Waylaid Dialectic

May 13, 2012

The Free Rider Problem, Literally

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 10:37 am


Photo taken in a bus (minivan) in New Georgia Island in Solomon Islands.

‘Thank Q’ is a typo and wantok literally means one language. Strictly, then, one’s wantoks are speakers of one’s language group. Although in Solomons Pijin wantok more accurately translates as one’s extended relatives, people to whom one is entangled with by strong norms of giving and reciprocity.

Intriguingly, the persistence of such norms/informal institutions can be persuasively argued to be both a cause and an effect of political and economic underdevelopment in Solomon Islands. One one hand, they can be argued to make it hard to run businesses profitably, and to steer civil servants towards nepotism and corruption, and politicians towards tribal clientelism. On the other hand they can been claimed to be a rational response to weak government and economic uncertainty – an economic safety-net and a useful heuristic about who you can trust when you can’t rely on the state to enforce contracts or force other groups to play by the rules.

And then, of course, you can find at least some anthropologists who will argue that wantok ties aren’t actually an issue at all.

Far be it for me to adjudicate on these matters (although they are in part what is entangling my PhD research) but I think one thing is likely: those who say that Wantok ties don’t cause any problems have almost certainly never tried to run a business in this country.

On the other hand, if you’ve ever tried to get something done here and found it made miraculously easy thanks to a friend’s cousin who happens to work in the government department you need, then you would be hard pressed to claim that, at least in terms of the actions of individuals, the system is wholly irrational.


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