My Contribution to the EU-UNDP SDGs Debate, March 23rd 2016, Suva, Fiji

EU-SDGs

I participated in the EU-UNDP SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) debate: Typologies of Pacific Poverty in Suva Fiji on the 23rd of March 2016. I specifically focused on current data from my research based on the financial ecologies of urban squatters in Fiji.

Financial Ecologies

Financial ecologies refer to the systems in which individuals make transactions between one another. They can be composed of a variety of methods of transfer such as post/transportation, face to face, mobile phones, bank transfers, Transfer Money Order (TMO) ect. Many of these methods can be operating simultaneously in Fijian kinship networks. Non-financial transfers also be considered such as traditional wealth items and produce. Financial ecologies are invariably mediated by social and cultural practices which determine meaning the transaction. They are not technologically determined by the method of transaction or the technological devise that mediates them.

I discussed how the financial ecologies of squatters networks often do not include formal financial services. I also argued that this does not prohibit the flow of money, produce, and traditional wealth items between them and their kinship networks across Fiji and internationally. Many of these flows are facilitated by the post office and travel followed by face to face meetings. There is also the use of gifting credit via the mobile.

I supported this with one example of a kinship network centered by a family living in a squatter community. The example showed money and resources flowing from family in the Middle East, to Fiji via family in Vanua Levu, to a squatter community near Suva, then to the Lauan Islands. Most of these transactions were done via Transfer Money Order (TMO). There was limited use of formal financial services. Traditional goods and produce flowed back the other way from the Lauan Islands.

Implications for the EU-SDGs

My closing argument was, do women and youth receive an equitable amount of resources in these financial ecologies? Are they able to exert any influence in these financial ecologies to access these resources? What practices are built into these financial ecologies that allow them to retain or accumulate resources?

2 of the 17 goals in the EU-SDGs include 5) Gender Equality 10) Reduced Inequalities. These are the two goals my research spoke to the most.  9) Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, however, also invariable shapes how financial ecologies evolve over time and the ensuing implications for those in squatter kinship networks.

 

I was honoured to be invited to the EU-SDG debate in Suva, Fiji, and I hope my contribution sparked some good discussion.

 

http://mobile-pacific.tumblr.com/post/142660639806/eu-undp-debate-on-sustainable-development-goal-1

Urban Squatters Reconnect with Rural Kin on Sandy Island

Boat Journey to "Sandy Island"

I have gotten many requests to post some of my data regarding my research over the last months. I am very appreciative to have an audience, whether it be in my own family and friend’s circles, or a wider group, which would like to know more! I have had trouble trying to post much of my research on this blog because my research is based particularly on one Fijian family that I am living with. Ethically speaking it is difficult to post material that will reveal the identities of my research subjects. It is also time consuming to adapt my academic reports especially for general consumption. As a solution I will be posting my academic reports that replace the names of my subjects, and remove any pictures that reveal identity or place. In these latest reports I went with my host father TOMASI and brother JONE to their island of origin in the Lau island group. I cannot reveal the name of the island due to its small size, but I will replace the Island’s name with SANDY ISLAND. Also replaced is my host father’s villages names, which will be named PATERNAL VILLAGE and MATERNAL VILLAGE based on where his parents were from. The urban squatter village that I am living in in Suva will also be called SUVA SQUATTER VILLAGE. Below is the first section of my latest research report. If I keep receiving positive feedback I will continue to post more sections in this same way. I hope you enjoy!! And of course suggestions are welcome!

Also in this report is the concept of dividuality which refers to one’s identity being made up of many different places and relationships. Think of “dividual” (referring to many and separate) being the opposite of individual (meaning one whole).

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Urban Squatters Reconnect with Rural Kin on Sandy Island

This section aims to ethnographically describe the practices between Tomasi and Jone, and their Sandy Island kin during a one month visit to the island. This will provide insight into the realities and challenges they faced as urban squatters maintaining their urban-rural kinship relationships. I will particularly focus on moments of disjuncture that occurred because of their differences in communication and exchange practices. Before detailing these moments at the end of this article I will firstly layout Tomasi’s and Jone’s motivations for going to Sandy Island. This is rooted in Tomasi’s desire to reconnect with his ancestral kinship ties and land. Jone is also going to the island as Tomasi regards his recent urban influenced behaviour as antithetical to traditional practice. I will secondly outline the system of communication and exchange practices that Tomasi and Jone have exhibited in the months in Suva prior leaving for Sandy Island. I will argue that these practices are derived from their urban and dividual identities and are not necessarily compatible with traditional Fijian practice. The context behind the trip to Sandy Island and an outline of their urban communication and exchange practices will help explain why these particular moments of disjuncture occurred which will lastly be outlined. This report will therefore describe the realities and challenges they face in establishing and maintaining urban rural connections

The Context of the Sandy Island Trip

When considering why Tomasi is starting to reconnect and visit his home island of Sandy Island, it must be put into context of his family migration history. Tomasi was born in Suva in 1968 (currently 48 years old). His father’s occupation was a chef on a ship, however he died in 1973. This caused the family to move to Sandy Island to his father’s, Paternal Village, in 1973. They stayed in the house of his father’s eldest brother, however Tomasi stated that the brother did not look after them properly. As a result they moved to his mother’s Maternal Village in the same year. According to Tomasi they were included more into the social landscape of Maternal Village than they had been in Paternal Village and as a result made meaningful kinship bonds. Despite this the family moved back to Suva in 1974 and eventually ended up living in a housing authority compound in Suva. His mother remarried in 1978 to a man of Solomon Island ethnicity. They eventually moved into the squatter community of Suva Squatter Village in 1989 which was barely 100m down the road from the housing authority compound. This was because the Church of England was starting a new church in Suva Squatter Village which was a congregation popular amongst Solomon Islanders. Tomasi however did not make this move with them because in the year prior he moved to the Lavuka on the island of Ovalau to stay with his uncle when he was 20 years old. He stated that he made this move because he wanted to explore. In 1990 he moved from Lavuka to Lautoka to attend the funeral of another uncle. He however stayed in Lautoka until 1994 working for a telecommunications firm laying cable. When he moved back to Suva Squatter Village in 1994 it wasn’t long before he built his own house, married Mere in 1995, and had his first daughter in 1997 and his subsequent children.

Present in this narrative is that Tomasi was not even born on Sandy Island but in Suva. Nonetheless he had a brief connection with the island in his childhood. It also includes the breakdown of the immediate family unit with the death of his father and the introduction of his step father, and his step father’s subsequent children. There is a period in his youth where he travelled Fiji, staying in other locations with other extended kin. And lastly he settled down in the squatter community of Suva Squatter Village. Whilst Suva Squatter Village has re-established traditional life amongst the network of kin that have settled there, as is common with urban settlements (Lindstrom, 2011), it has no traditional historical significance. Tomasi’s history suggests that his identity is comprised of a multitude of different kin and locations. I therefore contend that his recent efforts to reconnect with his kin and Sandy Island is to reconnect with the tradition of having kinship relationships being rooted in place of origin which he has only fleeting experience of. His reconnection with Sandy Island started in early 2015 when he visited the island for 4 months planting and harvesting with kin which indicated to me the desire to establish connection between kin and ancestral land. This reconnection continued with the latest visit in January 2016 for a month at my bequest and expense, and will continue in May or June 2016 where he will stay there for an undetermined amount of time.

The original plan for this Sandy Island trip was also to record Jone’s experience of being introduced into his paternal and maternal villages on Sandy Island. I was particularly interested in Jone because he had never visited Sandy Island or had direct experience with traditional norms and values rooted in place of origin. Furthermore he had exhibited a rejection of close family ties in Suva Squatter Village when I returned back to Fiji in September by being completely out of contact with them whilst living elsewhere in Suva. He was not rooted in any other particular place in the Suva Urban area, often jumping from one place to the other. He also at one point decided to visit Nadi for a week. It can be stated that Jone’s decision to be estranged from his family in favour of living a nomadic lifestyle exemplified a rejection, disregard, or ambivalence for maintaining kinship relationships rooted in place so important in Fijian tradition. Whilst Suva Squatter Village is  not a traditional village of origin, it is however a settlement that has refashioned kinship relationships in place as is often the case for urban settlements (Lindstrom, 2011). The context behind his inclusion in the trip was to introduce him to a traditional manner of living, in particular I believe to show him the value of maintaining kinship relationships connected to land. This is because rather than attending the high school in Sandy Island, the plan was also for him to join his cousins on the island and to work with them on the plantation, just as Tomasi had done in 2015.

He originally did not join Tomasi and I on the boat because it was planned that the rest of the family in Suva Squatter Village would be travelling to Savusavu for my host sister’s settlement in her husband’s village. That plan required Jone to look after the house while everyone was gone. This plan to go to Savusavu did not eventuate however and Jone joined us on Sandy Island two weeks after we arrived and is currently still there.

Urban communication and exchange practices of Tomasi and Jone

I will argue that the system of communication and exchange practices of Tomasi and Jone are informed by the dividuality of their identities across place and kinship network. This invariably affected how they interacted with their Sandy Island kin. For Tomasi, as I have described, has no long term connection to a particular place. I would even conclude that his connection with Suva Squatter Village is not one of great attachment. Suva Squatter Village for instance was a move instigated by his step father during a period of time when he was not even present. He has also not expressed any sentiment about leaving Suva Squatter Village, perhaps even permanently away from his wife and children for a new life on his ancestral island of Sandy Island. I would also argue that the current clearing of bush and crops on the outside of the village in preparation for the development of the community by the Suva Squatter Village Land Purchase Company weakens this connection even further. In recent activity, houses are starting to be teared down and moved within planned boundaries. I believe this emphasises the transience nature of the community, rather than the permanence of their plans. Tomais is however without question highly connected with friends and family all throughout Suva and wider Fiji. One cannot walk a few paces without talking with a relative that he once lived with, worked for, or hung out with earlier in age. Phone calls are received on a nightly basis from unidentified callers. In this regard I classify his identity to be one of high social connection, not dislocated completely from place, but dislocated from places with an established and continual meaning for him.

There was one particular moment on the boat before leaving for Sandy Island, which encapsulated his identity of social connection disembodied from place. Standing on the upper deck of the boat, waiting for it to leave, we were waving to his wife and younger children below. As they were waiting for the boat to leave Tomasi motions his hand upwards, a coin in hand. His son immediately recognised that Tomasi wanted to throw the coin down to him and came running to the end of the concrete platform. Tomasi threw a coin down to him three times which each time hit the concrete and ran off in an errand direction with his son chasing behind it. Some of the coins would roll into a crowded group of people also waiting for the boat to leave. The scene can be seen in the figure 1 below. This scene emphasised to me Tomasi’s social connections disembodied from space. Tomasi and his son were essentially already separated by water and would soon be separated by more when the boat decided to leave. The throwing of the coin as a means of communicating care in such a momentary and precarious position emphasised the insignificance of place and time in this moment.

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Figure 1: Tomasi throwing coins to his son from the boat

Jone’s communication and exchange practices are also derived from his forming dividual identity completely separated from a place of ancestral importance. As mentioned Suva Squatter Village has refashioned in some form kinship relationships located in a particular place, however it is still a location of questionable ancestral importance. His chosen estrangement from his kinship connections in Suva Squatter Village for a three month period, in favour of staying with friends for short increments, also exhibits a disregard or ambivalence towards these kinship connections grounded in Suva Squatter Village and place in general. I believe that Jone’s period of estrangement exhibits an experience of confusion of how to approach social connections in an urban environment. In Port Vila, Vanuatu for instance, it is recorded that youth are in a “confusion zone” living in an urban environment separated from places of origin and tradition, where new rules of interaction divergent from those embedded in tradition are being created (Kraemer, 2015). These new rules of interaction invariably include communication and exchange practices. His new urban systems of communication and exchange have been on full display since his return home in late November.

For instance, on Christmas day I decided to purchase for the children of the family a present each as a gesture that I was appreciative of their hosting, and wanted to be in a continual relationship of mutual obligation with the family. I decided to give Jone a new cap because he liked to wear them when he hung out with his friends in large groups. In general the opening of presents was not of great excitement to the openers, however Jone’s reaction to his present was especially muted. The day after Christmas his mother saw another youth in the village wearing Jone’s new hat. Jone had sold the hat to him on the afternoon of Christmas for $5. Later that afternoon Tomasi bought the hat back from the boy and lamented that Jone did not know the “value of the gift”, which indicated to me that he didn’t recognise, or perhaps consciously rejected, my intended gesture of maintaining a social relationship. This along with many other money motivated transactions including the sometimes hourly appeals of kerekere directed towards me, as well as the continual theft of coins from his siblings (which I have gone into detail in previous reports) were motivated in general to have money to gamble. I am convinced that the rejection of the gift and its subsequent conversion into gambling pocket change, along with incessant kerekere and theft, is derived from the practices he has learned from his experiences living with other youth while away from Suva Squatter Village. I recognised this particular money centric system which I hesitate to call exchange, and prefer to call a fetishism for pocket change. I had observed it months earlier while “hanging out” with Suva youth where he had seemingly learned these practices.

During a moment of sitting around in an abandoned house where Jone used to live with other youth, one youth took coins out of another drunk/hungover youth’s pocket without him realising. He immediately gave the coins to another even younger youth so that he could buy him cigarettes down the road. The youth then looked at me and said “we live out of each other’s pockets here”. The event did not create any resentment between the boy who stole the coins from behind the other’s back and the unsuspecting victim, rather I believed that the access to one another’s coins symbolised a certain solidarity, a shared hardship, but one that does not respect any sort of personal ownership. The fetishism of money through the selling of gifts, theft, and incessant kerekere, that he has learned whilst away from Suva Squatter Village in the confusion zone of Suva, are forms of exchange that are not aligned with traditional practice.

These particular urban dividual identity based communication and exchange practices exhibited by Tomasi and Jone caused particular moments of disjuncture between them and their Sandy Island kin. This is particularly evident with Jone who has not experienced how kinship relationships set in a fixed place of ancestral importance, nor whose motivation to come to the island was not his own but his father’s. It is also evident for Tomasi however, despite having being self-motivated to reconnect with traditional practices. These moments of disjuncture will show the difficulty of maintaining urban rural kinship connections, framed in the particular context of Tomasi and Jone.

Moments of disjuncture between urban squatters Tomasi and Jone, and their Sandy Island kin

Starting with Tomasi, I would like to make a comparison between him and the other men of his age in Paternal Village village. As one would expect from villagers they live and work around the village. However, according to Tomasi the villages of Paternal Village, Maternal Village, and Sandy Island Village 3, are the dominant land owning villages on the island with some other smaller villages with very limited land holdings. Tomasi’s particular clan is described by him to be a large landholding group but the land has not been worked by anyone of his clan for a long period of time before his arrival in 2015. Tomasi’s land holdings do not neighbour Paternal Village directly, rather they are somewhat outside of Paternal Village. His land by the coast is still quite accessible from the village however he has decided not to plant there because a cow is roaming in the area and digs up planted crops if they are not fenced. Rather he prefers to plant crops on his other more inland segment of land which from Paternal Village is over a large hill in the centre of the island. This makes it difficult to access from Paternal Village directly. His strategy in farming has therefore been to live in his Maternal Village and take a relatively low lying path from Maternal Village, rather than the hilly road from Paternal Village to work his land. When he was in Sandy Island in 2015 he worked in a group with other members from his maternal village along this path. Jone will be working with this same maternal kinship group and planting on this same paternal land.

I do not contest the practically of Tomasi’s working arrangements. It is much easier to travel from Maternal Village to his paternal land via this path. I also do not contest that the nature of Tomasi’s temporary migration to Sandy Island so far would make it difficult to maintain fenced plantations on this coastal area of land. I however also don’t believe it is a coincidence that Tomasi has chosen to live and work primarily with his maternal kin. In-line with his migration history he has a greater connection to kin in Maternal Village which is evident in my observations. His work group relationships with his cousin 1 and 2 are ones of continual joking. During his 2015 visit, Cousin 1 in particular looked after Tomasi not only in terms of providing meals in his kitchen, but also giving advice with how to interact with other villagers. This particularly included advice not to eat with specific individuals who may conduct sorcery on his food in order to do him harm as a new comer. Tomasi’s  maternal village has also been described as a place where he is able to “take everything”, which is inherent in the sister’s son relationship (Hocart, 1915). Tomasi’s kinship relationships in Paternal Village however are of a different nature. Historically speaking the Paternal Village hierarchy have only recently encouraged him and others to live back in the village. This is because many of his older brothers and other family members of his clan living on the island have since died leaving the land unattended. This has led me to believe that his kinship relationships in Paternal Village are formal in nature, of which the formal contract is still fresh.

It is hard to theorise whether the context behind Tomasi’s arrangement to work his paternal land with his maternal kin is a personal decision informed by his dividual identity, or is a result of it. It is however unquestionably involved in the context despite the logistics of travel to his paternal land from Paternal Village. The continuance of this arrangement of living amongst his maternal kin while working on his paternal land emphasises his continued dividual identity. One in which the strongest social relationships are not connected to ancestral land. In this way my interpretation that Tomasi’s decision to migrate either permanently or temporarily to Sandy Island in order to reconnect with traditional kinship relationships embedded in land has its challenges due to continued separation of the two.

Jone’s moment of disjuncture with his Sandy Island kin was much more distinct than Tomasi’s and occurred on the very same night of his arrival in Paternal Village. My journal entry on the 28th of January describes this particular moment.

During dinner at Cousin 3’s house, Cousin 3’s very young daughter found a pre hand rolled cigarette on the floor and held it up to show her mother. The mother called “mai” as in to come and give it to her. It was most likely hers as I have seen her roll many beforehand. On the infants long slow journey to her mother Jone intercepted her, grabbed the cigarette out of her hand. The mother’s outstretched hand dropped. Jone then went over to the fireplace, took a piece of wood with some embers on it, put the cigarette to his lips and lit it. He then sat down against a wall in the house and started smoking it. There was an unmistakable silence and awkwardness in the room. I looked over to Tomasi and saw him mutter under his breath “Jone…” in an embarrassed way. The next day when Tomasi and I were alone I asked him about the incident. His response was that he “pulled” the cigarette “city style”. It has not been the first time I have heard the term “pull”. It has also been used with regards to my host mother “pulling the clothes”, it has also been used in gambling such as “he pulled all the money”, when somebody takes all of the winnings from the pot. The term pull seems to signify the acquisition of money or objects of value under circumstances of luck or opportunity.

The pulling of the cigarette without regards to the ownership of that cigarette, and that he pulled it as the opportunity presented itself much like the theft of a coin aligns with the practices exhibited amongst Jone’s friends in the abandoned house, and in Jone’s actions when he came home in November. As previously stated he is currently living in Maternal Village and his working on the plantation with Tomasi’s maternal kin, particularly Cousin 1. I have plans to return to Sandy Island in the final stages of my research to see how his relationship with his kin on Sandy Island develops, particularly how his communication and exchange practices evolve whilst amongst others who hold traditional practices.

Fieldwork Journal: The Double Edged Sword and Village Hopping

Village Hopping

Picture Caption – Village Hopping: The colourful open air buses that connect surrounding villages to Suva city.

This article will focus on the last two days in Fiji which provided an abundance of experience. The first, recounted in the story The Double Edged Sword below, outlines how Joni enticed money out of me in the same manner the infamous sword sellers of Suva entice money from tourists; by appealing to a sense of friendship, and the promise of a “gift”. The similarities of the methods used start to reveal that the conceptual frames of youth are guided by the environment of the informal market, and that this in turn, guides their everyday practices. The second story, Village Hopping, will recount my experience of visiting the kin of the family I had gotten to know during my short stay in Fiji. It will recount how taxis and buses were taken from village to village, whilst revealing variations between these villages. This story will help designate how kin across different villages in the broader vicinity of Suva keep in contact across a diverse landscape. It will help provide an initial outline of a system of Fijian communication and transportation for which mobile money will need to be positioned. As always, all identifying information such as names and places will be obscured in these stories as required by ethical guidelines. Suitable alternative names will be used. To read how I came to be introduced to the family and community portrayed in these stories, you can read my previous article here.

The Double Edged Sword

I was sitting in my hotel, late afternoon, two days before my departure from Fiji, reading the newspaper, and relaxing before the day of the big lovo (a big feast of traditional Fijian vegetables, and perhaps some meat, cooked in an underground oven). The lovo had been organised by members of the village I had come to know over the previous two weeks, specifically for the last day of my stay in Fiji. It was framed as a big send off, the climax of my stay, so that I would have a true last authentic experience of Fijian culture. I thought back to how the idea was hatched during my very first meetings with Joni, the boy who I had met in a cafeteria selling bananas. He had stumbled across me eating Indian curries for lunch and, in addition to selling his bananas, felt compelled to advertise the various Fijian food stalls in the cafeteria. From this, our earliest conversations were about the pleasures of eating traditional Fijian food, especially that of food cooked in the lovo, with him as an animated describer and me a passive but attentive listener. Ever since these first days, the idea of the lovo was a much talked about, and even informally advertised event in his village for my last day in Fiji. As the plans progressed throughout my stay, it was supported by various authority type figures in the village. It was especially lauded by my “Fijian Nana”, a women that I felt had great gravitas in the village not only by the relative quality of her house, but of the attentiveness of the boys to her commands and actions. The village boys were also very much looking forward to it as they relished the opportunity to do the cooking. I was very much looking forward to the lovo as it signified to me a notion of my own success. I had un-expectantly found myself a research community that wished to throw me a traditional send off. I thought, in this particular moment, that it was the time to relax, a sort of time of self-congratulations before the big lovo. I was unaware that some of the most useful insights from the trip were yet to come.

Obviously I was not expecting any contact with anyone from the village so I was surprised when the phone rang with Joni’s number appearing. I answered and his hush quietened voice came through the receiver as is typical of most Fijian calls. Whilst it was also typical, as far as my two week trip could tell, that Joni would call and make unexpected requests to meet, or sudden changes of plans, his request to meet immediately in Suva in the late afternoon did seem somewhat out of place. Most calls would be in the evening or in the morning, sometimes extremely early, in order to make plans to meet during the day. He told me that he wished to go shopping for some supplies for the lovo and that he required some help. I was more than willing to provide the assistance as the lovo was being organised in my name. I walked to our meeting place in central Suva, a small bridge over a small water outlet into the ocean, outside of the multi-story department store, Tapoo City. I caught eye of him, however the Joni on the bridge looked much different to the one I had met selling bananas on the streets. He was wearing a crisp new white T-shirt, a far cry from the singlets that they wore day-in-day-out the village. He was also in shorts, tartan design, extending down to his knees. Lower still were a pair of casual athletic shoes that he liked to call “canvas”. He had great reverence for these shoes as he had taken me into an athletic store before and pointed out the shoes that he liked the best. He even told me his shoe size in the hopes that one day I would purchase some for him. I was therefore very surprised that he already owned a pair and that he had an outfit to suit.

His demeanour was different too, he was not in his typical joking mood but had the same hushed quiet demeanour that he had on the phone. We stood there quite awkwardly for a while making general conversation, leaning against the rail of the bridge. I had not much idea of what he was intending apart from buying some supplies for the lovo, so I asked him what he wanted to do. At this he asked quite nonchalantly that he needed $100 FJD. I was inwardly quite taken aback. Not only was this amount a large amount for him to have access to, but this was also an amount that I would consider a large sum. At this unexpected abrupt request I said that I would buy the supplies with him at the supermarket and contribute what I could at the checkout. I wanted to know what this large amount was paying for. Again, he nonchalantly said that he would go himself and that I could go back and relax at my hotel, it was obvious that he did not want to come with him during this trip due to his atypical suppressed mood. I offered him $20FJD which he snapped at the chance to obtain, he did not question that I offered a much lower amount than he requested. After he acquired the money he took fairly quick leave. I went back to the hotel thinking that the whole encounter was quite strange and very atypical of the boy I had met selling bananas.

I woke up early the next day and taxied to the village in order to help and observe the preparations. I had tried calling Joni in the taxi as had become custom so that he would sit up at the shops where the taxi would drop me off. He did not answer. It was lucky that I had learnt how to pronounce the area and street name correctly, as my phone would often be passed to the taxi driver, by his or Joni’s request, so that it could be assured that the taxi was going to the right place. I arrived at the village, however unlike the previous times there were none of the youth that I had come to know to greet me. I walked into the village by myself to the house of Joni’s mother, Miriama. Her and her two younger sons greeted me enthusiastically, however Joni was nowhere in sight. Miriama told me to take a seat while she phoned around to find where Joni was. Some of the younger boys who had seen me walk into the village came by to see how I was, at this Miriama asked them where Joni was, but they said they did not know. They were asked to walk to various people’s houses to go looking for him. Standing outside, one of the older boys, also called Joni, I will call him older Joni, came to me and said, in an equally hushed voice that Joni had been drinking last night, implying that this search for Joni would be fruitless as he wished to recover from the night before. It had become obvious at that point that the money requested was not for the lovo but for a good night out at the night clubs around Suva. As my suspicions of the meeting of the previous day had been confirmed, I began to appreciate that I was not yet, in this early stage of integration, a part of Fijian society. Nor did I expect to be. I was still, to some extent, a target to extract money from.

This was not the only occurrence of money extraction that I had experienced. I was also the target of an informal street worker known as a sword seller that has methods in extracting money from unsuspecting tourists. Their sales strategy is highly deceptive and cunning. They have the strategy of identifying you on the street, firstly as a western tourist of wealth. They approach on the street, typically with a loud greeting of “BULA!”, smiles, and a handshake that pulls you in towards them. To anyone that has spent some time in Fiji, a loud and emphatic greeting by a stranger is learnt to be regarded with suspicion. You also become conscious of the true motives behind a handshake. To the un-expecting tourist the greeting is supposed to evoke a sense of welcome, lulling tourists into a sense of comfort and friendship. They then ask you questions such as where you are from and how long you are staying as a means of strengthening this brief friendship. After the conversation, a wooden souvenir sword is pulled out and is offered as a “gift” to which the receiver feels obligated to take from such a hospitable citizen of Fiji. Before giving it to the tourist the seller pulls out a little carving instrument and asks for your name which he carves into the wood.

Luckily I had read of sword sellers before arriving in Fiji. I let it get to this point but I grabbed the seller’s arm before he could carve my name into the wood. No qualms were made as he was obviously aware that I knew of his strategy and we immediately walked in our own separate directions. What would typically happen to an un-expecting tourist is that their names would be carved into the wood and then to their dismay, they would be asked for payment. The sword is a gift of deception, it’s not a gift at all. The sword seller would then insist on the purchase of the sword saying that it had their name engraved in it making it irredeemable for sale to anyone else. They would at the same time evoke this sense of friendship and personal hurt if it was not accepted. The tourist, exacerbated, would then feel obliged to purchase the sword. In general, the sword seller’s strategy revolves around the creation of a brief bond or friendship that can be used as a means of extracting money, through a gift of deception. One could make the analogy that the sword seller uses a double edged sword of friendship and deception to extract money from tourists.

The strategies of extraction recounted in my experience outlined with Joni fits a similar mould to this story of the sword seller, as Joni too used a double edged sword of friendship and deception. Joni and I created a bond of friendship through our meetings on the street with general talk about where we came from, sports, and food. Cynically speaking, this initial friendship bond may have been to acquire a regular customer of his bananas. The growth our connection made by fishing and cooking however presented an opportunity to seize a much large gain. He took advantage of this opportunity at our meeting on the bridge. He dangled the notion of the lovo as a sort of “gift” of Fijian traditional experience saying that the money I would give him would contribute towards it. From that I felt obliged to give a certain amount of money or risk the prospect of breaking the bond that was created. I am, less cynically speaking, under the belief that the lovo was initially offered as a gift in the traditional sense of solidifying personal connections. This seems to be supported by Joni’s and the other boy’s genuine excitement about the lovo during our initial talks and fishing trips. As our connection grew the lovo perhaps became important for the connection to be solidified to ensure that I return to them as promised in September, and that I may perhaps offer some form of generalised reciprocity upon return. This seems to be supported by the fact it had the approval of a few authority heads in the village who expressed their wish for me to return. However, for Joni, the potential gain of using the lovo as a gift of deception, in the same vein of the sword seller, may have in the end overtook that of the lovo as a gift in the traditional sense. Perhaps he suspected that I was not going to buy him the “canvas” he showed me, at least in the short run, and therefore took the opportunity to take what he could get. I am however not totally privy to this inner calculation as of his yet.

This passage is in no way meant to chastise Joni for duping me, as stated previously I am under no illusion that I have broken the barrier from outsider to insider. It is quite possible that I won’t be able break this barrier for the duration of my research. The true purpose here is to understand the conceptual frame of Joni’s actions. My main conclusion from this experience is that I believe a portion of Joni’s conceptual frames come from the environment of the informal economy, not only because he sells bananas on the street, but because it seems as though he shares the same conception of the double edged sword as sword sellers. Literature can indeed be read on the conceptual frames and practices of informal street sellers which I do plan to undertake. Any further analysis of Joni and the other youth in the village will pay attention to this literature on the conceptual frames and practices of informal street sellers as these are what their actions seem to be directed by, at least according to these initial experiences.

Village Hopping

Waiting for Joni at Miriama’s house, and the realisation that the day would be spent in his absence, provided an unexpected opportunity; a day of village hopping with Miriama and her daughter Lelea. The story starts with Lelea coming by to visit her mother early in the morning, a couple of hours after I had arrived. She had come specifically for the day of the lovo to help out. She was a young women, in her early twenties and pregnant with her first child. She was an obvious source of pride for Miriama as certificates of her achievements from school were proudly displayed on the walls of the house. I judged her education to be beyond that of Joni and perhaps those of other youth in the village who almost had an open disdain for education, stating that they would rather fish and hang around the other young men around road side stalls. She had a quiet disposition that was cut through by a friendly curiosity about my stay in Fiji. Her higher level of English and inquisitive nature made conversation more free flowing and relaxed. These traits made her a great guide, a key informant, for the duration of this story.

When the three of us realised that the lovo would not be held after hours of waiting, it was agreed that we would go visit Miriama’s brother Taito in another village. We headed out the village along with Miriama’s two younger sons, up towards the main road where a taxi could be hailed. Walking out of the village the young boys who I had spent days fishing with followed us. Before we got into the taxi I said my goodbyes. The boys responding very glumly, sitting on a concrete block playing with sticks in the grass. Getting into the taxi meant that their hopes for the lovo were now totally extinguished too. There were not only the five of us in the taxi, but also another women, and her two very young children. I had a child on each knee due to the cramped space. It had been agreed that we would drop them off at another bus stand closer to Suva. When they arrived at the bus stop they jumped out and waved their goodbyes. No payment was made, just a favour.

We were now on our way to the village, but Miriama thought it was best to stop off at her twin sister’s village first to pick up her nephew, Maciu. The entrance to the village was up a fairly steep hill off a main road which made it difficult to drive up. The various deep potholes did not make the taxi driver’s job any easier and I feared for his suspension. This village was much different to the village I had first come accustom to. Miriama’s village for instance had a relatively open plan with houses surrounded by a small portion of land. It also had some semblance of organisation with rudimentary corrugated iron churches occupying the centre. The village we were entering on the other hand had houses extremely close to one another with little room to grow anything between them. It also had houses as far as I could see in all directions. From first inspection I could not see a logic of organisation such a central church or grounds. It is my instinct that this may also be a squatter village, perhaps in a more obvious sense based on its appearance. This is merely an assumption at this present state, perhaps a brash one, however, if true, it would be insightful to know the circumstances of these two women’s journeys to these two quite different squatter communities. Marriage will almost certainly be involved as women are for the most part obligated to leave their home village to go live in their husband’s village. However, as previously stated, Miriama’s husband’s village is in Lau where he presently lives without her. I will strive to find out these women’s journeys when I return to Fiji as they may provide revelations into the growth of squatter communities and perhaps influence how they communicate with their networks between the villages, as we are starting to see now.

Miriama’s twin sister’s house was just off this inner village dirt road, so Miriama told the taxi driver to just pull up outside while she shouted out for her out of the window. She brought Maciu out, he quickly jumped into the front seat and we were quickly off again down the dirt road, and back on the road to Miriama’s brother’s village. The series of brief pick-ups and drop offs up until this point, to bus stands and villages, gave me the impression that we were village hopping. The taxi acted as an object to latch on and let go when it passed through for anyone that knew the passengers commissioning it. The passengers were willing participants in this process, actively searching out those that needed a lift or those that wanted to tag along. I’m yet unsure whether this is common practice as I was the one designated to pay for the taxi. It is quite possible that this was akin to a novelty practice taken as a unique opportunity due to my presence, rather than an established practice. Repeat visits will help ascertain if this is common practice.

We turned down another dirt road to Miriama’s brother’s village, going up and down various slopes. Lelea pointed out that there were a number of different villages down this little inlet of a road, but the one that we wanted to get to was at the end down next to the water. This village again had a completely different feel about it. From the outside the houses looked like they were made of more sturdy materials and had a logical design, construction, and arrangement. Most were elevated off the ground, and the ones that were not elevated did have at least suitable flooring. All the houses were connected with concrete paths, making it possible to walk about without the prospect of getting muddy feet. There was also a church built down next to the coast with a distinctive red high angled roof. Entering the family house, it was much more partitioned, a sitting room in the middle, with a sizeable kitchen partitioned to one side, and two smaller partitions as bedrooms on the other side. The village, in all of its aspects, had a general sense of organisation which made me believe it was not a squatter community.

I was introduced to Miriama’s brother, Taito. A man that I judged to be very proud of his country due to the Fijian emblems on his shirt and the large Fijian flag displayed prominently in the main sitting area. It came to my attention that Taito had not been well for a couple of months. The family tried to describe his condition to me and from what I could ascertain is that he had accumulated liquid in his knee, perhaps a clot, causing it to swell. This prevented him from doing any work around the village, as made explicit by doctor’s orders, which he seemed quite agitated about. After receiving this information I wondered if that was the important factor behind this visit to show support and compassion for kin who were unwell.

The day for the most part was spent lying on mats, relaxing the day away. Taito’s wife cooked us a large meal which we all lazily ate. Miriama had brought a portion of food grown from the garden for the meal. The Fijian rugby team were on television in one of the adjourning rooms. Maciu retreated to this bedroom after lunch to catch the second half as he drifted in and out of sleep. The day seemed as though it would pass away sleepily, however a fairly short and merry man walked in while we were visiting Lelea’s friends in an adjascent house. He seemed a little taken aback to see me there, but immediately invited me to join him and his friends to drink some kava. I was happy to take leave as the girls were starting to gaggle away just like any group of young women typically does. We approached a little open aired dwelling with two other men seated around. One was quite a sullen astute man that was preparing the kava in quite a methodical manner. He occupied most of the preparation time judging the right amount of crushed kava root to water ratio. He then prepared it by enclosing the crushed kava root in a type of material, squeezing it whilst dipping it in the water of a bucket leaving a brown water which is known as kava. The kava was transferred from the bucket to a bowl especially designated for kava called a Tanoa. It was taken from this bowl and then served to each of us in half of a hollowed out coconut shell. After each person drank, one after the other, the group would simultaneously clap three times for reasons unknown to me thus far. The merry man I meet earlier made the entire process a noisy one as he interjected continuously with his high pitched laughs.

The other man sitting with us was a man that had an aura of business acumen. He was telling me about his newly formed vehicle hire business. He claimed to have five vehicles already that he would hire out to tourists. He did however point out to me from our seated positions, a fairly new looking red car that he especially used as a taxi. I asked why the taxi had no advertising markings like the other taxis. He replied that the taxi was used only by arrangement rather than used for mindlessly combing the streets for passengers. He got my phone number and email address so that I could arrange a taxi upon my return to Fiji. He also requested that I send any other people I know their way to use the service. I have since gotten an email from him in an effort to add me to his client base. This is a group of men that I will also keep in contact with as there does seem to be some alignment of mobile money with taxi services. I observed on the last days of my stay in Fiji advertisements for mobile money on the back of taxi windows, however I am yet unsure whether this indicates whether or not this means payment to a taxi driver can be made with the use of mobile money. The problem with reading advertisements on the back of cars is that they are often moving… In general it will be insightful how this village based business keeps in contact with its customers by phone, and as we have seen, by email. Payments systems for the vehicles that they hire out to tourists will also be insightful for exchange in a business sense.

The sun was starting to lower and it was time to take Miriama’s young children home. It was decided that we would wait for the bus rather than take another taxi. Waiting for the bus in the village does not literally consist of waiting at a bus stop, it does not even require you to move from your comfy position amongst the pillows that you’re lying amongst of your house. The bus arrives in the village with an engine that roars in a manner that would wake anybody up in time before its departure. The bus then waits there for at least 15 minutes while passengers hop aboard. I felt that Sunday was an especially significant day at the bus stop, as even though this particular village was not too far from Suva, perhaps 40 minutes, I got the impression that fathers got on the bus every Sunday to move closer to work in Suva during the week. Alternatively, perhaps Sunday was a common day for visitors, and that like us they were returning home also. Nevertheless there were many children gathered around waving goodbye to parents, or older brothers. The same scenes occurred at the various bus stops getting closer and closer to Suva. The man in front of me even got passed a baby through the open air window from a women on the road below. Arriving at Suva central bus stop on a Sunday afternoon also had a different vibe than most days. It was a day of an even greater frequency of greetings and goodbyes. For me it was also a scene of goodbye as I had to leave the family that had graciously taken me under their wing, not just for the day, but for a majority of my very brief stay in Fiji.

What I observed during this day of travel and visits was the outlines of a system of communication and contact between other squatter villages and villages of origin. In terms of transport this was in the form of village hopping by taxi and by that of bus. Unfortunately I did not observe how the sisters got in contact to arrange the pickup of Maciu, let alone arranging the visit Taito’s village. Such information would be insightful in how people in different villages remain in contact. This will be a point of emphasis if I get the opportunity to visit the village once again. I also gained an appreciation in the variations between villages, perhaps even amongst squatter communities. Variation is not altogether that surprising as even squatter communities vary in definition, however the types of variations between villages may provide future insight to who lives in each, and the associated communication connections. Lastly I gained access to a group of young entrepreneurial business founders in the transportation sector. Access to this group of men could potentially provide an alternative perspective of how mobile and exchange practices, perhaps even mobile money practices, are conducted by village based businesses.

Fieldwork Journal: Introduction into a Squatter Community in Suva, Fiji

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Welcome to my fieldwork journal! These articles will recount my experiences in the field with regards to my research on mobile money in Suva, Fiji. This article will recount my first entry into my research community which just so happens to also be a squatter community somewhere within the 20km stretch of land between Suva and Nausori. All names will be changed in the article to other Fijian names to protect my research participants according to ethical guidelines. Precise locations such as the village name will also be obscured. I hope you enjoy!

I first met Joni during my first days in Suva sitting in an open air cafeteria. He initially approached me wishing to sell bananas. He was carrying four plastic bags, each with a sizeable bunch inside for $6FJD. I purchased some as an excuse to strike up a brief conversation with him as I had come to Fiji with no prior contacts or “community in”. I thought nothing of the meeting though. I thought it would be one of those fleeting encounters where you never see the person again. However during the next days I would continuously run into him on the streets while I was conducting errands, each time wishing to sell more bananas. Each time I took the time to engage in conversation asking him questions about his life and circumstances. We had started to develop a little day to day friendship, maybe because when he asked me for a coke I would buy one for him. At the end of each of our brief conversations he would always depart with a wave and “God bless!”

On our next chance meeting I asked him if he was religious due to his departing sign offs. He confirmed. I asked which church he attended and suggested that perhaps I would also attend on Sunday. At this remark his face lit up and was very eager for me to come. I asked him what clothing would be appropriate. He generously offered to bring an appropriate shirt and tie for me on the day. I asked for his number in order to arrange meeting on Sunday, however he did not have his shared family’s phone on him, nor did he have its number committed to memory. Rather he required me to rip a page from my notebook to write my number on. Unfortunately I did not have my number committed to memory either. At this he grabbed my phone and entered a call code that revealed the number of my phone, which was then scribed onto the piece of paper. We did make rudimentary plans to meet outside the cinema at 7AM Sunday before taking the bus to church. The following days I did not see or hear from him, and when it came to Sunday I did not see him at our meeting point. I attributed the lull in our crossing paths to the torrential rain that never seemed to cease for a period of three days. I could only imagine that such weather was not very pleasant to commute or sell bananas in. Tourists who he may sell the bananas to may also opt to stay on the ship during these days.

On a day following, when there was a gap in the weather, we crossed paths again. He immediately exclaimed that he lost my number and therefore was unable to contact me. My number was given again in the same manner and I was asked to come join him fishing on the following day in his village. He tantalisingly described all of the food that we would cook before again walking the streets to sell his bananas. The next morning I was awoken by a phone call at 6AM asking me to “come now” and gave the name and location of his village. He said he would wait for me at the local shops outside of his village.

When I arrived at his village I was greeted by Joni and a group of smiling and enthusiastic boys between the ages of 14 and 19. When I was taken into the village I was a point of immediate curiosity with people giving me greetings from the houses that we were passing. We passed a house which we were to hire the boat from. Joni asked for $20FJD for the boat hire. He told me to wait outside while he ran inside to pay. A middle aged man was sitting outside the house repairing or untangling a fishing net. He tried to engage me in conversation from his position under the shade, however one of the boys told me not to talk too much with him. The boy said that he would ask money of me and that I should only give money to Joni as he was trustworthy. Joni returned and we departed. We passed another house at which we picked up a spade and long wooden stick. We wandered down to a waterway where the small boat was settled amongst the mud and mangroves. Joni and three of the other young boys jumped into the boat. Joni stood on the back of the boat and plunged the long wooden stick into the water and propelled us forward by digging and pushing the stick into the bottom of the creek. The creek then became too shallow to go any further when we reached the opening, so we pushed the boat out to sea across the expansive mud flats.

When we launched into the sea we pushed out to another group of boats. Some were occupied by the older brothers of the boys. Other boats were occupied by older groups such as husband and wife pairings. These boats were gathered in this shallow portion of the sea to find “underwater scorpions” to use as bait during the day of fishing. This is done by getting one boy to use the spade to dig up mud in the shallow water. The mud is then dumped into handhold nets held by another boy. The mud in the net is then sluiced in the water to drain the mud away to leave the underwater scorpions caught in the net. Some of the boys swam over to their brother’s boats and sat in them until all of our bait was gathered. When it was time to depart the brother’s boats pushed out to deeper water. We pushed off to a more coastal area that had a wide river to fish in. We dropped anchor and started a day of fishing with many catches by the boys and I. Passing boats were greeted with enthusiasm and the boys called one over to borrow their knife which was much sharper than ours. As lunch time came Joni asked me for some spare change in order to buy some lunch. I was confused as we were quite a distance from the village. I gave him the change and he swam ashore and legged it across the mud flats, feet sinking into the mud at every step making it difficult to run. He returned surprisingly quickly with two packets of Magi Two Minute Noodles. Joni ripped upon the sachets of flavouring, mixed them into the raw noodles, started consuming and shared them around. Over lunch I described my research plans. I explained that I was researching mobile practices, especially the use of mobile money, and that I was looking for a community to contextualise it in. They exclaimed that I should conduct the research in their village and area.

As the day was coming to an end, the tide had since risen and lowered back down to its shallowest, revealing the greatest expanse of mud flat. The tide was so low that our route back home was blocked and would require a great diversion. Rather than expend all that energy the boys decided to park the boat on the mudflat to wait for the tide to rise once again. The wait was filled with various games such as pushing a discarded rusty refrigerator around in the shallow waters, with a boy sitting inside like a go kart. Such running around and games were filled with laughs and noises imitating race cars. Names and pictures were drawn in the mud with sticks. One of the boys continuously wrote in the mud the initials of ***. I asked him what the initials stood for which he proudly replied “********” (the area where his village is located). The other boys equally affirmed their pride of the initials and the area they called their own. As the tide was rising slowly it was the perfect time to catch crabs hiding underneath the mud of shallow pools of water. After the water had risen over the mudflats we pushed our boat back along the newly formed coast, and back home.

The young boys and I started cooking the fish we had caught during the day for our late afternoon meal. A boy in his mid-teens, known for his expertise in the kitchen, was sautéing some onions and tomatoes on top of a camping style element placed on the floor. Another boy in his early 20s was outside scrapping the scales off the fish we had caught just an hour before, and latter covering them in flour. A school aged boy was scrapping coconut out of the shell. He was using a makeshift tool which consisted of a long flat piece of wood which he sat on, on top of the wooden steps leading out of the kitchen. The piece of wood extended long outwards between his legs and had a serrated end for which he scrapped the coconut into a bowl on the step below. A group of teenage boys were gathering round to build a fire in the outdoor segment of the kitchen with dry logs doused in kerosene, ready to boil the rice. Meanwhile young children, some barely old enough to walk, wandered through the kitchen, some playing games that consisted of chasing and tagging. Many more young adults and children, primarily male, mulled around watching the cooking process. The scene had elements of Neverland where adults did not seem to exist and where each boy in the brotherhood had an expertise and capability to look after themselves and one another. It was at this point one of the older boys remarked that, “this is where people come when they fall on hard times”. At this, I wondered whether this was perhaps a squatter community, a location where people migrated to and settled illegally on government owned land.

Squatter communities indeed do consist of a particularly young demographic which was clearly evident in this scene. It was also around 4pm which would suggest that if this was a squatter community, a proportion of the male adult figures would be involved in either formal or informal employment, or commuting home. They would not be present in the village undertaking sustenance activities to the same extent that they would in a traditional village. I also noticed that the community was on or adjacent to low lying land, close to the coast and intermingled amongst waterways and mangroves. Such land is prone to flooding and is not particularly fertile suggesting that they had settled there by necessity and circumstance, or merely to take advantage of non-subsistence activities within Suva. I made some inquiries to where the boys had come from, as squatter communities are characterised by a large proportion of migrants, especially from the outer islands. Many had come from the outer Fijian islands of Lau and Kadavu. Many also came from various locations on the island of Viti Levu which Suva is located on. Their home villages on Viti Levu however were at a distance which would make day to day travel to Suva time consuming and expensive. In comparison, this particular squatter community was located in the Suva-Nausori corridor approximately 15-20 minutes bus ride from Suva central making it prime real estate in terms of access to Suva and therefore informal employment. These inquiries alongside my observations confirmed with some degree of certainty that this was a squatter community, at least in general definition.

Joni’s mother returned home during the evening and regarded me with much curiosity and questioning. Her demeanor however was very welcoming and polite. Many times it was asked when I would return. On subsequent return visits she insisted that I stay in their household when I returned to Fiji in September. I got the impression that she thought I would be a good influence on the boys, as well as the fact that I would perhaps provide some sort of access to wealth. The household consisted of her, Joni, and her two younger primary school aged sons. On one occasion on a return visit, her husband who lives on the outer islands of Lau called her and I was immediately handed the phone. I recounted my experiences with Joni and the other boys to him. After gaining some repour he insisted that I accompany the family on a return trip to Lau in 2016. He was also excited to meet me on his return later in the 2015.

Also on a subsequent visit, I was taken to the house of one of Joni’s friends. This house was located at the very entrance of the village and was of a much higher standard than the other houses I had seen made of scarps of metal and wood skilfully but obviously patched together. This house had a separate large room for cooking also quite advanced in terms of the other houses I had seen. There were also couches and various woven mats on the solid secure floor. I was invited to sit on the couch by his mother and the rest of the younger boys sat on the floor near the entrance. His mother asked me questions about my research and turned to the boys at various times to ask them questions when she did not understand. I was fortunate that the boys had come to an adequate understanding of my research during our fishing trips. At many times the boys interjected to clarify points. After explaining the research she asserted that they were now my Fijian family and that I was to call her nana. She said that the village would teach me Fijian. I offered to contribute to the village as much as I could, perhaps as a tutor for many of the primary school aged children in the village. After leaving with the boys to undertake some more fishing, I got the feeling that my Fijian nana had a particular authority in the village, and that perhaps her approval was the consent I needed to undertake research there.

Pacific News Spot: Do not Disrespect the New Fijian Flag… Or Else?

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In the unfolding process of designing and implementing the new Fijian flag, there are new laws which Fijians must abide by with reference to displaying and having opinions about the past and future flag. These laws are stated in the new National Flag Protection Bill 2015 found here. There has however been much confusion in the media about the bill. The primary confusion is in section 5 where it states that the “flag shall be respected by every citizen in Fiji”. In the debate surrounding the bill (such as on Pacific Beat or The Fiji Times) it is argued that the word of “respect” is hard to define with regards to what it allows and doesn’t allow when displaying and discussing the flag and the government it represents. The bill indicates a few examples of appropriate displays of the Fijian flag such as at a school or home. However, in such instances, it must also be displayed in a position of “prominence” which has also caused confusion due to its subjectivity. There are also concerns for displaying either flag on social media. The use of the old flag instead of the new flag may be interpreted as “disrespecting” the new flag. Furthermore displaying either flag on social media, with posts that may be critical of the Fijian government may also be tantamount to “disrespect”. The National Flag Protection Bill 2015 also stipulates the government can deem whether an individual has disrespected the flag and can be fined or imprisoned accordingly. This shifts the onus on the individual to prove their innocence. This reverses the commonly held “rule of law” whereby an individual is innocent until proven guilty by the judicial system.

While the National Flag Protection Bill 2015 has caused much debate in the media in its own right, it is heightened by the fact that there does not seem to be any general public support for any of the proposed final 23 flag designs. Firstly, this lack of support can be attributed to the fact that none of the designs are fully accurate of what candidates put forth in a nationally held flag design contest. The government simply appropriated aspects of the designs that it deemed suitable or desirable. The Sodelpa Youth Council member, Peter Waqavonono, says the design process has been undemocratic in nature, thereby calling the new flag “Bainimarama’s flag” not Fiji’s flag. Furthermore the designs that have been adapted by the government are said to resemble “clip-art” pictures by the Fiji Times. I am not here to make my own judgement on the flag designs, however you are welcome to judge some of the proposed designs below.

Secondly, on various blogs where Fijian political activism and engagement is vibrant (sorry I will not reveal these sources but they are easily findable), there is a great reverence for the old flag. In many comments threads, Fijians dominantly believe that the old flag fully represents their identity. This is despite the fact that the Fijian’s government’s entire motive for replacing the old flag was to remove certain colonial symbolism that was not representative of a modern Fijian identity. I discussed the issues and challenges of designing a flag that fully represents Fijian Identity in a previous article that can be found here. In this article I highlighted some political pundit’s opinions of including Fijian-Indian identity into the flag design.

I will leave my own personal analysis short… however it is fair to say that the result of the National Flag Protection Bill 2015 and the general dissatisfaction of the new flag designs, has been a certain disconnect between the newly democratically elected government and the Fijian people with regards to this issue.

New Fijian Flag

Some of the proposed designs of the new Fijian flag

Futures: Is Bitcoin Merely a Virtual Currency for Criminals?

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Picture caption: The virtual currency Bitcoin has been tied to the illegal trade of Ivory, child pornography, drugs, firearms, and assassination services due to its position outside of formal regulation.

Recapping the Case for Bitcoin as a Virtual Currency for the Poor

In a recent article posted on this site it was stated that virtual currencies such as Bitcoin could improve the quality of financial services in developing countries. It was stated that virtual currencies could allow citizens in developing countries, perhaps living and working in urban areas, to more affordably transfer remittances to family members living in rural areas. It was also stated that migrants working in developed countries could remit money back home to family members left behind. Virtual currencies make remittance transfers more affordable because they usually have zero transaction cost. No intermediary takes a cut of the money sent. In traditional remittance transfer, intermediaries such as Western Union or MoneyGram, or banks, and even mobile money services take substantial portions of amounts sent.

The previous article also stated that Bitcoin had potential to serve as a more stable currency due to its separation from nationally based monetary policies. It outlined that developing countries such as Argentina, Zimbabwe and some post-soviet countries in the 1990s underwent hyperinflation due to inept national monetary policy. The relatively fixed and predictably controlled supply of Bitcoins does have the potential to prevent such cases of hyperinflation. Bitcoin therefore was deemed to have potential to serve as a stable currency for those in countries which have not proven to be able to control the value of their currencies. A study conducted in Argentina interviewed Bitcoin users on the purpose behind their use of the alternative currency. They claimed that they did use Bitcoin as an alternative store of value due to the instability of the national currency of the Peso.

My article did however stress that the widespread use of virtual currencies such as Bitcoin had potential but was a far and distant future. It also highlighted that perhaps the biggest challenge for Bitcoin to take on the identity of the “virtual currency for the poor”, was its current and more dominant status as a “virtual currency for criminals”. This particular article will specifically expose Bitcoin’s history of use in criminal activity. This includes its use in the illegal trade of drugs and ivory. This article will therefore temper the optimism of the previous one.

Bitcoin as a Virtual Currency for Criminals

How Bitcoin and Silk Road  Work

Any account of criminal activity using Bitcoin also has to mention the online black market for illegal goods. This is because Bitcoin is the primary currency used to buy and sell illegal goods online. Silk Road has been the most prominent of these online black market for illegal goods. This site allows buyers and sellers to exchange illicit illegal material online anonymously through a series of clever processes. These processes are roughly outlined below.

  1. Buyers and sellers of illegal goods log on to Silk Road anonymously using an advanced digital encryption program known as Tor. Tor allows users to access the Silk Road website. Without Tor, Silk Road is inaccessible and “hidden” in the “dark net”.
  2. Once Silk Road is anonymously accessed, buyers and sellers trade in illegal goods through the website’s interface.
  3. A third party administrator, present in the Bitcoin system, facilitates the financial transaction and appropriates a certain percentage of the sale. Bitcoin is the dominant form of currency used in these online financial transactions because it is also encrypted. Due to this encryption the buyers’ and sellers’ identities and/or addresses are untraceable.
  4. The sellers then post the illegal goods directly to the buyers’ address.

The Illegal Trade of Drugs and Ivory using Silk Road and Bitcoin – Implications for Developing Countries

The image below shows the Silk Road interface with various illegal drugs up for sale. With just a couple of clicks illegal drugs can be purchased anonymously. The ability to access Silk Road through the Tor program and the creation of a Bitcoin wallet is considered a relatively complex process, but it seems like with a little bit of effort this can easily be mastered by someone in need of drugs.

It also seems as though that the Silk Road system makes the distribution chains of drug sellers become much more secure and cost effective. Traditionally, drug distribution chains usually consist of a variety of large, complex, decentralised groups and entities. Controlling and making these distribution networks profitable is difficult. Furthermore it is harder to maintain anonymity within these complex chains. Through Silk Road and Bitcoin, the need for complex distribution chains are no longer necessary. Distribution chains can become much smaller and be easily utilised online. This therefore reduces their costs. Anonymity is also secured. Even if it is found that drugs are being transferred through the postage system by authorities, it is difficult to prove guilt as the transaction occurs online with encrypted user names with encrypted virtual currency. Silk Road, with its use of Bitcoin, is therefore an oasis for drug dealers and buyers.

What needs to be considered in the distribution of drugs is that they are produced primarily in developing countries where there are less watchful eyes. These drugs are then mostly transported to and consumed in developed countries. Just think of the massive cocaine production in South America. Most of this cocaine is transported to North America. It is estimated that 40% of global cocaine consumption occurs in North America alone. Silk Road allows easier and more secure trade of illegal drugs, and the creation of distribution networks, from developing countries to the developed. This may further solidify developing countries status as drug producers.

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Picture Caption: Buying and selling illegal drugs on Silk Road

The same can be said for the trade in ivory. In a stunning must read article by Derek Stead, the process of buying Ivory using Bitcoin is outlined. He elaborates how he himself went online, searched on forums for ivory dealers using the Tor system and contacted them, feigning interest in purchasing ivory. He makes it clear that it was not difficult to obtain contacts and prices for ivory. Some prices were extraordinary up to $180,000 for one horn. The use of Bitcoin which is facilitated through a third party, who cannot read or trace the encryptions of buyers or sellers, would make this large and definitely suspicious transaction untraceable, and therefore possible.

Just like illegal drugs, ivory is harvested almost exclusively in the developing world. The trade of ivory facilitated by Bitcoin makes this trade easier and less controllable by the authorities. Regulation has focused primarily on hunting the poachers and even the use of surveillance drones. This is because regulation of the financial transactions involving ivory has become much more difficult.

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Picture Caption: Bitcoin is the primary currency used in the trade of ivory and therefore is connected to shocking images such as this

These are just two despicable transactions that Bitcoin help facilitate. Others include child pornography, illegal firearms, and assassination services.

Can Silk Road or Bitcoin just be Shut Down?

The primary question I asked when looking into this article was why don’t authorities just shut down online black markets like the Silk Road website? It seems as though that it is just not that easy. The original founder of Silk Road, Ross William Ulbricht, was arrested by the FBI on October 2nd 2013. He was charged with money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. He was also suspected for hiring assassins to kill 6 people via Silk Road, however the murders never took place, and he was not prosecuted for attempted murder. The hidden website was seized by the FBI and the image below replaced the homepage. This however did not deter users and administrators of the Silk Road website as a new version called Silk Road 2.0 was uploaded in November 2013. The architects of Silk Road 2.0 were also subsequently arrested and the website taken down, but it always seemed as though new administrators were willing to take their place, creating new addresses to access it from. The fact that there are current posts and forums about Silk Road 2.0 on the “visible web” indicates that it is still operating. There is also nothing stopping other similar sites from springing up.

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Picture caption: Silk Road seized by the FBI

Bitcoin which facilitates these illegal transactions can also not be effectively cracked down upon. Firstly, its status as a virtual currency does not necessarily mean that it will be used for illegal activity. It is used in many instances for legitimate online purchases. The grounds for illegalising its use are therefore indirect. Secondly, Bitcoins are not created in one centralised location but in the wider computer network of users. Bitcoins are created through a “mining” process. This process involves user’s computer computing capacity to create “block chains” which record but encrypt the transactions of others (this is how I have come to understand it anyway). The main point here is that because Bitcoins are created in the wider computer network, no one individual can be arrested (or even traced!). Furthermore one location where Bitcoins are created can also not be traced and would only represent a minuscule portion of Bitcoin creation anyway. Countries such as Russia and China have made the use of Bitcoin illegal, but how they intend to inforce its ban is unclear. Formal legitimate companies such as Apple have also ceased making Bitcoin applications compatible with their software, but this does not prevent PCs in general from using it.

Potential to Change Bitcoin’s Image?

It seems as though the above description of Bitcoin as a “virtual currency for criminals” cannot be easily altered. The above examples show that virtual currencies such as Bitcoin encourage drug and ivory production and distribution networks that originate in developing countries. It seems like the very nature of Bitcoin as an anonymous and untraceable currency enables this. It is also shown that the solution of just shutting down Silk Road and Bitcoin is fruitless. This therefore makes me think that alternative solutions need to be continued to deal with the drug and ivory trade, such as the drone surveillance methods used in identifying poachers. One thing is for certain, the image of Bitcoin as a “virtual currency for criminals” is not abating anytime soon.

That does not necessarily mean however that virtual currencies such as Bitcoin cannot still have some use for the poor in developing countries. The benefits mentioned at the start of this article and in the previous article are still relevant and have potential for expansion! It’s just likely that virtual currencies such as Bitcoin will have that dual personality of good and evil.

The last thing to consider is that Bitcoin is not the only virtual currency out there. I have only focused on it due to its dominance in virtual currency use. There is certainly potential for other virtual currencies to develop specifically for the use of everyday populations in developing countries. Perhaps a virtual currency that is centrally administered and regulated. This train of thought could lead on to a part three, so stay tuned!!

Pacific News Spot: Preparedness for and Resilience after Cyclone Pam

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Picture Caption: Amongst the destruction of Cyclone Pam a man tries to salvage what is left of his house, whilst his son resiliently kicks a ball around.

As most of you know a category 5 cyclone called Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu with devastating effect on the 13th of March. The cyclone formed east of the Solomon Islands on the 6th of March where it initially established itself as a category 3 cyclone. It intensified into a category 5 as it tracked down to Vanuatu. Cyclone Pam tracked down Vanuatu passing by the islands of Pentecost, Ambrym and Epi. It then passed just east of the Efate, the main island of Vanuatu, and where the capital of Port Vila is located. It then continued tracking down, passing the islands of Erromango and Tanna. Pam’s strength was at its peak as it was passing through Vanuatu with winds up to 270kmph, however some have estimated up to 320kmph. The storm only weakened after it passed through Vanuatu, before heading to New Zealand where minimal damage was done. To my knowledge, the death toll stands at 24. Ariel photos of Vanuatu show sheer devastation with an estimated 90% of buildings destroyed on some islands. Communications on the islands outside of Efate are for the most part “down”, making it very difficult to contact friends and family in the islands. This is exemplified by the fact that Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Baldwin Lonsdale was ironically in Japan for a disaster mitigation conference and had no contact with his family in the days after the crisis. He has since returned to Vanuatu. This lack of communication is true of most families who have relatives scattered amongst the islands. My family is also highly involved on the island of Tanna undertaking a collaborative tourist based business project with a community there. Unfortunately we have not heard from our friends up there since the cyclone. For regular updates on how the people of Tanna, and our more personal connections on the island, respond and recover from Cyclone Pam take a look at Vanuatu Traveller. This article has sparked my interest on the question of to what extent is media being used to warn populations of impending disasters? How do they fit in with other more social systems of warning? It also makes me ask the question of, how will the people of Vanuatu respond to this crisis?

Cyclone Pam

The path of Cyclone Pam

Use of Media to Inform Populations about Disasters like Cyclone Pam

In anecdotal evidence from my family it seems as though that the people of Vanuatu could have been more prepared for the crisis. As Cyclone Pam approached Vanuatu calls were made to the families and villages we know to warn them of the crisis. Warnings to a family in the outer island of Tanna of what was approaching were taken light-heartedly. Only after repetition of the seriousness of the situation was it understood that more thorough preparation was in order. This included boarding up houses and moving their vehicle (used for tourist adventures) into a more protected area. We have not yet heard from this family and their village due to the breakdowns in communication. We have however heard from a family in Port Vila who have stated that do not have any food or water. This is to my family’s frustration as they were advised to stockpile some food and water and to find an ultra-secure place to store it. These efforts were not done. Again the seriousness of the situation was not understood. Perhaps it was because they believed Cyclone Pam would be just like every other Cyclone that has hit the area in the past. In these scenarios they have gotten by just fine. However it does prompt the question of how should the seriousness of impending disasters be expressed in the Pacific in order for people to take appropriate preventative measures?

The most common form of disaster warning comes from broadcast radio, however these warnings can be quite formal, prescriptive, and explained in non-relatable ways such as “category 5”. The mobile phone is increasingly been thought of a technology to provide warnings. In Samoa, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga emergency broadcasters have experimented with sending out SMSs to mobile users to warn them of cyclones. It should be noted however that mobile penetration in the islands is not 100%. In Vanuatu it is estimated at 76% however we could expect a larger percent in urban areas and on the main island, as opposed to rural areas in the outer islands. Furthermore telecommunication infrastructure can be patchy and unreliable. This means there needs to be other non-technical non-media related ways to provide warnings to areas that will be affected by disaster.

It is argued that warnings are provided to local populations through wider communicative ecologies. This refers to the how information flows throughout the community whether it be through media, AND personal or institutional interaction. It is proven that more contextualised reporting by trusted locals and institutions resonate most with other locals rather than westernised reporting. For instance, it is argued that in Tuvalu western based and media delivered information on climate change does not resonate with locals. Rather a more effective medium for delivering information on climate change has been through sermons provided by religious institutions. It is also not uncommon for taxi drivers to convey such disaster information that they have heard on the radio in more relatable contextualised language to local passengers. In Kiribati policemen drive around the islands to warn local populations about incoming cyclones. In Niue policemen are also involved by consulting with village council institutions who then warn those who they represent. The more face to face based warnings are taken more seriously than westernised reports.

It therefore seems to me that there needs to be a greater interconnection between these formalised warnings and the more interpersonal methods of providing warnings. The seriousness of impending disaster needs to be effectively transferred between the two methods.

Resilience after Cyclone Pam

Resilience is a term often used after a crisis to express the capability of communities to respond and recover to emergencies. Resilience can come in two forms such as reducing the vulnerability of communities to disaster so that the point of recovery is not so low that it cannot be returned from. It also comes in the form of the adaptability and systems of recovery after a disaster has hit. This is most thoroughly defined in the following definition of resilience.

The capacity of a system, community or society potentially exposed to hazards to adapt, by resisting or changing in order to reach and maintain an acceptable level of functioning and structure. This is determined by the degree to which the social system is capable of organising itself to increase the capacity for learning from past disasters for better future protection and to improve risk reduction measures (UNISDR 2005)

Currently it is not known how Vanuatu will respond to the crisis, however we do know that Pacific Island States do have strong social systems that promote co-operation, help, and communalism. This is most prominently expressed in social systems of kinship. Therefore there is hope that communities will come together, rebuild, and prosper once again. The track record of Pacific Island States to recover from cyclones is encouraging. In 1952 and 1953 the people of Tikopia in the Solomon Islands were hit by successive typhoons. The communities came together and agreed to make certain adjustments in their traditional ways of life to meet their daily needs. This included the temporary abandonment of fallow periods, redefinition of agricultural rights, stricter crime and thief repression, and also the adjournment of wedding ceremonies that require the exchange of vast quantities of wealth. These adjustments were agreed upon during public assemblies. As a result the Tikopia people were able to recover from the cyclones.

I believe the people of Vanuatu will resiliently respond in a similar manner, however it must be stated that this is perhaps the strongest cyclone to ever hit the region. The destruction was unprecedented. Therefore the people of Vanuatu need all the international help they can get to resiliently respond to Cyclone Pam. They need help in the short run with supplies of water, food, and medical supplies. But they will also need help in the long run. As Baldwin Lonsdale the prime minister of Vanuatu stated, they are going to need to rebuild the majority of the country. He wants to restore the country that he defines as a “paradise”. Please donate to the following charities (but be careful there are some fraudulent charities seeking to profit from the devastation in Vanuatu).

https://www.oxfam.org.au/my/donate/cyclone-pam-in-vanuatu/?gclid=CKuqsYefuMQCFY8kvQodaIYATg

http://www.unicef.org.au/Donate/One-off-Donation/Cyclone-Pam-Vanuatu-Appeal.aspx?gclid=CKzmg5afuMQCFUYIvAod7G4ATA

Our Friends Affected by Cyclone Pam

Thinking of our friends in Tanna, Vanuatu

Pacific News Spot: Capturing Corruption in The Pacific

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Photo by Daniel Fisher from the Cook Islands, depicting the inability of youth to speak out against corruption.

The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in partnership with The Pacific Youth Council have held a photography competition called the “Capturing Corruption Photo Contest”. The competition called for youth between the ages of 18-25 to take images that they believed symbolized corruption within their communities. Three winners were chosen; Daniel Fisher from The Cook Islands, Jared Kolivangana from the Solomon Islands, and Roweena Wemahanua also from the Solomon Islands. Their reward was that they were able to attend the three day Pacific Youth Forum Against Corruption which opened on Sunday the 22nd of February in Nadi, Fiji. They joined 45 other youth leaders from countries around the Pacific including The Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands; Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The aim of the forum was to encourage youth leaders to speak out against the corrosive effect of corruption on society. Whilst all three of these images are striking and provokes thought, there has been limited or shallow discussion, at least publically on the web, about the stories and/or contexts behind these photos. This article will provide such context behind these images to try and come to an understanding of what they could mean, and how their takers might view corruption in The Pacific. By context, I refer to historical instances of corruption in these countries and how corruption is generally thought about in The Pacific. I try to relate these contexts to their photos, however I cannot pretend to know how exactly these photographers view corruption. This article will conclude by analysing whether the United Nations Development Programme’s “Phones against Corruption” is an appropriate technological platform for youth to speak out against corruption.

The header image was taken by Daniel Fisher and has been the only photo of the three to have been described by its taker in publically available media. On Pacific Beat on the 24th of February, Fisher explains that the young Pacific woman in the photo is depicted as Justitia, the Roman God of Justice. She holds in her arms unbalanced scales representing dishonesty which creates corruption. The use of a young Pacific Islander indicates that it is the youth of the Pacific are the ones most adversely affected by corruption. The bank note over her mouth represents that even though corruption is witnessed in front of youth, they feel as though they must remain silent. Fisher hopes that the photo will encourage youth to cast off the barriers that prohibit them from speaking out against corruption in their communities, and at public events such as The Pacific Youth Forum Against Corruption. 6229218-3x2-940x627[1]

Photo by Jared Kolivanga from The Solomon Islands, of a settlement blaze in Honiara

No such commentary has been available on Jared Kolivanga’s photo (shown above). In Kolivanga’s photo, we see a settlement blaze in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, in August 2014. Unfortunately no more information is given and how this relates to corruption. The image, for me at least, is a reminder of the large scale burning of the Asian district by large mobs in Honiara in April 2006. The businesses and properties targeted in those 2006 riot were those whose owners were suspected of being involved in long term and large scale corruption in the Solomon Islands. It is claimed that throughout the 1990s up until the riots of 2006, licences for logging and fishing in the Solomon Island were over extended much past sustainable levels. This is because Asian business men were able to bribe public officials for these licences. These bribed officials also turned a blind eye to illegal tax evasion by the Asian logging and fishery industries. The environmental degradation that resulted has harmed the earning potential and sustenance lifestyle of Solomon Islanders. The large sum of lost tax revenue could have also been used on the development of the country. Solomon Islander’s were impelled to carry out such a violent act as the Asian immigrant’s long involvement in corruption was abetted by public government officials. The very government that was supposed to be the higher authority to tackle such issues were part of the problem. To the general population, the destructive 2006 riot was therefore the only solution. It must be stated however that some Asian businesses owners were beloved by Solomon Islanders and were absolved of all suspicion of corruption. The businesses of this segment of the Asian population were consciously (and quite miraculously) spared. If Kolivanga’s photo of the settlement burning in Honiara in August 2014 has any parallels to the 2006 burning of the Asian district, it provokes the thought that corruption has only led to physical destruction in the Solomon Islands. It potentially presents the case that a more constructive means of speaking out against corruption needs to be established. From the example above this needs to be done with participation and greater effort by the government of the Solomon Islands. 6229222-3x2-940x627[1]

Photo by Roweena Wemahanua from The Solomon Islands, depicting bribery and nepotism in the wantok systemm

There has also been no publically available commentary on Roweena Wemahanua’s photo either (shown above), however we can more easily depict what is occurring. The perspective is from a person in a position of power at his desk, perhaps a government official. He is reading an application for a scholarship or training position. Next to the application we can see the transfer of a bribe, corruption at the monetary level. However this image also deals with the form of corruption known as nepotism. This term refers to favoritism such as hiring candidates or helping someone in formal processes who are family and friends, or in island terms, “wantok”. In wantok relationships, it is expected that you help each other out, and that this is reciprocated. This is done in village environments where reciprocal exchanges of food occur or looking after another’s children. In the Wemahanua’s photo we can see that the wantok system is crossing the boundary of the village into formal bureaucratic systems. The applicant is trying to draw upon the wantok relationship in the message “Thank You Wantok”. Wemahanua is potentially trying to portray that nepotism in formal processes based on wantok relationships is not ok. I believe it is perhaps the image that will most likely to connect with Pacific Islanders as the navigation of where wantok relationships stop and where formal relationships begin is one that is still being established. In a recent 2013 article by Grant W Walton called “Is all corruption dysfunctional? Perceptions of Corruption and its Consequences in Papua New Guinea”, the very scenario above was discussed in a focus group of Papua New Guineans. In this article respondents were sympathetic to the official put in such a position as “to help a wantok is good”. However all recognized the implications. It prevents the due process of hiring candidates making it difficult for those without influential wantoks to gain meaningful employment. They also claimed that it could led to increased wantok rivalry and fighting if found out about. The article shows that the focus groups knew such nepotism was wrong however, sympathies caused the line to be blurred. The line was not stark.

On Wemahanua’s photo we can see the icon of a speaker that we can all find on our computers. The speaker looks as though it has maximum volume, and has the words above “SPEAK UP”. The use of this icon to me shows that their needs to be medium to speak up against corruption, and perhaps it should be a technical one. The photos by Fisher and Kolivanga have elements that refer to “speak up” which I have discussed, however I focus on Wemahanua’s due to its reference to technology. Could the United Nations Development Programme’s campaign of “phones against corruption” launched in Papua New Guinea (PNG) be this tool that youth need to speak up against corruption? The overview of this campaign is shown in the video below. In this video it is encouraged to anonymously report fraud, bribery, nepotism, and extortion via a text service. All texts are then followed up by the PNG Department of Finance. Since starting in July 2014, up until September 2014, 1,538 text messages were received from 384 different users, showing its initial popularity as a tool to speak out against corruption. I do still have concerns however. As discussed, the issue of corruption is not easy to define for Pacific Islanders especially in the context of wantok. In the scenes of the “phones against corruption” advertisement, the scenarios of corruption are clearly and obviously portrayed. In the Pacific it will not be so easy to determine in this wantok context. I believe a more useful strategy would be to encourage discussions that help clearly define what corruption is in The Pacific. I believe events such as the Pacific Youth Forum Against Corruption, and the photos displayed in this article, does just that and that similar events should be encouraged. These discussions could then filter out through social media, be part of political platforms, or media campaigns. Only after properly disseminating what corruption is and means to Pacific Islanders can it be policed properly in a manner that “phones against corruption” envisions.

Futures: Virtual currencies in developing countries

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Introducing yet another series of articles that will occur on a regular basis called “Futures”. These articles will analyse new financial technologies that aim to either improve the financial services of the poor or increase their financial inclusion. In this article I will analyse whether virtual currencies can improve the financial services of the poor in developing countries. Due to its dominance in the market we will specifically analyse the virtual currency of Bitcoin. Before we can even analyse their effect we need to ask, what on earth are virtual currencies such as Bitcoin? In short, they have four main characteristics. First of all, Bitcoin is a form of money and therefore aims to fulfil three primary functions. It aims to facilitate the exchange of good and services, to measure the value of these goods and services, and to have the durability and security in order to store value. Second, the “virtual” component means that it is owned, stored, traded on virtual interfaces and networks. Thirdly, all transactions between individuals are peer to peer, eliminating third party handlers such as banks and other financial institutions. This means the transaction costs of transmitting bitcoins is zero. No one is “taking a cut”. These peer to peer transactions are encrypted and therefore very private and essentially untraceable. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, virtual currencies such as Bitcoin are not controlled or regulated by national governments or international governance agencies. Therefore the supply of bitcoins in the network is not dependent on how much money Reserve Banks print, or affected by the setting of interest rates. Rather, the creation of bitcoins is determined by a mathematical algorithm. The rate of bitcoins created is tightly controlled by this algorithm and will gradually slow down over time. New bitcoins will cease to be created by 2025. The supply of Bitcoins is relatively fixed unlike national currencies.

These characteristics of Bitcoin have raised questions, for myself and other bloggers on the web, especially in terms of their ability to be utilised in developing countries, and/or their future potential in the developing world. These questions include; can Bitcoin really fulfil the criteria of a sound currency? This is perhaps the most fundamental question as it must establish itself as a sound currency to even be used, whether it be in developing countries or not. What is the potential for Bitcoin to facilitate remittance type transactions? Will the digital divide prevent developing countries from using Bitcoin now or in the future? Is a currency that competes with national currencies desirable?

Bitcoin has yet to prove itself to be a sound currency for a variety of reasons. Firstly the use of Bitcoin to exchange goods and services is nowhere near universal. It is estimated that Bitcoin is accepted by 30,000 businesses, most of these are online businesses. This sounds like a lot, however on the global scale this number is fairly minimal. We can know this intuitively as when we shop online we often don’t see the acceptance of bitcoin. We also cannot go down to the local shop and transfer bitcoins to the shop owner through a devise or through physical forms of bitcoins. Secondly, their limited use prevents the general user knowing how much a bitcoin really is worth. Thirdly, bitcoin has not proven itself to be a sufficient store of value. It has seen great volatility in worth. This volatility has primarily been created by technology enthusiasts speculating on increases and decreases in value. This volatility  can be seen in the graph below.

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However, there is a strong case for Bitcoin’s future as reliable currency. This is because the amount of bitcoins created is set by mathematical algorithms. The supply of bitcoins cannot unexpectedly rise due to a government deciding to print money or change interest rates. In theory this should make the price of Bitcoin fairly stable in the long run. There is also forms of physical bitcoins coming onto the market which enables it to become a more tangible store of value.  These physical forms of Bitcoin can be seen in the header picture. On the coins, there is a number hiding under a covering which can peeled off. This code then can be entered into the bitcoin network, essentially transferring the value of your physical bitcoins to a virtual bitcoin wallet. On the notes there is a Quick Response Code (QR) that can be scanned with a mobile or other devise for it to be transferred to your online wallet. After the transfer is made between physical and virtual forms of the currency, the physical form becomes useless and not re-useable, but at least a physical form of Bitcoin allows for physical trade to occur. There are obvious issues in making a physical bitcoin work, but solutions to these kinks seem to be in a state of development.  These kinks need to be worked out because the establishment of a physical Bitcoin is necessary to create a sound reliable virtual currency, especially for developing countries. For instance, users in developing countries may initially need a physical form to reassure themselves of the durability and security of a virtual currency. Overall, Bitcoin can’t claim to be a sound currency right now, but there is potential for it to be in the future if handled correctly.

Many articles on the web have claimed that Bitcoin has great potential to facilitate international remittances between developed and developing countries. Currently, sending remittances via a financial intermediary such as Western Union or Money Gram is very expensive. Even mobile money services which are also deemed to be the future of sending international remittances come at a cost. Peer to Peer transfers of Bitcoin on the other hand have no transaction cost. This means that a migrant based in a developed country is able to send remittances back home to a family member or friend in their home country without any charge. None of the amount remitted is taken by a financial intermediary. They therefore are able to remit a greater amount of money back home due to the zero cost of the transfer. This is crucial as many people in developing countries rely upon remittances from family members in developed countries. Furthermore, regulations are tightening up around formal remittance channels and is basically driving small remittance agencies out of business. Analysis of this can be found in previous articles on this website here and here. The transfer of remittances via Bitcoin is not subject to these stricter regulations as it is a currency that is not (and cannot) be regulated by governments. As a result, Bitcoin could fill the gap of these lost remittance channels in the future.

Aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourselves though? There is a digital divide between the developed and developing world that prevents developing countries from utilising Bitcoin as a financial service. The broadband infrastructure in developing countries is fairly minimal, especially in Africa. Education on the use of computers as well as financial literacy in these countries can also be quite low. As this article has probably shown, Bitcoin is not a straight forward concept to understand for anyone! Is it really realistic to start making claims that Bitcoin can be used by the common user in any of these countries? I think not. However the development industry is increasingly allocating more and more funds into technological and financial education in the third world. Just think of the work carried out by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Companies such as Digicel are also targeting rural areas for infrastructure investment. No other telecommunication company has sufficiently invested in rural areas in the past. Digicel sees a market to be captured unlike these other companies and is setting up towers and broadband networks in these areas. Even though the requirements for the use of Bitcoin in the developing world are not yet present, they are developing slowly. There is a future for virtual currencies in developing countries, however it is a distant future.

The last question to be addressed is whether an unregulated virtual currency like Bitcoin has benefits or disadvantages for users in the developing world. Anything that is unregulated has the potential to be used for immoral purposes. For instance, Bitcoin has been used for online black market purchases of drugs, child pornography, and even for assassin rings. Bitcoin enables these despicable transactions to occur because their encrypted Peer to Peer transactions are untraceable. The Bitcoin black market topic has potential for an article by itself, however this article will focus on the potential positives of an unregulated virtual currency in developing countries. In a report by Roskilde University it is claimed that virtual currencies such as Bitcoin provide a more stable and reliable form of currency than some national currencies. It claims that some currencies such as the Argentine Peso has been so volatile that citizens have started to look for other ways of storing value. This has included buying the USA dollar (which the Argentine government has since made illegal), and the purchasing of bitcoins. This report by Roskilde University is unique in that it offers narratives from Argentine Bitcoin users on why they have started to use it. These stories reveal that these users do not want to be adversely affected by Argentine monetary policy. They want to be liberated from the effects of Argentina’s inept monetary governance. This is one case study, but we can see its transferability to other countries that have struggled or are struggling with monetary policy. These include Zimbabwe and various post-soviet countries in the 1990s, whose currencies underwent hyperinflation. Most of these recent cases of hyperinflation have occurred in countries that can be considered as “developing”. In these periods of hyperinflation would you want to lug around wads of worthless cash like in the picture below? Or would you want bitcoins that cannot be manipulated by government monetary policy? The answer is obvious, however a more fundamental question then arises. Is bypassing a government that is responsible for protecting the rights of its citizens a beneficial future?

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So is there potential for Bitcoin in developing countries? And will it be beneficial for its users? The answer is a tentative yes. It will provide a cheaper source of transmitting remittances. It will also give users another method of storing and transferring wealth that is not affected by national monetary policy. However, its use in developing countries is still a very distant future. Further financial and technological education is needed in these countries, as well as the construction of network infrastructures especially in rural areas. There are also potential negatives such as the use of Bitcoin in shady online black market trading and the undermining of governments that need to be more thoroughly considered. These potential negatives will be more thoroughly addressed in a part two of this article coming soon. But there is promise that Bitcoin can improve the quality of financial services for those living in developing countries in the distant future.

 

Concept Corner: How Should Poverty be Assessed?

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Welcome to the first edition of concept corner. These recurring articles will analyze concepts that we may take for granted and don’t take time to time to think about in our busy everyday lives. These articles will describe concepts in an accessible, easy to read format for a general audience. In this edition the term poverty will be explored and what it means to those that experience it. This is a concept we all believe we know, we look at pictures of people in poverty, often on the news, in magazines, and online, and recognize the desperateness of their situation. These pictures usually consist of groups of people desperately crowding around a UN truck delivering supplies, or landscape shots of people being forced to live in refugee camps, struggling to get by. The poverty in these pictures can usually be attributed to an event such as a war or environmental disaster (think Palestinian refugee camps and the Haiti earthquake). Whilst these are obviously legitimate pictures of poverty, I have chosen a different type of image to head up this article. It depicts a girl that we would also all recognize is in poverty (as seen above). Her clothing is slightly ragged, the environment she is in is strewn with rubbish, there are houses that look as though they have been spontaneously put together in an adhoc manner, and not to mention her position between railroad tracks. However her poverty is not portrayed as a desperate situation caused by a cataclysmic event, rather, it is an everyday reality. We also cannot recognize the source of her poverty. She was born there. The picture emphasizes that poverty is not something we just know, and that we need to find ways to understand it in order put forward applicable, effective solutions. This article will describe and analyses three different ways the development industry assesses poverty. The first of these emphasizes that poverty is derived from a lack of material wealth. The second emphasizes a lack of fulfillment of basic human rights. The third emphasizes the presence of social boundaries that prevent the poor from achieving their full life potentials. Each of these will be briefly discussed and critiqued as they all have their strengths and weaknesses in assessing poverty.

The economic perspective of assessing poverty attributes poverty to a lack of material wealth. This perspective seems somewhat obvious. The less money an individual has inhibits their ability to buy essential goods and services such as clothing, food, housing, education and healthcare. This perspective hinges on the concept that money can easily be converted into the goods that individuals need to survive. This is a legitimate manner of assessing poverty as, of course, access to wealth often opens up access to these essential goods. However, we should not pretend that money can solve all problems. For the young girl in the photo, we cannot assume that she is not in school because of her family’s lack of wealth. Perhaps her inability to go to school is derived from her family giving priority to the education of boys rather than girls. We cannot always assume that material wealth is the cause of poverty. The general manner in which this perspective measures material poverty is also misguided. This perspective popularly measures the material wealth of individuals in developing countries by taking the total economic production of their country (their gross domestic product – GDP), and divides it by the amount of people living in the country. The resulting figure shows the average amount of wealth each individual has in the country (GDP per capita). This is a somewhat flawed way of measuring even material poverty. For instance the total economic production of a country includes the production of multinationals such as mining companies. These companies have the ability to extract valuable resources, avoid government tax, and pay their workers a low wage. Meanwhile the majority of profits are then taken off shore. So whilst the production of this company is counted as national production, the people of the country never see a majority of it. Furthermore assessing poverty based on averages has its flaws. It discounts that inequality exists in societies. For instance there is no doubt that the USA is a highly developed country with a high average of income. However it is also clear that many individuals now live in material poverty, much below the national average income, as a result of the financial crisis. The GDP per capita statistic does not account for this. Overall this perspective ignores the non-material causes of poverty. Furthermore it measures material poverty illogically and in a manner that discounts the poverty of those in more developed countries.

The rights based perspective of analyzing poverty attributes poverty to the lack of fulfilled human rights of the most impoverished. The UN has compiled a list of human rights that every individual should have access to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some of these include “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person”, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude”, and “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. In the picture that heads this article it is difficult to ascertain whether the young girl has access to “security of person”. We get the impression she is on her own, in a dangerous place literally between railroad tracks (this can be considered dangerous regardless of whether the line is functioning or not), with a variety of strangers lurking about. Perhaps this is a better, more contextualized approach to assessing her poverty, rather than assuming her family can’t fulfill her basic requirements due to a lack of wealth. Whilst we can all agree that the human rights mentioned above should be included, there are debates about whether other rights should be included or not. “Access to water and sanitation” is not a human right. This may be considered as a prerequisite for the human right of “A standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” which is included. However, does the former specifically need to be singled out due to its importance for the latter? Mohammed Yunus, founder of the micro-finance organization Grameen Bank, has claimed that access to financial services should also be a human right. In his opinion this would allow the poor to fulfill other human rights through the income they earn in entrepreneurial activities (we have seen that this perspective has its flaws). On the flip side, this right has the ability to do harm as it may plunge some borrowers into debt traps. Could we really consider a human right that has the potential to do harm? The rights based perspective measures and assesses poverty based on where we place the bar in terms of the most important human rights. In the examples above it seems as though many believe the bar is too low and that other rights should be included. Others claim it’s too high as we have yet to fulfill a variety of the basic human rights outlined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore who decides on the human rights to be included? Poverty assessment based on a human rights perspective certainly needs input from the communities that experience poverty in order to choose the one’s most appropriate.

The capabilities perspective of assessing poverty considers poverty as not having the freedom to choose from a variety of future life paths. What does this mean? Consider the girl in the picture. Who does she want to be in the future? What options are available to her? Perhaps she aspires to be a parent in the future, a mother, to raise her own children. Perhaps she wants to be educated, enjoy school, have class mates, have a daily interaction with others her age, and to play. Perhaps she wants to have her own business in the future, to be able to access and control money. Perhaps she would like to live a religious and virtuous life. In a variety of societies there are social barriers that inhibit the ability of individuals to choose from a platter of life paths such as these. In the case of this young girl and her future, she may live in a caste system whereby marriage is socially stratified, education may be socially excluded to girls, the presence of women in business may not be well established, discouraged by society whether it be by family members, customers, or institutions such as banks, and there may not be religious tolerance in her country. If this was the case she would have difficulty in choosing from a variety of life paths therefore indicating a level of poverty. The capabilities perspective does not set a bar in the same manner as the rights based approach, but rather has a graduated scale related to an individual’s quality of life. It also does not consider material wealth as the primary basis of fulfilling needs. Rather it assesses social structures and whether they encourage or inhibit individual’s life desires. There are however contradictions in the capability approach. The most glaring is how can we measure capabilities, and someone’s ability to fulfill different life paths? This difficulty can be seen in the following example. In some religions; mobility, education, and participation in business is restricted to certain portions of the population. Members of these religions may “willingly” forgo freedoms and claim that they are adhering to their religious beliefs. But to what extent are religious doctrines a mechanism for the most powerful members in society to control behavior? The capability approach has trouble assessing poverty when such conflicts arise.

This article has provided a little teaser into how we should measure and assess poverty. Each approach can be debated at length much further. However I hope this article has at least introduced the idea that poverty can be measured and assessed in different ways, and that each approach has its shares of strengths and weaknesses. I believe it is a useful addition to this blog as we come to discuss the role of the latest technological interventions in reducing poverty. We must always consider what perspectives of poverty development technology implementers adhere to. In this way we can see the strengths and the weaknesses of such implementations, and therefore offer a constructive opinion on how they can be improved.