In the Dark, Lacking a Machete
“I served for twenty years in the US Army. Was in Iraq and Afghanistan. Got my discharge and thought I’d see what I could do back home. But I don’t know, man. This place is rough.”
He saw me struggling with luggage, my car sitting with a dead battery across the street from the airport, on a sweltering day after returning from a few weeks respite in Japan and Taiwan.
Micronesia, every jurisdiction within it, is a region of SIDS, Small Island Developing States. Among members of the United Nations, which include associated territories such as Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, and American Samoa, there are 57 SIDS. Many would like to change the term to BODS, Big Ocean Developing States, a reflection of the vast maritime territory under the purview of regions that can’t guarantee consistent electricity.
The United Nations like the term SIDS. Or acronym, to be accurate.
The United Nations also likes to hold conferences. From those conferences come documents, some of which form the basis for resolutions presented to the UN General Assembly. Some of these actually pass, and some become the basis of international policy, an amorphous idea that volumes of convoluted treatises devote themselves to.
When it comes to sustainable development, The Future We Want is one such example. Embodying the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the summer of 2012, the General Assembly passed it as resolution a few months later. Of note from this document are paragraphs 178-180, which identify “unique and particular vulnerabilities,” of SIDS, such as size, remoteness, limited resources, lack of exports, and susceptibility to economic shocks, especially those stemming from natural disasters. It also specifically notes “… that small island developing States have made less progress than most other groupings, or even regressed, in economic terms, especially in terms of poverty reduction and debt sustainability.”
Goals are one thing; achieving them is another. Some economic systems are better at lifting people out of poverty and creating economic opportunity than others, but such opportunity needs to an objective, and not an externality. The past several decades in the US illustrate that. It’s an even greater challenge for a region that can’t coherently state what it wants.
Micronesia is a region of imports. The non-subsistence economy is an import: the government system, the courts, the currency, the infrastructure, to a large degree what people eat and drink, and in many jurisdictions, the people who actually do the work. Most of the energy grid is an import, gas and oil imported from areas that have their resources exploited, and much of the solar infrastructure (including the array of panels that surround the capitol building of Palau) are donations from foreign nations wishing to create carbon offsets that they agreed to under international agreements.
Poverty throughout Micronesia is very well documented, and is no laughing matter. The Micronesian diaspora— that of dispersal of a people— is also well documented. The out-migration continues to stem from three sources: education, healthcare, and employment. But that same diaspora betrays a deeper obstacle to Micronesian development: the escape route to the US. On so many islands the reality is that locals do not have to take their own society seriously. Micronesia is not alone in this, as anyone who’s ever read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath can attest. People will seek opportunity.
Given the small populations, perpetual disputes over land use, and now, inconsistent views of tourists and the dollars they bring, and the simple inevitability that Micronesia’s future will simply need to be tied to tourism, merely creating a halfway decent place to live, so that those returning from the diaspora can at least be content to be home, might be a decent development goal. It might even attract a UN conference.
Gabriel McCoard currently lives in Chuuk, FSM, where he works for a regional NGO. Send feedback to email@example.com
Micronesia is not alone in this, as anyone who’s ever read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath can attest. People will seek opportunity.