Dear Editor,

Hopefully the recent cyclone to the east of Vanuatu is the last for the ‘silly season’, which seems to have gone on much longer than usual.

We all yearn for the strengthening of the southeast Trade Winds and less humid weather. The ‘silly season’ makes people grumpier and angrier than usual and it will be good to see it gone.

Looking at the various developments around town and out beyond Shark Bay that are growing weeds or are otherwise not progressing, one can only feel sorry for the overseas developers, many of whom must be feeling more ‘silly season’ crabby and angry than the rest of us at the lack of any evident progress in their projects.

So to brighten the mood, i offer some light-hearted but hopefully useful advice to the long-suffering overseas developers, which might help them understand where they’ve gone wrong in the past and where they might do better as the Trade Winds return and we all cool down.

First, there really is no point bribing politicians to get anything done in this town – be it quicker approvals, cutting corners with permits and so on. This doesn’t work for several reasons. As every frustrated, newly elected MP soon realizes, politicians actually have very little power to change anything important in Vanuatu.

Second, and this may appear surprising, politicians don’t actually like being bribed. This isn’t to say that like everyone else they don’t need the money – their constituents are always demanding financial benefits for voting for them and their pockets are often empty. It is because during those two hours they spend every Saturday or Sunday in Church they are forced to reflect on their sins, start to feel guilty about accepting your money, and then blame you for it. This means that the smiling MP or Councillor pocketing your cash on Thursday is the sullen, surly and unsympathetic guy behind the desk who is too busy to give you his time the following Tuesday.

No one likes being owned by someone else – that is called slavery – and politicians have perhaps more than the normal amount of pride in being beholden to none.

Remember too that public servants, while having of course more power than politicians, don’t have a great deal of effect on what happens around town either. Their main skill, and a much-needed one it is, is in avoiding the demands of politicians for special treatment of the developer who has just bribed them.

Next, you have to realize that Vanuatu is not the military dictatorship that you come from and are used to operating in – my reference is of course to countries like “Trumpland”. Just because you think you have the ear of the Government doesn’t mean the Government can do your bidding and have annoying local residents silenced or thrown in jail.

The Judiciary here has more experience in jailing corrupt politicians than in persecuting innocent people on behalf of grumpy ‘silly season’ developers. And Vanuatu is a much better country than yours because of it.

Thirdly, take a long hard look at the local ‘fixers’ you have hired, those free with their advice – for a price of course. They promised you the ear of Minister X who can persuade Minister Y to give you your approval. They told you the environmental regulations have no teeth and you can ignore them at will. They suggest that ‘bending’ the conditions of that Permit will be silently tolerated by the Department in question. So my question to you is this: Has anything actually panned out the way they told you they could ‘fix’ it to? If not, now the ‘silly season’ is over, get rid of them and start talking to some honest people for advice.

There are no secrets in this town, it leaks like a sieve from every disgruntled politician passed over for preferment, every public servant put upon by a boorish politician trying to get a deal for his ‘mates’, from every nakamal every evening where someone just overheard something overheard by X’s house-girl. Everyone already knows whom you are bribing and how much you are paying off what Sub-Committee for its cooperation.

Fifthly, and perhaps most important of all, it is bad enough forcing some cash-strapped rugby or tiddlywinks team to wear your company logo on their shirts, but really ‘silly season’ to accept someone’s advice for you to put your own name on them. It just looks arrogant and insensitive. Sack the fool who suggested you do that immediately! Unless of course you want people to think you really are arrogant and insensitive. In that case, just go ahead – and give him a pay raise for a job well done.

The main problem you face here is the overwhelming politeness of people in Vanuatu. It might be considered rude to refuse an offer of money, or even a free rugby shirt with your name emblazoned on it, but the basic fact is, as alluded to above in the case of politicians, it won’t earn you anyone’s respect, but ultimately only their resentment.

A handshake is taken extremely seriously in Vanuatu. Refusing to shake the proffered hand of someone, even if you think they are likely to be against you or (from your point of view) are currently causing you problems is more than foolish; in traditional Vanuatu society it constitutes a declaration of war. Such high-handedness recently cost one developer millions of vatu. Was it worth it to (attempt to) show who was the boss? I don’t believe their nervous shareholders would think so if they knew.

So, what can the well-meaning, but until now very poorly advised, developer do as the weather improves over the next few months? Primarily, it is to be a good neighbor – friend to all and enemy to none. You will have noticed that there are effectively no planning rules in Port Vila at present and might be tempted to think that you can therefore get away with anything you want to do, with all the caveats I’ve mentioned above of course.

But the truth is very different. If you sit down with the local community where you are intending to build, one on one and certainly not with a battery of lawyers or (God forbid!) local ‘advisers’, and listen and act on their concerns, then you will find that things will go much more smoothly. Who knows, your development might actually get finished! It certainly won’t get finished otherwise.

Do you really need that final floor to your building that will block people’s views? No, of course you don’t. Is it a good idea to buy out the people who will be most affected by the dust and the noise for a few hundred thousand vatu more than you think the neighboring properties are really worth? Of course it is. So, humble yourself and involve the local community in your planning, and revise those plans if need be. As you’ve already found out to your cost, there really are no ‘little people’ in Vanuatu whose opinions don’t matter.

And also please stick to reasonable working hours. The good neighbour may not be able to stop making a horrible noise while building but limit it to 8am to 4.30pm weekdays and finish work on Saturday at 12 noon sharp. People will love you for it. And never make noise on Sundays and Public Holiday.

The well-meaning ‘new chum’ developer can be forgiven at this time of the year for all those ill-advised actions of the ‘silly season’ just passed. Yes, you have indeed been taken for a ride by those claiming they could help you out. Yes, you’ve got your fingers more than burned in the process. Yes, you’ve made enemies of neighbours you really didn’t need to have offended.

During the long and sultry ‘silly season’ everyone in town goes a bit mad, what with the heat and humidity, the threat of cyclones, and this year an uncooperative active volcano on Ambae. But to everyone’s relief the Trade Winds are about to strengthen again and sanity will soon return to all the good people of Port Vila.

Time to shake off those ‘silly season’ attitudes and dodgy developer practices and to start treating the people of Port Vila and Vanuatu with the respect they deserve. Oh, and ditch the ‘fixers’ who have got you to this point where your investors and wavering and wondering if you will ever finish your project. You are much better off without them.

Also there are some post ‘silly season’ actions our new Council can take too – how about framing some planning laws for Port Vila? We want to see rules on sensible working hours, compulsory neighbor consultations, height restrictions, proper building codes, attention to utilities infrastructure – especially sewerage and impacts on local traffic of developments, some actual urban planning taking place and also a one-stop shop where residents can come in and view new building plans and, if necessary, have a number they can call if there are concerns or complaints.

The last Council was completely pathetic on these issues and we expect better from the new one.

Until next ‘silly season’ then let’s all act a bit more reasonably.

Matthew Spriggs

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