time observer of Vanuatu politics likes to explain it in terms of what he calls ‘policy stability’. Governments and ministers may come and go – and in Melanesia this seems to happen all too frequently – but as long as the people currently in power can agree on something, policy can remain stable and consistent. There’s not a person in Vanuatu who doesn’t want better phone and Internet services in Vanuatu, so maintaining policy stability around this issue hasn’t been too hard to achieve.

We should take another lesson from this story, too. While we do occasionally encounter individuals who achieve great things, as often as not large-scale change happens in tiny bits rather than all at once.

Imagine if you will a great sand dune populated by ants. Some of the ants believe that the shape of the dune has nothing to do with them. When the wind blows and the sand shifts, well… there’s nothing to be done. Just dig out the door to the nest again and get on with life.

But there are others who want to change the shape of the dune on which they live. Some of them imagine that they can change everything if they can just organise others. Some of them ascend to the summit and order the other ants about. Sometimes this works to the betterment of things, sometimes not.

Yet there are others who know that no individual, even with an army of backers, is going to make significant change in a day. And the wisest of them observe how leaders come and leaders go. They watch the movement of the others, and try to guess which particular grain of sand, which particular pebble will be the one that results in the landslide that will transform everything.

The landslide that is about to happen is the result of dozens of such hard working ants. We recognise some of the most prominent promoters of this policy. Without them it would not be possible. But there are dozens of others who have toiled for years, unremarked by others, pushing pebbles here and there, making this singular moment of change possible.

The first big changes to the telecommunications landscape are fast approaching, and to many it will seem that things just magically transform themselves overnight. It’s important therefore to see this process for what it is: the result of years of cooperation, understanding and determination, shared by dozens of individuals, each of whom pushed their particular pebble a few inches this way or that.

We all play a role in making things better. This lesson is probably better understood in Vanuatu than in other countries where we pay lip-service to the idea of community involvement, but don’t often participate in any real way.

Seeing the world as a place full of pebbles to be pushed is a powerful thing. More to the point, though, it’s the kind of perception we need if we’re really going to take advantage of the possibilities created by access to information – especially the Internet.

This writer has stated repeatedly that the community spirit is alive and well on the Internet, and the fact that Vanuatu society is designed to work in very similar ways gives us a tremendous head start. Let’s never forget that every aspect of communications – from policy to pay phones – is within of our reach. We simply need to use the community-building tools that already exist to push our individual pebbles a little further on.