New Internationalist

It’s Ideas And Beliefs That Bind Melanesians Together To Content The Orthodoxy Of Development

Issue 296

More powerful than guns

It is ideas and beliefs, says Nicholas Faraclas, that bind Melanesians (the people of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands) together to contest the orthodoxies of 'development'.

George used to be a member of a criminal gang in Port Moresby. Now he conducts theatre training throughout Papua New Guinea (PNG) for a network involved in popular education. Before joining the movement for critical literacy he never felt confident enough to speak out in public. Recently, however, George designed a piece of theatre to be enacted during a World Bank-funded seminar on 'Poverty Alleviation in PNG', which was held in one of the most exclusive hotels in the city.

During the session, where non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were supposed to put on a show of gratitude, George and some other activists presented the meeting with piles of food from local gardens, saying: 'We are not poor. The World Bank doesn't alleviate poverty, it creates it. The best thing that the World Bank could do to relieve the suffering of Papua New Guineans would be to cancel the debt and get out!'

When critics of 'globalization' confront the World Bank, they are immediately challenged to produce an alternative. The Bank is then asking them to replicate the relations of domination that keep communities from devising and implementing their own ­ no real alternatives could ever be designed by the Bank, programed by governments, brainstormed in the headquarters of Big International NGOs (BINGOs) or even collectively formulated by local NGOs. The only real alternatives involve processes of critical, radical and transformational community awareness, analysis and mobilization ­ not ready-made solutions to unanalysed problems.

Several NGOs with financial-management problems have put aside their scruples and taken money from the World Bank nonetheless. Most of the money that is not misused outright will go into 'alternative income generation', which usually means setting up individuals (mostly young men) as entre-preneurs, who will then become the local dispensers of beer, abusers of women and silencers of critics.

L O C A L

The most urgent issue isn’t whether people eat oranges in cold climates or apples in hot ones, but whether food travels thousands of kilometres when it could be produced within a 50-kilometre radius. The goal of localization is not to eliminate trade but to encourage diversified local economies.

In the North, massive subsidies sponsor largely ‘globalized’ corporate interests. Similar sums spent on local initiatives would create more jobs, improve the environment and distribute resources more equitably. Shifting subsidies away from industrial agriculture to smaller-scale, more diversified farming would promote biodiversity, healthier soils and better food.

In the South, a decentralized, renewable-energy infrastructure would strengthen the economies of villages and small towns. The best land is taken over by cash crops for export when diversified production for local consumption would improve food security and help to reduce absolute poverty. Enormous educational benefits flow from local-language and location-specific knowledge adapted to the bio-region and culture, reversing the sense of inferiority imposed by ‘Westernization’.

There is no country in the world where larger amounts of money are spent and raised by local rather than central government – so there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Source: Helena Norberg-Hodge, ‘Shifting direction: from global dependence to local interdependence’, in Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith (eds), The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1996.

Local versus central.

For those who have managed to avoid the 'alternatives' trap the development establishment has reserved its last, desperate weapon. It claims that popular education has no basis in the present, only in some Utopian dream. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Drawing its strength from indigenous Melanesian ways of 'reading and writing the world' ­ that is, analysing their realities and creating new ones ­ this movement has played a leading role in mobilizing communities across the region to mount a significant challenge, from which the rest of the world could learn much if it cared to pay attention.

One of the 27 points in the 'policy matrix' which the World Bank and IMF are attempting to impose on Papua New Guinea requires that land registration be completed in two of its most populous provinces. In July 1995, a national coalition of community groups, women's organizations, human-rights activists, popular-education workers, labour unions, students and church groups arose to challenge the 27 points. Besides land registration, these 'points' require the ending of price controls, a freeze on wages, increases in health and education fees, and the abolition of the minimum wage (currently three dollars per day).

The unrest culminated in a massive march to Parliament House in Port Moresby. Government ministers were in disarray. The Minister for Lands promised to end all work on any new legislation regarding the registration of land. A public statement by the Prime Minister to this effect was published in all of the daily newspapers a few days later.

In Melanesia over 1,500 languages are spoken by at least that many different ethnic groups. Each of these groups constitutes a society distinct from the others in countless ways. But there are some things that unite them. In general, they have shunned the extreme accumulation of wealth, striven for collective decision making and recognized women's power over their own bodies. They have used an economy based on subsistence to create abundance. None has opted for the nuclear family, straightjacketed sexual roles or profit making.

Most importantly, they have maintained control over their own history, their means of dealing with problems in the present and their vision for the future. The critical and democratic resolution of problems by communities has been the norm rather than the exception. These incredibly significant achievements have been attained by each society in its own unique manner, without forced assimilation or conquest.

When people believe in themselves and the power that lies within them, nothing can stop them. Because it encourages people to 'read and write their lives' popular education and critical literacy are more dangerous than guns. Guns do not change relations of power ­ beliefs do. Melanesians are powerful because they have never accepted domination and they, among all of the peoples of the world, still believe that they deserve to control their own lives. The battle over alternatives must be inspired by a reawakened memory that things do not have to be this way. Until we consider alternative pasts it is useless to talk about alternative futures.

When we remove the blinkers, a vast and almost limitless array of possibilities opens itself up before us. This is the sense of possibilities that has allowed the indigenous peoples in Melanesia to develop and practise thousands of different, equally effective systems of democratic decision making, of wealth redistribution and of negotiating equitable relations between the genders. This is the future that we can all reclaim, if we only dare. *

Nicholas Faraclas teaches at the University of Papua New Guinea.

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