September 2019 will mark exactly 21 years ago since the birth of the Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authority (VIPA) in 1998. But 21 years later VIPA is still struggling with the burning question of “Chinese Shops”. The issue is far worse today than it was back then.

Has VIPA lost the plot? Has the agency lost its sense of direction or have other institutions and laws worked against it to a point where it is now just powerless to do anything anymore?

Take for instance the building you see in the above picture. When captured on the writers camera on 16th May 2019, a signboard at the front read ‘Butchery’.

That signage has since quietly disappeared and the building now houses another one of those beloved Chinese retail shops, again! I am not anti-Chinese investments, but very much opposed to the idea of Chinese-owned retail shops encrouching into areas where ni-Vanuatu businesses struggle to survive. And that’s what I think the Government should be concerned about too.

Passport sales don’t directly benefit our locals. It is what the citizens themselves are able to do in terms of economic livelihoods that matter to them.

And it is our duty in Government to protect and safeguard those efforts by our indigenous people. That should also be part of our localisation policy. Furthermore, we talk about empowering ni-Vanuatu citizens.

But where’s the action part? Are we serious or are our words just plain lip service and hot air?

On its part, VIPA seems not to be talking to other relevant Government agencies (such as the Physical Planning Unit [PPU] and the Port Vila Municipal Council [PVMC]). And that’s wrong.

The case of the Double Pigeon Tabacco Co. Ltd that was shut down last week is a classic example of this poor relationship between VIPA and other line agencies. Besides that project being one of the worst imaginable types of fireign direct investment (FDI) that could be approved by VIPA, had this been a great new proposed investment, why would authorities of the same Government close it after VIPA approval and after the company has started investing money on the construction site? Doesn’t help with investor confidence, does it?

VIPA was established with a very clear mandate – to promote FDI to help generate economic growth and more so create jobs for the massive population of unemployed citizens.

Thus the work of the initial Foreign Investment Code Committee (FICC). Jobs contribute to easing the burden on Ni-Vans who are employed and who are obliged to help sustain not only their immediate nuclear families but also their extended families.

A Ni-Vanuatu marries not just his/her spouse but his/her spouse’s clan as well. Cultural expectations are that you need to support the extended family in various ways where possible – school fees, medical treatment, weddings, deaths, accommodation, etc. Social security is nonexistent in our part of the world, so that’s our way of dealing with it, however much we loath the practice.

Back to our Butchery-turned-Chinese-retail-store story. Seriously speaking, how on earth does a Chinese shop solve the problem of Ni-Vanuatu unemployment when even the cashiers are Chinese and you might have other Chinese employees in the building pretending to be joint venture ‘partners’ in the business?

These types of buildings are mushrooming the entire stretch from Bauerfield International Airport over into No.3 area and other surrounding neighbourhoods. Is this what VIPA, the PVMC and our town planning authorities want? Are these the types of FDI the Government is actively promoting through VIPA?

At best this appears to be a stealthy migration movement disguised as retail and wholesale businesses. The building structures are almost always identical: retail/wholesale on the ground floor, home on the first floor. Done deal. As for the 75 year lease arrangement, the landowner can bid farewell to that unless he/she has sufficient money to compensate the Chinese migrant for the huge investment that’s gone into the land and the building. Prime and oceanfront land are being leased out and converted to buildings of almost the very same look.

The new migrants don’t tell us, but they know exactly what they are doing while we happily walk around with our eyes closed, our senses benumbed and our mouths shut. We have reached a new normal, and it appears nobody can be bothered anymore.

In addition, our physical planning authorities appear not to have building standards because if there was any, it would be clearly evident by the types of buildings they approve to beautify our city. Buildings are not supposed to be just structures.

In other parts of the world buildings help to convey the beauty and the ambience of a location, especially cities, and more so Capital Cities for that matter.

Vanuatu is a touristic destination and it seems our physical planning unit, PVMC, VIPA and the VTO have resolved to have Chinese shops litter the entire Lini Highway. Obviously these authorities are not talking to one another.

They don’t have the time. They are too busy to think about the future. They don’t have time to plan.

Something needs to be done and has to be done about it sooner than later. Authorities concerned need to come up with very clear policy directions to guide developments now and into the future. We cannot afford to fall asleep at the wheels. Certainly not now!

On the eve of VIPA’s 21st Birthday, I think the agency needs to take stock of where it has come from, what it has done and where it is going, celebrate its achievements and most importantly reposition itself as an institution of relevance to Vanuatu’s economic development. We seldom hear or read of VIPA’s achievements or developments in the news these days. How come?

Economic development agencies in other Pacific Countries and in Asia make news in the media every other week or at least monthly. Why not us? Has VIPA become complacent? Or has the current management basically reached the ceiling?

I leave these frank and open questions for the consideration of authorities concerned – notably VIPA, the Physical Planning Unit and the PVMC to ponder.

You have very important roles to play, and the public at large has been watching. Unfortunately, with a lot of uneasiness.

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