PENAMA celebrated Silver Jubilee; But the Provincial Govt. is in Leadership Dire Straits

Paramount Chief Jaques Sese escorts PM Bob Loughman during kastom ceremonial welcome

Thank you, Prime Minister, (Bob Loughman Weibur), Minister of Trade (James Bule), Minister of Finance (Johnny Koanapo Rasou) and Minister of Infrastructure (Jay Ngwele) for this historic and memorable joint visit to PENAMA province to mark its Silver Jubilee (25th anniversary).

The Head of State President Obed Moses Tallis also decorated numerous PENAMA citizens on this colourful occasion. Overall, everything went well.

A Historic and worthwhile Mission

Having a high-powered delegation including the Head of State, the PM and three senior Ministers grace the Silver Jubilee with their presence is unprecedented. During the celebrations the PM announced a long list of projects including infrastructure, transportation and machinery, and fishing gear as the Government’s contributions to the province’s rehabilitation following Tropical Cyclone Harold, the volcanic disaster of 2017, and Covid-19.

The costs involved. Waste of Funds?

A big delegation accompanied these leaders’ visits. The immediate negative reaction could be summed up in three words – ‘waste of money!’ But when you reflect a bit more, and deeper, you have to accept firstly that the funds expended were not dished out freely to people. Services were paid for. The Government paid for air fares (back into its own ailing airline – Air Vanuatu, and the Unity Airlines and Air Taxi – private sector support). Officials paid for accommodation in the province (support to our almost dead tourism accommodation sector). Root crops, fruits and vegetables (support to our local catering businesses and to poor farmers for their agricultural produce). Transportation Hire (support to our transport owners who need an income for their families and to repay their vehicle loans with the banks thus keeping our small Ni-Vanuatu businesses alive).

Secondly, when you compare a mission such as this with the +/-4,000 civil servants who spend millions in Port Vila, Luganville and provincial HQs every single day for 365 days per year, it might help all of us to form a fairer and better opinion when it comes to hosting some important events out in rural Vanuatu once in a while. That’s if we are genuinely concerned about ‘rural development’, ‘decentralization’ and ‘service delivery’.

Of the 4,000 civil servants serving in Government, some 80% of them (i.e. 3,200 officers) are based in Port Vila and Luganville combined. Let’s say each of these 3,200 workers spends per unit a conservative amount of only Vt2,000 per day (to cover bus fares, meals, electricity, rental, fuel, school fees, phone cards, medical services and groceries). In total these people actually spend Vt6.4 million per day.

On a 5-day week, at least Vt32 million, and Vt128 million per month bringing this to an annual total of over Vt1.5 billion in Port Vila and Luganville alone, just for their personal needs. Whether or not they deliver results in the workplace, that’s another story.

Raise the unit spend to Vt5,000 per day (which is more likely the case on average) you end up spending Vt16 million per day, Vt80 million per week, Vt320 million per month, and a whopping Vt3.8 billion per annum. We spend these ‘exorbitant’ amounts of funds in the two urban centres without even blinking an eye, or thinking about it, and without raising anybody’s eyebrows, or without criticisms in the media (social or otherwise). Nobody kicks up a fuss about it. But when we spend a far lesser amount in a province, some shout foul. Something is wrong, somewhere.

Our borders are closed, which should be a blessing in disguise so we stop the unnecessary overseas trips and instead spend more time out in the islands with our people to support them and to better understand their development challenges so we can respond better and more effectively to their needs. It’s high time we seriously got out of Port Vila on development drive to give effect to the country’s overarching policy of decentralization and the development of our Area Councils as pushed for by the former administration and which is being upheld by the present government. This is our golden opportunity to create serious impact at the provincial level. Analyzing and assisting our provinces purely from remote control won’t work. All of our provinces need help (some more than others). Their provincial governments are in deep trouble. One of them is PENAMA Province.

The PENAMA Provincial Government (PPG) – Leadership in Dire Straights Of all the 6 provincial governments across the country, PENAMA appears to be the worst run of the entire lot. I hasten to add and to clarify that the current situation has absolutely nothing to do with the impacts of Covid-19; not at all.

You will recall some years ago the Government appointed an Administrator to run the PPG for a while because of the way it was very poorly managed and administered. We’re talking here about a province that has produced some of the most talented, skilled and educated minds of this country.

I experienced this week firsthand the embarrassing and crippled situation at the provincial Government during my visit with the Hon PM’s delegation to mark the province’s Silver Jubilee. The PPG requires some serious structural and policy reforms and to get it overhauled and revamped, as well as to breathe life and fresh air back into it. Injecting a lot of money into its Area Councils without first fixing the provincial machinery makes no sense at all. Our best intentions will fall if we do not rectify these provincial institutional structures and settings.

Former SG now Pastor Keith Mala of Longana, DG Trade and I spoke passionately and boldly on Tuesday this week during a brief ‘Public Toktok’ session on stage at Saratamata to raise our views on the overall situation at PENAMA. Leaving things as they are is irresponsible and will only drive the provincial government machinery into the ground.

Next week’s column will dwell a bit more on my observations and some insider information from reliable sources within the PPG.

Howard Aru is current CEO of the Vanuatu Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (VFIPA) and former Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity, and the Ministry of Health.

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