Urban Growth
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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.

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.

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Reading Group Summary: November 9th, 2020

Article Discussed: Storey, D., & Murray, W. E. (2001). Dilemmas of development in Oceania: the political economy of the Tongan agro‐export sector. Geographical Journal, 167(4), 291-304.

Greg Watt

There has been an unquestioned neoliberal push for Pacific peoples to transition from traditional lifestyles towards modernity. Economic considerations appear to dominate development, with little regard of the social or cultural effects accompanying such structural changes. The article concerning opportunities afforded by the establishment of horticulture for export, by Storey and Murray (2001), is a salient censure of one-dimensional strategies. Pacific societies are imbued with strong hierarchical structures, and well-intentioned development can be manipulated by those positioned within upper levels to maintain or enhance their wealth.  While the article is some decades old, it succinctly identifies core issues of development that are as pertinent today as then.

Along with maintaining traditional Pacifica customs, Tonga also possesses a political system that is unique in the Pacific; still holding a robust monarchical structure. At the date of the article, Tongan nobility kept a strong presence within parliament, while holding traditional hereditary stewardship rights over large estates. The roles are oppositional and have allowed the elite to carry out strategies that enhanced their position and wealth at the expense of squash growers. As a result of feudal practices, the potentiality of economic growth has not been realised. While it can be shown that export value has increased,  consequent monetary returns have been inequitably shared by Tongan communities, with lower social strata being increasingly marginalised. The transition away from traditional subsistence crops has made communities more exposed to economic shock and less socially resilient. In this case, the outcome of development has been that national export earnings have been “more than offset by a rise in import levels, mounting dependency on foreign inputs and increased economic vulnerability” (Storey & Murray, 2001). Tongan experience highlights the need to prioritise social and cultural aspects of developmental projects in the Pacific and that economic considerations must augment rather than subjugate.

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Reading group Summary: October 12th, 2020

Article Discussed: Mitchell, J. (2011). ‘Operation Restore Public Hope’: youth and the magic of modernity in Vanuatu. Oceania81(1), 36-50.

Greg Watt

Mitchell (2011) investigates the dynamic relations between youth, kastomary leaders and the state in Port Vila, Vanuatu, through their perspectives during incidents leading up to, and precipitating in ‘Operation Restore Public Hope”. Outrage and anger concerning irregularities in lending practices by the Vanuatu National Provident Fund exploded into widespread rioting in January 1998, with extensive looting and violence. Actions undertaken by police and state authorities proved ineffectual, and calm was only restored through the instrumental efforts of kastomary leaders. However, despite many rioters handing themselves in, a combined police and VMF action was subsequently carried out. The dawn raid executed in paramilitary fashion, involving blitzkrieg actions, beatings of detainees, and culminated in the apprehension of around 500 people.  

Mitchell (2011) maintains that the event illuminated significant social tensions, where traditional space is contested with urbanised modernity. Two aspects are prominent; firstly, the contesting strategies of kastom leaders and state authorities to define and maintain social order, and, secondly, the contested nature of everyday life in urban situations. In the former, the manifested authority of kastom leaders exposed the impotence of the state, which responded forcibly to “recapture public ritual, law and hope while constituting their right to do so” (Mitchell, 2011). The latter aspect concerns the interaction of customary practices with newer interpretations and the creation of novel social norms. Their juxtaposition is made more significant because of generational perspectives, where “young people are important new actors, and urban settlements are important new features of the postcolonial Vanuatu which is characterised by a deepening engagement in global processes” (Mitchell, 2011). Powerless to counter the force of police and VMF, young detainees resorted to the invocation of traditional sorcery to counter what they perceived as unfounded and unfair actions of modern authority. In the end, it is ironic that the actions of state precipitated an entirely contrasting outcome to their purpose and did little to bring modernity to Vanuatu. Instead, the measures resulted in young ni-Vanuatu mediating newer social norms with traditional kastom.  

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Vanuatu: The Historical-Social Context of Migration to Port Vila and the Moderating Effect of Kastom on Problems of Urbanisation.

Greg Watt

Introduction: Ni-Vanuatu People.

Vanuatu is a collection of around 80 islands located in the southern part of the elongated arm of Melanesian islands stretching from Papua New Guinea in the north, extending southward to New Caledonia to the south. Melanesian peoples migrated down and across from Asian regions, settling in extensive, but loosely related networks of tribal villages over many of the more sizeable islands. Before the arrival of Europeans, Melanesians travelled between islands for barter and trade, and as a consequence, strong home-island identities developed. However, unlike Polynesian peoples who developed island-wide, and even region-wide ruling systems, Melanesian peoples inhabit small independent kin-related villages. Villages are tribally based and collectivised through their common kastom beliefs and language with each village governed by their local chief.  Within Vanuatu, around 130 distinct languages can be found, with no geographic extremes or barriers present to explain the manifested localisation. Epitomising this, Tanna Island possesses seven well-defined languages with four used extensively, despite the island having a relatively gentle topography and a well-developed network of kastom walking trails.

Over 70% of Ni-Vanuatu are located rurally, depend on subsistence living and lead collectivised lives in small villages of 30-40 people.

The Cultural Importance of Wantok Communities.

The Melanesian term wantok arose during the 1800’s out of the need for indigenous peoples to define themselves in the face of interaction with, and domination by, European colonists. While a recent term, its “moral and spirit are integral parts of Melanesian societies since time immemorial” (Nanau G., 2011):

“Wantok is a term used to express patterns of relationships and networks that link people in families and regional localities and is it also a reference to provincial, national and sub-regional identities. It is an identity concept at the macro level and a social capital concept at the micro and family levels particularly in rural areas.”

People that consider themselves to be wantok’s may be bound by a combination of commonality including:

  • Language.
  • Kinship group.
  • Geographical area of origin.
  • Social associations and/or religions.
  • Belief in the principle of reciprocity amongst each other.

The notion of shared social experiences have particular importance for Ni-Vanuatu, and shared responses to natural events are equally important. Melanesia is separated from Polynesia by the Andesite seismic fault line which roughly parallels the arc of the islands and impacts significant parts of Vanuatu with frequent seismic and volcanic activity. Further, climatic conditions in the region are conducive to cyclonic activity with cyclones strengthening as they track southwards from the Solomon Islands. The regular occurrence of extreme physical events has had a lasting effect on Ni-Vanuatu culture, reinforcing its spirituality and underpinning its social fabric. During natural disasters, whole communities (Abbott, 2007), remain isolated for extended periods and island peoples have learned to rely on their collective actions to survive.

Vanuatu has one of the highest likelihoods of being subjected to tropical cyclones in the South Pacific, and also sustains extensive seismic and volcanic activity.

A Rural Majority Living with Subsistence Affluence.

The 2016 Mini Census (VNSO, 2017) shows that 75% of Ni-Vanuatu live in rural locations. Scheyvens and Russell (2013) reference rural Vanuatu as being conflicted, by “subsistence affluence” on the one hand, and a “poverty of opportunity” on the other (Cox M. et al., 2007).  Rural peoples live in traditional communities that still maintain a fairly strict “kastom” way of life, maintaining their livelihood by subsistence agriculture, where monetisation affects only select aspects such as school fees.

The manifestation of “subsistence affluence” is illustrated by the Mini Census (VNSO, 2017) which reveals that 97% of rural Ni-Vanuatu engage in selected vegetable crop production, and 74% produce cash crops, no doubt for sale within local and regional markets. Along with this, 86% of rural peoples also engage in livestock production. Rural peoples are not only able to survive, but can lead full lives provided continuing access to communally held land is assured (Scheyvens R. & Russell M., 2013). Conversely, the “poverty of opportunity” is illustrated by the lack of many essential services, and an absence of national and provincial support, and governance. There is often a lack of access to health, water supply, transport, communications, education and income-earning opportunities that would enable them to improve their standard of living (Cox M. et al., 2007).

Local Ni-Vanuatu spending time in their village gardens, usually from sunrise through to early-mid afternoon.

The Effect of Monetisation and Consequent Economic Migration.

Traditional livelihoods in rural Vanuatu have been based on barter, trade or reciprocity and avoided any formal cash exchange. However, now goods must be paid with hard cash, which in turn, must either be earned, or obtained through the sale of surpluses goods. Opportunities to get employment on outlying islands is scant and generally occurs through agricultural schemes or within the tourism sector. For most, there is little prospect for work without higher levels of education or TVET training (unavailable on outlying islands).  The sale of subsistence goods now takes place in centralised markets and requires vendors to pay to transport their items to market, where they compete with the rest of the island population.  Conversely, essential goods and services have increasingly become monetised, with school fees and books, medical facilities, transport and communication all fuelling the necessity for families to derive a cash income. The inability of communities to earn money coupled with the inescapable need to pay for the most basic of services has marginalised island peoples and placed pressure on them to migrate to urban centres  (Abbott, 2007):

“Can the poor afford to pay? Where incomes are lowest and/or opportunities for employment or other income generation are limited there will be a tendency to migrate where opportunities are perceived to be greater. If this leads to rural depopulation, increasing dependency and a reduction in rural production or productivity, the situation becomes a self-feeding spiral.”

Poor Ni-Vanuatu live within the informal economy and have little means to earn income for essential goods and services.

Vanuatu’s Formal and Informal Economies.

A dual economy exists where, the majority, consisting of at least 70% of Ni-Vanuatu live in a predominantly rural situation, within a traditional cultural environment, and contribute mainly to the informal economy. In contrast, the minority, constituting at most 30%, but more likely closer to 15% of the population work in the formal economy, reside in urban areas, and live their lives in a cultural flux, balancing their traditional way of life with that associated with a “modern” European way of life.

Port Vila is the nucleus of the formal economy, and most economic activity occurs there. The Mini-Census shows that 61% of people living within urban areas are employed, compared to only 19% in rural areas. While rural Ni-Vanuatu look to Port Vila with aspirations to obtain a better life, mostly, motivations are short term where they can have some means to earn money. However, employment opportunities are often impermanent, and for many Ni-Vanuatu living in Port Vila, any thoughts concerning their future are illusionary. The Mini Census highlights the casual and transient nature of employment and reinforces the natural preponderance of uncertainty amongst Ni-Vanuatu (VNSO, 2017).  The greatest obstacle most Ni-Vanuatu face, is the prospect of a future change, one where they have little voice (Cox M. et al., 2007).

Migration from Rural to Urban.

While rural-urban migration was severely controlled during governance by the Anglo-French Condominium between 1906-1980, substantial infrastructure construction carried out by the American presence during the second world war, accorded a cross-section of Ni-Vanuatu with experiences of urban living  (Petrou & Connell, 2017). The abnormally rapid urbanisation at that time had a lasting impact on Ni-Vanuatu. Culturally, the manifestation of the western monetisation system, along with the unbelievable display of wealth of the Americans projected a utopian image of urban living. With improved access to inter-island transportation, sustained migration of outer island peoples has occurred since.

After the second world war, the centralisation of government services, major education institutions, healthcare and most of the country’s infrastructure incentivised migration of Ni-Vanuatu in search for better livelihoods.  Since independence in 1980, neo-liberal economic strategies have been actively encouraged by international development agencies and the majority of tourism infrastructure has been constructed in and around Port Vila, with an increased need for construction and hospitality workers. As a consequence, Port Vila has grown at an extraordinary rate with its population tripling in size in the two decades since 1980 (Chung & Hill, 2002) Throughout the 1990’s urban population growth occurred at an average of 4.0% , around twice that of the rural growth and has continued apace since (Keen & Connell, 2019).

Increased Accessibility to ferry transport amongst Vanuatu’s Islands has hastened inter-island migration.

Creation of Informal Settlements.

Most urban population growth has occurred in the peri-urban fringes around the Port Vila Municipality, consisting of both formal and informal settlements (Komugabe-Dixson, de Ville, Trundle, & McEvoy, 2019). Formal settlements have land tenure, generally cater for tribal affiliates, have embedded chiefly organisational structures and are provided with a variety of resources and infrastructure. Conversely, informal settlements are located on land that is disputed and possesses little or no resources or infrastructure. Having no land tenure rights, or any possibility of obtaining them, migrants are mostly restricted to the informal settlement areas. Keen & Connell (2019, p. 326) observe this as “a growing urbanisation of poverty” where:

“An increasing number of urban residents are marginalised, unemployed and living in informal settlements. Most settlements have inadequate basic services such as water, sanitation, electricity, waste collection, drainage and roads. Public and recreational spaces are rare. Unemployment remains high, especially among youth, which has bred tensions and resentment, with socio-economic inequalities and uneven development becoming more evident. ”

Migrants arriving with little education or skills to offer are often restricted to work within the informal economy unless they are lucky enough to obtain gardening or cleaning positions with hospitality, or domestic work for expatriates or elite Ni-Vanuatu. In any case such work is usually tenuous at best and most livelihoods lie just above or below the poverty line.

Informal Settlements occur in the peri-urban regions around Port Vila and are constructed out of corrugated iron and makeshift materials.

The Moderating Effect of Siloed Communities within Port Vila.

The wantok structure is particularly relevant in Port Vila where a number of the peri-urban settlements are made up of enclaves of groupings from other Vanuatu Islands (Storey, 2003).  Most groupings will possess elements of kinship through their island of origin, which is often demarcated by language. While Bislama, one of the national languages (along with French and English) is understood by most Ni-Vanuatu, quite often home Languages are spoken in preference within siloed communities. Individuals identify strongly with their home islands and will proudly declare that they are Man-Santo, Man-Ambrym as the case may be. Migrants, being separated by their homelands, can hold onto their sense of identity through their strong bonding with wantoks (Nanau G., 2011).  It is not unusual for offspring of migrants, who were born on Efate Island, to follow staunch kastom practices prevalent in their home island, even though they may have never been there.

Given the fragility of income and lifestyle in Port Vila, the provision of support networks (or welfare) in times of hardship is a vital attribute of the wantok system, and the principle of giving or reciprocity is so inbuilt within Ni-Vanuatu that it is sacrosanct. The social and economic support provided is manifested both as an internal process within informal settlements, and an external process between kin and their relatives on their home islands:

  • Internal Process. Support of kin within informal settlements becomes extended from close kin obligations to a wider village level, homeland region or even home-island obligations. If migrant numbers are sufficient within a peri-urban settlement, it is not uncommon for the home island to arrange for an island chief to be sent to the settlement. This enables kastom norms to be reinforced, order and dispute resolution to occur in an organised fashion, and importantly, financial and social support to those experiencing hardship to be ordained.  Ratuva (2014, p. 46)  comments that kinship:

“…. it provides the basis for collective support for the community’s social, economic and psychological needs in times of crisis. It provides a cultural reservoir for what Bourdieu refers to as ‘cultural capital’ (knowledge and skills) that people readily utilise to redress social and economic risks. Response to people’s needs in the form of distribution of goods and services is through kinship obligation and ties.”

  • External Process. Support of kin back home is an important feature of kastom, and in certain circumstances, kin on a home island will support families or family members living in Port Vila under kastom obligations. Ratuva (2014, p. 45) notes:

“Even those who work in urban areas still maintain their links to their land, traditional culture and identity. When the pressure of the market economy increases, people readily fall back on their cultural systems of support to cushion the effects.”

However, increasingly, the need to have support has also flowed in reverse, as in situations when outer islands have been struck by extreme volcanic or cyclonic events necessitating monetary contributions back home. Further, with the increased accessibility of ferry services between home islands and Port Vila, connections with kin provide economic benefits in both directions. Agricultural products such as kava, mainly grown on outer islands, has a ready market in Port Vila and kin connected trade systems provide trusted networks for its transport and sale, with those in both locations benefiting. 

Island communities socialise and provide support networks within siloed peri-urban villages around Port Vila.


The migration of peoples from outer islands to more central urbanised regions is a common occurrence for Pacific nations. For Vanuatu, population movement commenced after the second world war and has accelerated since the country’s independence in 1980. Western societal organisation, and in particular monetary systems along with governance centralisation, have hastened the demise of a mainly decentralised informal rural economy. Planning, resources and the will to cater to the influx of peoples into Port Vila has been inadequate, resulting in most migrants struggling to survive in an urbanisation of poverty. To date, impacts have been moderated by the continued belief and adherence to kastom norms and support from wantok networks. However, should the safety net provided by wantok support systems break-down, substantial social dishevel, accelerated marginalisation, and increased poverty may result.

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By Greg Watt avid traveller and author of travel websites and blogs. Always with an opinion, you can keep up to date and share Greg’s articles on Vanuatu, authentic tourism, social initiatives and human developments’s thorny issues at Watt | follow our footsteps or with Greg himself on his Linkedin Page.


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