Friction and misunderstanding, Don Aimer

Journeys Towards Progress: Essays of a Geographer on Development and Change in Oceania
Ray Watters
Victoria University Press, $60.00, 
ISBN 9780864735966

Oceania is in the ring of fire: the earth quakes and volcanoes blow as tectonic plates scrape together. It is also an arena of cultural tectonic plates with mutual friction and misunderstanding. First the forbears of the Polynesian islanders drifted in from southern China and brushed against the original people of New Guinea and the Solomons, before some of them took off into the Pacific.

This book is about the more recent and spectacular cultural subduction as modern Europeans intruded across all sectors of Oceania, where the people lived rather comfortably in groups of villages by mixtures of horticulture, tree management, fishing or hunting. Fifteen to 25 hours a week would feed the family. Eighteenth century European explorers thought they had found Paradise. Fast forward to post-WWII. Paradoxically, people living this same comfortable subsistence life had now become underdeveloped and impoverished because they had no cash, no education, no health services and no future. The White Man’s burden was transformed to White Man’s guilt as the rage of the colonised began to be heard in the new international agencies. Along with the technological revolution in the West went a change of vision as we accepted universal rights to education, health and the good life.

Powered by the 1948 World Bank concept that two-thirds of the world lived in poverty because they had less than US$100 a year, it became the task of international agencies to put the world to rights. The colonial powers, now forced to decolonise, had an inescapable moral duty to do their part in promoting development.

This is where Ray Watters comes in. He was Associate Professor of Geography at Victoria University and calls himself a working journeyman. After a “yeah, right” moment, I realised that it is a good description. He worked by living with village people, observing their lives, and building theories which sprang from the bottom up. It was actually quite a subversive method because he turned on its head the process used by official and international bodies. His contribution was well recognised and he was chosen to lead several expert investigations of development prospects.

Watters found a huge mismatch between development plans and local cultures, and he saw scheme after scheme fail, because they were out of step with the locals. If health, education and other modern services were to be funded from development it would happen only if schemes fitted the community and were “owned” by them, and his case studies illustrate the point. There are several marvellous passages in which his prose takes flight with the astringency of a satirist as he laments the drop into dependency by leaders who thought they were winging their way to independence. There may be something rose-tinted about this view of things because, while satirists lament the march of folly, it seems to be the way of the world.

Indeed Watters came to understand that micro states such as Samoa and the Cook Islands (and Fiji with variations) managed to evade the developers, and hold onto their semi-subsistence village lifestyles instead of converting to commercial cropping, because they happened across a different way to muddle through. In this Pacific way, the economies are funded by two sources: by remittances sent back to families from members working in overseas metropolises, and by encouraging donor governments like Australia and New Zealand to pay for the public services which are the backbones of their economies. This is all OK by the islanders, and Watters sees no credible way out for the countries footing the bill.

Overall the picture is one of a continuing divide between tradition-based village life and commercial imperatives, while international authorities have to keep pouring money into bloated central towns to keep the show on the road. The problem is that ready access to work in a big country is needed to make the best of it, and this is more available to some than to others. The Cook Islands, with direct access to New Zealand, has about twice the income per head of the other islands.

Journeys Towards Progress is a mine of information about the recent state of Oceania, much of it insightful and vivid. It is essentially a text book that republishes papers and reports relating to the region from Papua New Guinea to Fiji and the micro states of the South Pacific within the period from 1950 to 1980, along with some updating and wider analysis, replete with the lists, recommendations and tables required of reports. Its main appeal will be as a reference for those with a professional interest and for students.

The book does not set out to be a comprehensive current overview of the region. It has both the value and the limitation of a series of snapshots of village life and island economies 25 or more years ago, and most references are to publications of the same vintage. Watters says that the picture is still relevant, but to check this out one would need to accept his invitation to go to other sources.

It is a hard ask for general readers who will quickly find themselves tangled in dense thickets of prose. Let me illustrate: the book cites a model which finds that “participation in the market will depend on linkage to the market”. This statement means that people won’t get their goods to market if there aren’t any roads, a thought which seems blindingly obvious. Academic discourse may need to be a dialect of abstractions but when it is a cover-up for the banal, then we are entitled to invite them to knock it off.

The book begins with a  personal memoir, and it appears to be Watters’ swansong, a sort of apologia pro vita sua. The editing needed to be tighter. The last two chapters wander all over the shop, and some parts belong in the introduction. Maybe he could do one more book, a connected narrative of how things stand now, and aimed at the public.


Don Aimer is a Wellington reviewer.


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