As the economies of the South Pacific grow cultures across the region will change. It’s my view that, ultimately, this process of change will be a good thing.
This isn’t always an easy case to make. Crime rates, the transition from communally-held to privately-owned land and a breakdown of the traditional family structure may not appear symptoms of progress. Alongside the prevalence of vice, and health problems arising from an increased intake in processed food, the benefits of economic growth appear unsavoury to many Pacific Islanders.
But we should consider two areas where the social benefits of economic activity will disrupt and orient culture toward practical benefit.
Firstly, a greater individualism will grow in the South Pacific symbolised by greater economic liberty and the emergence of unprecedented professional opportunities. Across the region, for example, we see increasing numbers of young Pacific Islanders actively choosing to be participants in the free market economy. Mobile phone ownership is breaking records, supermarkets are crowded, maritime ports are working overtime and airports are busier than ever.
Expanded economic opportunities at all levels will drive curiosity, imagination, ingenuity, application and risk-taking – elements that Margaret Thatcher once described as ‘the attitudes which render a society more rather than less enterprising.’ Future growth in the South Pacific will see an increasing number of professionals injecting into new industries, pursuing their own cultural identities and securing new commercial and professional opportunities.
Secondly, we know from history that growing economies require cooperation among people of different groups, races and incomes. Social interaction on the free market helps to prohibit division and conflict.
In the international context Thomas Friedman famously made this point in his McDonalds Theory of Conflict Prevention, observing that no two nations with a McDonalds have ever gone to war against each other. When people trade and exchange they help to offset any chance of conflict.
This development is overwhelmingly positive. We know in PNG, for example, that the nation’s 800-plus cultural groups make consensus building and co-operation tediously difficult. The free market can be a great mechanism to ease cultural divisions in both PNG and across the Pacific.
Another benefit of free market growth is the elevation of merit and the potential alleviation of corruption. Economic growth, for example, will see an undermining of oppressive family loyalty as individuals demand the best person for the job (merit) over one being from the right tribe or kinship group (nepotism).
To be clear, combining the elements of growth, individualism and social cooperation does not mean completely leaving culture behind or escalating rampant materialism above all else. But it does, like all successful societies, mean finding a way for culture to interpret and advance in the modern world. As the Indian writer and politician Shashi Tharoor neatly records:
Without culture, development becomes mere materialism, a set of figures on GNP tables, a subject for economists and planners rather than a matter of people. And if people are to develop, it is unthinkable that they would develop without culture, without song, and dance, and music, and myth, without stories about themselves, and in turn, without expressing their views on their present lot and their future hopes.
Certainly, there are many current examples of successfully balancing culture and enterprise. The Hawaiian term Hapa, for example, means that everyone is part one thing and part something else with ‘a foot in two worlds.’ In the historical context Jews are a famous example of balancing cultural identity with thriving commercial success (in often harsh environments).
Returning to the South Pacific, however, it would be careless to say that where many cultures currently sit – between modernity and rigid cultural belief – is desirable. As Sam Koim, chair of PNG’s anti-corruption Taskforce Sweep observed in a speech in 2013, ‘the interface between the Western and Melanesian cultures has produced a new trend of behaviour that breeds bad leadership, poor governance and promotes corruption in PNG.’
Although undesirable this process appears an unavoidable part of economic progress. Even the most advanced economies, it seems, undergo a ‘social unravelling’. Francis Fukuyama, for example, in The Great Disruption, has shown that great economic leaps forward, like the United States from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, have come part-in-parcel with higher incidences of family breakdown, a scepticism of institutions, a decline in trust and an increase in crime.
But as Fukuyama and others point out, while norms and traditions break down, new ones regenerate and take their place. Again, the United States emerged from its social decline in the 1990s with new moral sensibilities as more tolerant, less absolutist and less grounded in traditional belief structures. Traditional values do not simply die out but reawaken and find a place within the new economic landscape. Elements of a good civic life – trust, a strong commitment to family and decent work ethic – have not simply vanished but, in the words of one writer, ‘come back into vogue.’
Many cultures in the South Pacific already place strong emphasis on family, contributions to society and friendships. Increasing numbers of young people across the South Pacific are already ‘walking in two worlds’ and mixing their unique cultural attributes with modernity and practical skills to prosper in a free market economy. A tolerable cultural environment will assist in this process of change in the coming years.
Stella Magazine, Issue 12, November 2014