Thursday, 5 July 2007

The noble savage inhabits Vanuatu

At the risk of arousing the ire of colleagues with first hand knowledge of the island paradise of Vanuatu (which to my mind was memorable as the team with which it was hardest to win FIFA 98 on the Nintendo 64), I have just seen the most stupid article on the BBC News.

As my regular reader will know, the Beeb have set a pretty high standard, but this article leapt over its rivals with the grace of a gazelle.

The general premise of the article was a romantic paean for the simple life of the primitive islander. It stems from Vanuatu’s top place on the "Happy Planet Index" drawn up by the New Economics Foundation, which ought to set alarm bells ringing (for “new” read “no understanding of”). The people of Vanuatu are happier than any other nation on Earth, apparently, and yet they are poor and consume few resources. So begins a classic BBC dream-piece about the glories of the simple life and the happiness of the noble savage.

“I have food from my garden, no war, and nothing to fear” one islander tells us, and it is hard to deny that that sounds pretty idyllic. And perhaps I am a jaded Westerner who must always look for cold hard facts to counter an old woman’s perception of her homeland. But I do not have to look far to discover that the infant mortality rate is ten times that of the United Kingdom, or that life expectancy is a fifth shorter.

Not that I am denying that she is happy; I merely wonder how carefully Andrew Harding, the reporter, chose his interviewee. I note that he did not choose the woman whose fifth child had died, or who was widowed at 34. I do not doubt that many residents of Vanuatu are superbly happy, and even I can see the apparent attraction of their life (as painted by the BBC). But I also do not doubt that the reporters have carefully chosen their subject matter to present an Arcadian view of this furthest of tiny islands to their largely metropolitan audience. The article is not about life in Vanuatu; it is about dreams in Islington.

It was also strangely discomforting. The article particularly focussed upon the use of pig tusks as currency on the island of Pentecost. But it had an awkward feel to it; one was unsure whether this being presented as highly innovative or amusingly quaint. The only thing that was clear was that Harding seemed as confused as his viewers.

His lack of understanding of economics is also apparent. In the version of the article that appeared on the 10 O’clock News (which differs from the internet version), we were told that the country is becoming wealthier because there are more pig tusks. Those of a less mercantilist bent might wonder whether this explains the 15% interest rates that the banks are offering; the last time the UK saw 15% interest rates, we were fighting run-away inflation and a currency crisis.

“It all adds up to a stable and prosperous community,” Harding narrates. “There is a sense of harmony and happiness...” On the next island, development – which seems to include building modern housing – is described as turning the place into a dump. There is an interesting – some might say a stark – lesson here. What Vanuatu appears to have is a largely homogenous community, a traditional society and wide-spread poverty. As a result, there is no ethnic tension, no social unrest and nothing of which to be jealous. Harding implies that we could all learn from Pentecost, but are we really prepared to give up multiculturalism, our freedom to live an alternative lifestyle, and the ambition to improve ourselves?

In truth I must be a jaded Westerner, because I suspect there is a wilful blindness in Harding’s report. “There is no hunger here, no unemployment, no tax, no police, no crime or conflict to speak of,” he tells us, but I cannot help thinking that for these farmers and fishermen hunger must be a hazard of life, as it has been for all subsistence farmers and fishermen throughout history; that unemployment never exists if one is prepared to hunt and gather; that crime may be merely unreported, as the usual violence and petty wickedness that afflicts every society is considered routine; and that conflict may not be international, but must surely exist between individuals, families and gangs. If not, it would have to be more than just paradise. It would have to be unique in human history.

I don’t mean to knock the islanders. I hope they are as happy as Harding and the New Economics Foundation suggest. But I despise the glorification of their lifestyle by Western news crews that fly in for a brief taxpayer-funded film shoot before returning to their London flats where they will worry about their carbon footprints over cocktails atop the OXO Tower. This report says less about the levels of happiness to be found in Britain and Vanuatu than it does about what journalists consider to be The Good Life.

I note that Andrew Harding showed no desire to live there. I doubt the people of Pentecost would want him to.

1 comment:

Butts said...

Yes Mr Papworth you do sound like a jaded Westerner.

Vanuatu aside, I value your articles and the comments, especially the current discussion on Craig F Smith's ideas.