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The Cruel Dilemma: Money Economies in the Pacific

By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Justice & Law

It has become commonplace for Pacific islanders to bemoan the seemingly out-of-control influence of 'outside forces' on their lives. In this penetrating analysis of those forces, Fr. Fran Hezel focuses our attention on how the introduction of capitalist money economies has affected Pacific life. He includes in this analysis everything from the chiefly system to the family unit to women to concepts of development. He concludes with a challenge to the Pacific churches to rediscover and reshape their prophetic mission in ways which can, in reality and not only in rhetoric, assist their people in confronting the 'cruel dilemma' of modernization.

lt is hard to exaggerate the impact of a cash economy on Pacific island societies. We are used to thinking of money as supplementing a subsistence lifestyle, and this is indeed the case throughout the Pacific. But a cash economy stands in sharp contrast to the traditional land-based system that was once the foundation of every society in the island Pacific.

The Pacific islands, of course, had known money and its uses for more than a century. Yet the bedrock of the island economy remained the land and the sea and the products they yielded to islanders. When the island states began gaining their independence in the late 1960s, however, they committed themselves to a Western economic system. Nationhood in the modern world is founded on economic development -- that is, conversion of the traditional economy to a modern cash economy. Money becomes the measure of growth in such a system, and the goal is to encourage as many people as possible to participate in the cash economy. Those who do not are called 'unemployed' and are thought of as a drag on modernization.

Island leaders may urge their people to preserve their own ways, but this has a hollow ring to it. It is oftcn lhese same island leaders who are working mightily to bring in logging, mining, tourism, heavy industry, and anything else that might increase the gross national product. All of these things further the acceleration of change in traditional lifestyles. A cash economy works its structural changes on the whole society, regardless of the intentions of those who set the directions. The monetisation of a traditional economy is a process with an internal dynamic of its own. Generally speaking, the more money made, the greater the social changes.

At a workshop on economic development held on Yap, one of the more conservative parts of Micronesia, most of the participants came in prepared to resist cultural change. Then a spokesman for the state government presented the case for economic development. With the reduction in aid from the United States, he told us, Yap was forced to develop industries. Tourism and fishing and factories meant change, he acknowledged, but what was the government to do? It had to find means of supporting itself and its people. A return to a simple subsistence economy was impossible, since the government was committed to running schools, providing power and water, and furnishing all the other services which the Yapese people expected of it.

This is the 'cruel dilemma' which all Pacific islands face. How are these people to retain their traditional ways, while embracing the economic development so essential to modern nationhood that threatens to undermine these very customs and values?

The Rich Nations and the Poor

The dividing line between the First World and the Third World now runs through the Pacific, as the differences between the wealthier and less wealthy Pacific islands grow more pronounced. For some time now Nauru has been one of the wealthiest of the Pacific nations due to its eamings from phosphate mining. Guam and the Northem Marianas, which have for years been receiving liberal aid packages from the United States, have joined the ranks of the wealthy, thanks also to the Japanese tourist boom of the past few years. American Samoa might also be included in the ranks of the wealthier island groups.

At the other end of the spectrum are Kiribati and Tuvalu, whose foreign aid is low or non-existent and whose industrial potential is extremely limited. In between stand the other nation slates of the Pacific, which have developed some industries in spite of their limited resources.

The future for most Pacific islands, we are told, lies beyond their reefs. It is bound inextricably to a MIRAB economy. This acronym stands for Migration, Remittances, Aid and Bureaucracy. We can consider these, very simply and briefly, in terms of two pairs. The foreign aid provides the funds for a government bureaucracy, which is, if not the greatest, then certainly one of the greatest sources of employment everywhere in the Pacific.

Paying jobs in the private sector are scarce in nearly all Pacific states. For years now, people who have been unable to find employment on their own island have migrated to other places for work. There remittances they send back to their families are a major source of income for most island nations. Such remittances account for fifteen to twenty percent of the import financing in the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu. They probably amount to an even higher percentage in Western Samoa.

The less well-to-do islands of the Pacific have been supporting themselves for years now through the export of labor. The people of Kiribati have been working in Nauru, among other places. Samoans have left in great numbers to find work in the United States and New Zealand. Micronesians have recently been turning up on Guam and Saipan for work in the tourist industry and construction. And just about all the others have been going in large numbers to New Zealand. There has been a huge movement of people within and to the fringes of the Pacific rim in search of work and a better life. This migration has relieved the population pressure and provided a considerable source of income for many Pacific island groups.

But New Zealand, the terminus of most migrants, has recently been suffering economic problems of its own. A serious recession is forcing it to clamp down on immigration from the Pacific. Will it be possible for the poorer island groups to send some of their surplus work force to the richer island nations (like Guam and the Northern Marianas) to find work? This could strengthen regional unity while insuring an outlet for workers who otherwise might not be able to find employment. Yet it is unlikely that such a thing will happen, since Asians have always been regarded as more productive workers and easier to manage than Pacific islanders.

The New Elite

All over the Pacific we are seeing the rise of what has been called the 'new elite.' These are the power brokers in our islands today--the individuals who have achieved prominence and wealth through business or government service. These are the new leaders of our Pacific societies. Some, like Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Amata Kabua, have parleyed their traditional prestige into modern political status. Others have come from nowhere, like the early English speakers in Micronesia after World War II who became interpreters, then teachers or health aides, and finally congressmen and high government officials.

The members of this new elite, whatever their nationality, have a good deal in common with each other. Indeed, it has been suggested that they have more in common with one another than with their own countrymen. In any case, they have considerable control over money, the new source of wealth and prestige in the modern nation state.

These new elites are usually the first to know of investment opportunities, special low interest loans and other means of making a financial killing. Time and time again they are tempted to put personal profit above the welfare of the people they serve, just as they are tempted to seek or retain power for the sake of personal ambition. These temptations are not always resisted, as we kww very well from observing whathas happened in several countries in the region.

The Chiefly System and the New Economy

In the meantime, what has become of the traditional leaders in the Pacific? In many Polynesian and Micronesian societies--in Tonga, for instance--they seem to have retained their authority. At first glance they appear to be as influential as ever. Traditional chiefly authority dies slowly in the Pacific.

Beneath the surface, however, there are critical changes taking place. Let me illustrate with an example from Pohnpei, a Micronesian island with a Polynesian like chiefly system. On Pohnpei there were two chiefly lines in each of the five kingdoms, with a paramount chief and a talking chief over each. Even in the last century, when the chiefs had full title to the land, the powers of the chief were subject to checks and balances. Chiefs were expected to be generous in their apportionment of land to their people. They were also expected to redistribute to their people produce and gifts that came to them. Failure to do so could lead to massive desertion by their people. If such a walk-out happened during time of warfare, it could lead to the loss of life of the chief in battle.

"Many (chiefs) are scrambling in rather unseemly fashion to build for themselves a new power base safely within the cash economy."

This relationship has been altered considerably in today's money economy. Oddly enough, even though the chiefs have lost their rights over the land, the people have fewer ways to check chietly abuses than formerly. With the population growing rapidly and land dearer now than before, commoners cannot simply leave their homes to place themselves under the protection of a more generous paramount chief. With warfare long over, their desertion does not pose a threat to the chiefs life. The old system seems to have frozen in place, thus denying the people some of the protection and benefits they had in former times.

When the chiefs bestow high titles today, they are often given in return not the traditional feast with yams, pigs and kava, but a cheque for $2,000 or $3,000. In one case, a chief was given the keys to a new pickup truck filled with cases of canned food. Are we to believe that the chief then redistributed the money, or the parts of the truck, as he was expected to do with the food received in a traditional feast?

There is an old story of a chief who, upon receiving a bright red coat, promptly cut it up into several pieces which he distributed to his underling chiefs. It is unlikely that such a thing would happen today! Chiefs everywhere sense that their traditional power base is fading. Many are scrambling in rather unseemly fashion to build for themselves a new power base safely within the cash economy. All too many are parleying their traditional authority into cash benefits for themselves.

The Family as an Economic Unit

The shape of the traditional family unit in the Pacific varies greatly from one place to another. Nevertheless, we can make certain broad generalisations about the traditional Pacific island family. The family unit was usually a rather large group of kin that went much beyond just parents and children. This group operated as a single economic unit, producing and preparing food together, and working together to meet their other needs. The traditional extended family was closely tied to the land and sea, which constituted its livelihood.

Cracks firstbegan appearing in the family unit long ago, but they have widened drastically today. There are many reasons for the breakup of the extended family, but the most important is the pay cheque. As more and more men (and later women) found cash jobs, there was no need to rely as heavily on the old land-owning family groups for support. Smaller family groups, sometimes just parents and children, began preparing their own food and taking responsibility for themselves in other ways. This is not to say that the extended family evaporated. It is still an important social group in most islands. It organizes feasts and funerals, and represents the smaller families in time of need, but it has lost much of the day-to-day authority it once enjoyed.

The heads of households have become the rulers of their own roosts. The father and mother have to do much more of the parenting alone, without the help of others in the broader family group. Meanwhile, the relationship between a father and his children has become much more intense. Conflicts arise more easily under these circumstances, and it is not as easy to resolve them because aunts and uncles, who once would have intervened, are now reluctant to interfere in the family's business.

This transformation in the size and shape of the family is one of the most significant social changes occurring in the Pacific today. Its consequences are enormous, especially during these transitional years. I am convinced that this, more than anything else, has contributed to the high rate of suicide in the past thirty years in parts of the Pacific. The breakdown of the extended family also leaves the woman more exposed than formerly to beatings from her husband and other forms of abuse. Her brother or father might have intervened in the past to whisk her back to her family, but they are not as likely to do so today.

The nuclear family is now the last line of resistance. When that breaks down, the results will be disastrous. We are moving from a multi-parent family to a two-parent family, but in some circumstances the two-parent family has become a single-parent family. When the father is frequently away working for wages, the child does not get the supervision he or she needs. Troubled or delinquent children are often the result.

"The inequality that comes with the spread of the cash economy makes reciprocity much more difficult to practice today."

When Reciprocity Goes

Monetisation of our islands is affecting kin ties beyond the inner family. Micronesians. who once could have lived with distant relatives or clanmates when visiting another island, are now much more reluctant to do so. They admit to being ashamed to ask for hospitality because 'everything costs money these days. ' Young men who are having trouble with their own families sometimes prefer to move around in a small circle of close friends, spending a couple of weeks at each place, rather than to move in with a relative for a longer period of time. They confess to being ashamed to impose a financial burden on their relatives.

Reciprocity--'you give to me now; I do the same for you at some time in the future'--is the stuff of which Pacific social relationships have been built. Yet the inequality that comes with the spread of the cash economy makes reciprocity much more difficult to practice today. Formerly, the country relatives would often come to town and live with their kinfolk to work or to attend school, or simply for a change. They might bring in packages of local food and babysit or do small chores around the house in exchange for hospitality. This still happens today, of course, but there is often silent resentment at the unequal exchange. The hosts often feel 'put upon' by their guests, while the country cousins feel bad at not being able to equal the contribution of their town relatives. Rather than endure these hard feelings, many are forsaking the old network and giving up on distant relatives.

The Role of Women in the Cash Economy

The discussion of women's roles in the Pacific often focuses exclusively on what they may or may not do in the modern marketplace and political arena. Sometimes this discussion loses sight of an important element--namely, what has become of their traditional entitlements.

If Micronesia is any example of what has happened in other island societies, women have lost ground in recent decades. Although women never held the center of the stage, they used to exercise real authority over certain areas of family and village life. Nearly everywhere in Micronesia they had a strong say over the land, among other things. They had a strong voice in how lineage land was apportioned and who would use what parcels of land. In Yap, where the position of women was relatively weak, the sisters of a man could disinherit their brothers' wives and children and throw them off the family estate. In Palau, women had even more control. They gathered to discuss who in their lineage wou1d be chief, and they could in effect veto the choices of men. Women in some parts of Micronesia and Po1ynesia made up what might be called 'kitchen cabinets,' informal groups with considerable influence over decisions that were made in the name of the kin group.

Most of the ro1es that women enjoyed traditionally were rooted in the extended family. As the extended family has broken down under the force of modernization, however, many of these former roles are being lost. Women's say over land, for instance, is being weakened as land passes from the control of the 1ineage to the small family unit. Much of the authority women once held now seems to be fading away, and women are becoming domestic drudges. They are expected to cook, care for the children and keep a neat house. The other responsibilities which they once had in the broader family circle tend to be forgotten.

The Church: A Prophetic Voice?

The church in the Pacific is in a truly privileged position. Religion has a1ways been an essential element of life for islanders, and the churches are tight1y woven into the fabric of these societies. The church enjoys a position of respect and influence which I suspect is unequaled anywhere in the world.

Indeed, why should this not be the case? After all, the church has been a major force in shaping these modem island societies. It provided schooling long before the governments were in a position to begin public education. It taught people to read and write, dispensed medicine when they were sick, improved sanitation, instructed them in new techniques of building and farming, and defended them from the depredations of foreigners. What we today call 'human development' has always been an integral part of church work in the Pacific, as in so many other parts of the world.

As the church worked tirelessly to build a new society, one founded on the love of Christ, it found it necessary to challenge elements of the traditional culture which were at odds with the message it proclaimed. It adamantly opposed tribal warfare and other evils such as infanticide, the strangling of widows, cannibalism and the torture of enemies. The human life of all, it proclaimed again and again, was an essential value. No longer could the great canoes be rolled to sea on the backs of enemies or slaves, those who were deemed worthless in society. Mindful of the church's past contribution to the making of the modern Pacific, people want to look to the church today as a beacon in the fog of confusion. They are besieged by changes that are often incomprehensible to them. Their social system is being transformed, from the family on up. The power of the chiefs is waning, while new authority figures emerge. Gender relations are shifting. Rapid modernization appears to subvert much of the old culture. And new tensions arise between ethnic groups and political factions. Many trust the church and look to it for guidance and help in dealing with these changes. Shall the church offer them a stone when what they seek is bread, or a serpent rather than an egg?

The church is charged with being a prophetic voice calling whole peoples, not just individuals, to the service of God. This means summoning our people to fashion a just and humane society, one in which the dignity of all individuals and groups is enhanced. This is a task that the church performed admirably well in the last century. Is it, we might ask, performing its prophetic role equally well today?

The danger in our day is that the church, fitting comfortably into the rather large niche that has been carved for it, might be too accommodating to society. Who is there to serve as the conscience of society, after all, if not the church? If the risk in the last century was that the church might overlook the value of the island culture, the danger in our own time is that the church might become a prisoner of the culture. Foreign churches may be too critical, but inculturated churches can be insufficiently critical. It is tempting for local churches to abandon their prophetic role on the grounds that the Pacific Way is non-confrontational.

The Church: Between Sects and Secularism

At present the church faces two threats: from the small sects on the right and from secularism on the left. Each deserves some mention.

The sects include the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Assemblies of God and other smaller groups that have become active all over the Pacific in the last twenty or thirty years. These sects are aggressively evangelical and are generally mistrusted and sometimes feared by the major Christian denominations. They have won a reputation as sheep-stealers of the most unecumenical kind.

"Priests or pastors... seem far more comfortable dealing with the faithful on church matters than wandering the alleyways of Babylon."

Their poaching ways may not pose too much of a threat, but a greater danger is their theology--the individualistic and spiritualistic salvation they preach. They do not talce seriously the cultures in which they work, and they are not socially involved. Yet they have bested us in evangelistic zeal. They have become the marginal proselytizers challenging the staid established churches. It would be a serious mistake if, to regain the advantage, we lost sight of the social di nension of the Gospel and preached the same kind of simplistic spiritualism, which provides no answers for the 'cruel dilemma' of modem development with which we are confronted.

From the other direction there is the threat of secularism . For a century or more religion has been a strong feature of life in the Pacific, but there are hints that the unchurched may be growing in numbers. Chuuk, where I live and work, is surely one of the most avid church-going societies in the Pacific. But I have noticed in recent years that many males, especially mixed-bloods, have not been returning to the church in middle-age, as men usually do in this society. Is this phenomenon the harbinger of the future?

If so, then this will demand that our clergy reassess their pastoral role. Priests or pastors, even young ones, seem far more comfortable dealing with the faithful on church matters than wandering the alleyways of Babylon. In the future, our pastors will have have to make a special effort to search the people out--all the people--and to talk with them and attempt to understand their complex problems. For it is only as we understand the social realities with which Pacific people have to contend that we can live out our prophetic witness as Christians in this part of God's world.


Journal of Pacific Theology, Series II, No. 8, 1992: 11-22.

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