Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Journal Article Review of Widmer, A. (2013) Diversity as Valued and Troubled: Social Identities and Demographic Categories in Understandings of Rapid Urban Growth in Vanuatu.

Urban Growth

Greg Watt and Lucas Watt

Shock demographic statistics about population growth and rural-urban migration in the Pacific are continuously being presented in academic debate. Widmer’s (2013) article, Diversity as valued and troubled: social identities and demographic categories in understandings of rapid urban growth in Vanuatu, gives us an opportunity to analyses how demographic information is engaged with by urban populations and governance institutions in Vanuatu. It analyses how a defined demographic crisis is experienced locally, as well as how it is leveraged in political process. Greg Watt discusses the question how Ni-Vanuatu navigate kastom and modernity in this context of demographic flux and categorization. Lucas Watt discusses how demographic information is used as a political tool to paradoxically unite citizens under a national identity, as well as divide along rural-urban lines in favor of more global cosmopolitan identities. Overall, Widmer’s (2013) article provides a unique perspective that directly focuses on local responses to the process of demographic defining and categorization that dominates the region.

The Social Implications of Rapid Population Growth in Urban Areas – Greg Watt

The article by Widmer (2013) looks at population growth, particularly rapid urban growth through the contested gaze of modernity and kastom. While the study centres on Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, it is likely that similar social friction can be found in other Melanesian cities. The article’s main focus concerns the perspective differences of Ni-Vanuatu towards gender, place, and generation regarding moralising about population growth. Sectoral opinions within Vanuatu problematise representations around these three manifestations.  Further, the occurrence of young unwed mothers is viewed through a complexity of social viewpoints, and there is a lot to unpack. Widmer’s work does an excellent job of describing the issues that inform the various Ni-Vanuatu viewpoints without providing any clear direction for resolution. This is likely deliberate since the currency of the situation has been created as a consequence of historical events and influences. One suspects that Melanesian problems require Melanesian solutions, although much has to do with staunch positioning and refusal to understand others viewpoints.

Widmer unpacks the considerable historical baggage that has influenced local opinions. A resolute adherence to kastom, the introduction of colonial rule along with a heavy missionary influence, and attempts to install a national identity post-independence provide significant context. The historical interplay is continued through the contested gaze of the traditional Ni-Vanuatu living as it negotiates modernity through socio-economic influences advocated by a globalised world. The significance of varying dimensions of cultural diversity and modernity within Vanuatu is illustrated by the fact that Widmer has chosen to address this at the outset.

At the heart of the issue is rapid population growth and the inability of both urban and rural regions to sustain significant population increases. Widmer provides a detailed description of burgeoning population growth and of a newly formed nation ill-equipped to deal with the social consequences of a broad demographic pyramid. A sobering account is given of the colonial attitude towards Melanesians and the indifference given to their future well-being. Continuing population growth has promoted the imagery of a young generation without the possibility of a future, urban areas beset by social unrest and scenarios of political unrest. Despite this, consecutive governments have maintained a neutral stance out of an inability to provide a clear pathway ahead and a fear of backlash from their constituencies. Instead, government action has been described as weak, by restricting itself to taking population censuses and creating development plans. Despite this, national rhetoric concerning national identity and concern for future generations is extensive, manifested by the likes of “Children’s Day”.

Of the three sectoral manifestations, that of place has been dealt with first. Migration fuels not only urban population growth but also exacerbates social issues within urban areas. The fact that island identities compete with and are more important than national identities forms a fundamental societal difference for some. Island people are largely rural-based, and their migration to urban areas is looked on with disdain by urbanites. In particular, people from the home villages of Mele, Ifira and Erakor, refer to a previous time where local kastom dominated and life was much simpler. Migrants from outlying islands are viewed as socially inferior, lazy and unsophisticated. Widmer contends that migrants are often restricted in their work options and are more vulnerable due to their limited earning capacity. Their opportunities to forge ahead are narrowly defined, and the ability to acquire improved skills and education is minimal.

Generational differences are addressed next, where differences in societal structures and environment have been most clearly influenced by globalised perspectives. The narrative of village elders is common throughout the Pacific; youth, when separated from the social structure of their village, are not interested in kastom, don’t obey kastomary rules and have little regard for their elders. The older generation blames this disregard by youth for the explosion in urban populations. They point out that traditionally, people would wait until their child could walk before having another, and time children with the village gardening cycles. Continuing with the narrative, elders believe that this separation with kastom and kastomary work has led youth to ignore the future consequences of their actions, culminating in a lot of pregnancies.

The difference in Gender perspectives, perhaps the most significant of the three sectoral manifestations, is dealt with last by Widmer. While the discussion is located in Pango Village (due to the diversity of village identity), similar themes can be imagined throughout Vanuatu. The specificity of Pango village relates to its closeness to central Port Vila, which, consequently, has lost its connection with kastomary practices more than other areas of Efate Island. The inference is that this loss of social practice is responsible for the dramatic increases in pregnancies. Much of the pessimistic attitude towards young women originate from local rumours and gossip, which perpetuates and concretises opinion rather than placing occurrences in their situational context. Hence people of Pango are seen as having lost their kastom by people from outlying islands; worse, young mothers are seen as selfish and reckless. Contrastingly, it is kastomary and missionary influences that inhibit more freely available birth control, which may contribute significantly to increased pregnancies. Further, it appears that it is always the women who are judged, not only by the community but also immediate family, manifesting very gendered culpability:

The parents of the prospective father would not chastise the man in the same way. Nor is there really a social category of ‘young father’ that garners the same moral concern. (Widmer, 2013, p154)

In most cases, young women returned to their parent’s house and would be ultimately be supported by their parents, with only intermittent support from the child’s father. The young women themselves often withdraw from society for fear of becoming the center of gossip. Interestingly, their vulnerability stems mainly from the kastomary practices that they are accused of ignoring. They largely avoid places where sorcery attacks could occur, along with taboo places where their clan’s ancestral spirits are located.

Widmer’s article achieves what it sets out to do, describing and explaining the context surrounding the high birth rate in Port Vila. While there is no proposed resolution to the social issues at hand in urbanised Melanesia, these are unlikely to be found from the lofty heights of western academia swimming in its bath of modernity. Are there solutions? Perhaps, but meaningful solutions are only likely to occur from within. The central issue at hand surrounds the contested worldview of Melanesian kastom and western modernity. If advocates of both perspectives are provided with a broad and balanced knowledge (itself contested), then ultimately, some convergence can be expected, and a glocalised culture may solidify. The real problem is that in the interim, the socio-economic needs of young urban Ni-Vanuatu are largely absent, particularly young unwed mothers, compounding social issues and ultimately leading to increasing poverty and disharmony.  Unfortunately, social responsibility for the vulnerable is currently beyond the resources of most Melanesian governments.

The Paradox of Celebrating and Denigrating Population Demographic Statistics in the Pacific – Lucas Watt

Widmer (2013) starts her article by describing a scene of celebration on Children’s Day with joyous marches through the street, dancing on floats, the waving of banners, and synchronized chanting. This day was highly aligned with World Population Day which had been celebrated days earlier in the same streets. In the World Population Day celebrations slogans such as “everyone counts” were offered upon the crowd. A similar sentiment could be felt during the Children’s Day celebrations which could be extrapolated out to “every child counts”. Widmer (2013) contextualizes that these festivals were mobilized by the Vanuatu government around preliminary results around the 2009 Vanuatu national census being released. These public celebrations centered around the demographic counting and categorizing of the national population was part of a nation building project aimed at binding together peoples who originate from many different islands and generations across Vanuatu. Widmer (2013) also alerts us to other markers of demographic information being on public display such as the population clock outside the Vanuatu National Statistics Office. This clock, like the statistical demographic celebrations of the festivals, is designed to bind people together. A numerical clock is the perfect symbol of this as all people defined as national citizens are included under the same statistic. It is an everyday symbol that nudges people towards accepting that notion of a national social identity.

Demographic statistics have not typically been a fulcrum to unify around. Rather, demographic information has been used to locate blame for current urban issues. Urban growth and rural-urban migration statistics are typically used to argue that the moral foundations of Pacific societies are eroding. The most common trope appealed to is that an increasing number of rural-urban migrants disconnected from their rural traditions are lured into immoral urban behavior such as gambling, drinking, and promiscuity. Widmer (2013) does seem to argue that much of this demographic lament come from urban citizens who place blame on other demographic groups whether it be on other ethnicity, class, or generation groups. From Widmer’s fieldwork we can see that citizens do lament this demographic difference. However, what cannot be discounted, and what I personally emphasize here, is that politicians and governance institutions are also in the habit of stoking this demographic divide in ways that are antithetical to the message promoted in Children’s Day and World Population Day. I am reminded of Connell (2003) who described the discourse concerning rural-urban migrants in Suva Fiji coming from the highest level of governance.

In Suva, even as the police arrested shoeshine boys, a Senior Superintendent noted that some young street beggars came from Navua, thirty kilometres west of Suva, and stated: ‘These kinds of people do not need to be on the streets. They have homes and families to look after them. They make things worse for people trying to earn a decent living shining shoes’… They similarly argued that beggars were from as far as Ba and Tavua, both more than a hundred kilometres away: ‘how can these people be doing these things because they must have come from a family? What is the family doing now?’ (Connell, 2003)

The message is that rural-urban migrants are different from the emerging middle class, bureaucratic, educated, urban citizen. They should stay in their place and cultivate their rural traditional morality which they leave behind when coming to the city. The middle class urban citizen can respect rural traditional morality, but they should not stand by its corruption in urban locations, and they certainly should not stand for its corruption operating alongside their own supposed morally advanced counterpart in the city. This is a much more decisive message than that seen in festivals such as Children’s Day and World Population Day. Urban citizens latch upon this dividing rhetoric as much as uniting rhetoric, even if they are in locations such as informal settlements which are the target of much of this rhetoric. We must be careful not to be dismissive of the very real challenges that rapidly changing population demographics pose for Pacific societies, however what I am emphasizing here is that we must acknowledge that statistical demographic information is not used solely by politicians and governance institutions as a uniting mechanism, but also as a dividing mechanism. There is an uneasy paradox of both the celebration and denigration of demographic information. This paradox leaves me with three fundamental questions:

  • 1) Why are population demographics being celebrated on Children’s Day and World Population Day?
  • 2) Why do we also see the denigration of demographic difference operating alongside such celebrations?
  • 3) What does this paradox say about Pacific societies?

Widmer (2013) goes some way to answer these questions. With regards to the first question, the nation building project has been a challenge for the Pacific island states in the post colonial era. Pacific populations generally identify with their, village, or island of origin, more than the notion of a national identity (Leach, Scambary, Clarke, Feeny, & Wallace 2013) . The geographic scales of which Pacific peoples identify with may of course change over time especially as migrations and separations from rural places become inter-generational. However, right now, there is generally the maintenance of these more localized identity affiliations over national affiliation. All of these identity differences all come into contact with one another in urban locations as a central locus point. As such, the Pacific city is a hub of difference rather than unity which can culminate in violence, marginalization, and discontent. It is for these reasons we have seen ideas of nationhood across the Pacific fail. Widmer (2013) does well to identify itaukei and indo-Fijian ethnic differences in Fiji culminating in a series of political coup centered on Suva city, but extending across Fiji. Inter-ethnic differences between Malaitans and Guadacanalians also culminated in fighting and tensions in the city of Honiara in Solomon Islands. In this broader regional context is not surprising that the notion of difference is attempted to be minimized in Vanuatu and across the Pacific through public display. At the heart of these efforts is the narrowing of difference between demographics as seen in Children’s Day and World Population Day.

As a parallel example, the Hibiscus Festival in Suva Fiji has historically put on a beauty pageant where contestants are judged upon a criteria of… yes beauty… but also around a shared and promoted idea of what it means to be a “good citizen” in Fiji (Bossen, 2000). Since its inception in 1956, the festival has been used to normalize the idea of the Fijian citizen between different itaukei living in Suva city. As the festival has developed there have been more regional beauty pageants in other Fijian urban centers and islands which provide contestants an avenue into the Hibiscus Festival. In this sense the Hibiscus Festival circuit is inclusive of regional difference across Fiji but with the effect of molding this regional difference into unity. Interestingly, I must note, that this normalization of the Fijian citizen was not successfully applied to other ethnicities such as Indo-Fijians and Chinese until well after independence, but restricted to itaukei. The Hibiscus Festival, just like the Children’s Day and World Population Day, has been used as a way of rallying the population around a shared national identity. See Roxane de Waegh’s review of Bossen’s (2000) article on the Hibiscus Festival, and the intersections between nation building projects in the Pacific and tourist oriented festivals.

So why then, with regards to the second question, do we see that demographic differences being exacerbated in direct conflict with these very clear efforts to reduce difference as part of the nation building project? The answer, for me at least, is that projects of developing more global cosmopolitan identities in the Pacific are in direct opposition to more nationalistic identities. These cosmopolitan identities are being developed specifically in urban centers in the Pacific and they take cues from other global cities that Pacific peoples are highly connected to such as Auckland in New Zealand, Sydney in Australia, or Los Angeles in the United States. We have discussed in a previous review, an article by Besnier (2004), which discusses the development of consumer cosmopolitanism in the fea (markets) of Nuku’alofa in Tonga. These cosmopolitan identities unite those within the urban boundary with the same general ethos, which potentially extend to unite people across multiple Pacific cities. The development of cosmopolitan identity across the Pacific may be a positive development as it may allow Pacific people across national boundaries to mobilize under the same banner against global injustices that affects their region as a whole, such as climate change.

However the emergence of urban cosmopolitan identities does not narrow differences between national urban and rural difference, rather it exacerbates them. The ethos in rural forms of national citizenship are often appealed to as a uniting national foundation, whether it be through the experience of agricultural labor, consuming and sharing products and produce from land, or connection to shared ancestors through land. Urban cosmopolitanism attempts to connect with other global forms of citizenship in ways that are different from localized rural identities. When we see the rhetoric that emphasizes demographic difference across the rural-urban divide from Pacific politicians and governance institutions, I believe we are seeing an attempt to cultivate an urban Pacific cosmopolitan identity which is to the direct expense of these nation building projects such as Children’s Day, World Population Day and the Hibiscus Festival. The urban cosmopolitan effort denigrates rural-urban migrants and population growth as barriers to achieving this supposedly more progressive form of global identity. I think this relationship between national and cosmopolitan projects could be explored in greater detail and clarity in future.

With regards to the third question, what this paradox says about Pacific society is that Pacific identities are trying to be appealed to on a number of fronts for a number of different purposes. Pacific peoples historically identify with more village, island, or sub regional affiliations; the notion of nationhood is and has historically being attempted to be developed to foster national ethnic stability; global cosmopolitan identities are starting to emerge and is being leveraged to mobilize Pacific populations against global issues such as climate change. Demographic information is leveraged in inventive ways, whether for the purpose for uniting or dividing, by politicians and governance institutions, to develop these identities. What we see as a result is a region with its identity in flux and confusion. Is this useful? Is this efficient? Do we need to layoff these projects? or do we need a more co-ordinated agreed upon approach? These are the questions Widmer’s article inspired and I would love to hear your own thoughts and feedback below!

Banner Image: Children’s Day celebrations in Vanuatu (Credit: Vanuatu Daily Post)

TransOcean is a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project 

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 802223


Besnier, N. (2004). Consumption and cosmopolitanism: Practicing modernity at the second-hand marketplace in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. Anthropological Quarterly, 7-45.

Bossen, C. (2000). Festival Mania, Tourism and Nation Building in Fiji: The Case of the Hibiscus Festival, 1956—1970. The Contemporary Pacific, 123-154.

Connell, J. (2003). Regulation of space in the contemporary postcolonial Pacific city: Port Moresby and Suva. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 44(3), 243-257.

Leach, M., Scambary, J., Clarke, M., Feeny, S., & Wallace, H. (2013). National identity in fragile states: insights from tertiary students in Melanesia and Timor-Leste. Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 51(4), 447-478.

Widmer, A. (2013). Diversity as valued and troubled: social identities and demographic categories in understandings of rapid urban growth in Vanuatu. Anthropology & medicine20(2), 142-159.


  • gregwatttraveller

    Greg Watt is an advocate for authenticity in tourism and travel. Greg has previously lived in Papua New Guinea, has had an involvement with tourism in Vanuatu for the past thirteen years and presently has a close association with a community-based tourism project on Tanna Island (seven years). Greg is a doctoral candidate at Auckland University of Technology, and his Master’s thesis was titled “A Pro-Poor Tourism Case Study: Efate Island, Vanuatu” which looks at ways that poor Ni-Vanuatu can benefit through tourism. For a more detailed look at Greg’s involvement within development and tourism have a look at his blog articles which can be found at https://watt.nz.

  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

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