In Vanuatu, community life revolves around the concept of wantok, or “one talk.” The wantok system involves interlocking kinship ties, a network of cooperation, caring, and mutual support among individuals who usually share a common language, hence the name.
A related concept is nakamal, the community of related households headed by a chief. It is a traditional meeting place for gatherings, ceremonies and open discussion where community decisions are taken.
In other words, the community speaks with one voice, and is represented by the chiefs.
Development organizations should think through appropriate ways to engage with communities by understanding the country’s culture and the influence of its chief system. There is much to learn from the knowledge, experience, and innovation offered by civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs that work closely with rural communities.
The chief system in Vanuatu provides an effective representation for local communities to interact with outsiders, and can be considered as an early form of civil society participation. Chiefs maintain law and order in their communities, where most disputes—whether of a civil or criminal nature—are resolved through their mediation.
We saw a good example of how the system works when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in 2015.
According to Oxfam, the chiefs from several communities in Epau district, one of the most severely affected by the storm, met and decided that the priority action was to clear the road to allow help to arrive, before rebuilding the destroyed homes.
The first outside help, from the Red Cross, arrived a week later via the cleared road. The chiefs got their priorities right.
The Cyclone Pam experience demonstrates the key role of chiefs in mobilizing community members to respond to disasters.
CSOs know the system
In Vanuatu, and elsewhere in the Pacific, donors, CSOs, and other development partners need to deeply appreciate and work within the local customary system in communities governed by chiefs. At the same time, they should also be aware of the system’s many weaknesses.
Chief rule can be patriarchal and conservative. Customary laws administered by chiefs discriminate against women. Also, communities have no formal mechanisms for challenging the decisions of their chiefs, and chiefs have been involved in land sales for personal profit, against the interests of their own community.
To address the shortcomings of customary law in Vanuatu, CSOs have been active in raising awareness of issues such as domestic violence.
CSO presence on the ground has developed their ability to consult and establish ties with community chiefs within the customary system.
In the post-cyclone aftermath, World Vision worked with support from chiefs to build community kitchens in nine communities on Erromango Island near the capital, Port Vila. The organization trained local builders to build new cyclone-resistant community kitchens that were then handed over to women leaders from each community.
The new kitchens were a significant development for women on the island, as they provide a sustainable income that should withstand future storms.
Women’s groups like the Vanuatu Women’s Centre have also been active in awareness raising campaigns among chiefs, in their case to address domestic violence. This NGO often discovered after their sessions that the chiefs were grateful and admitted they had been wrong in their preconception about the work they did.
Community engagement with Vanuatu’s customary system likewise calls for creativity and innovation. Wan Smolbag (WSB), a local NGO, has been very effective in using films, theater, and creative media to promote social awareness and dialogue on important issues.
To address Vanuatu’s low literacy rate, WSB produces comic books to reach out to more people. ADB’s Port Vila Urban Development Project engaged WSB, together with the World Vision International, to deliver the sanitation and hygiene awareness and education program via comic books and theater performances.
In the Pacific, the presence of CSOs on the ground in the poorest communities and their expertise in communication and participatory approaches make them a valuable partner in poverty reduction.