Gaps in affluence and scarcity: the capitalist ethos and the cultural tenets of community in Belau

Richard Salvador

The other night I went to attend a presentation at a local law firm by a local psychologist. She was describing hers and her organization’s work in war-torn developing nations. They do psychological therapeutic work with war and genocide survivors in these nations. I ran into someone I know from the local university, we engaged in some related discussions about people’s enduring abilities to emerge from the most traumatic experiences of war, and conflict, with assistance, of course, from the local pool of resources, their societal and cultural institutions, and whatever else was available in their local environments. The university person told me that she had just returned from a very nice and eye-opening two-week trip to Belau.

She went on the trip with her professor husband who has taught countless numbers of Belau students at the university. While her husband was completing the various tasks for which he had come on the trip, this person had visited the Koror prison to learn about prisoners’ woodcarving and other entrepreneurial activities. She said she came away deeply impressed with these kinds of activities that our police, prison warden and staff allow the inmates; the activities keep the inmates occupied in meaningful entrepreneurial activities while “doing time”; that is, while they ruminate and ponder the seriousness of their crimes. The person also visited other places in Koror, the rock islands, and did other things and was again hugely impressed with Belau as a small island nation doing its best to grow and take care of its people.

However, she said, there was one thing that struck her as both odd and troubling. As she visited the various areas of Koror, she was struck by the seeming co-existence of both affluence and, what she considered, as extreme poverty. She described seeing corrugated tin-roofed and or tin walled houses standing next to beautiful modern buildings. She said that the extremely affluent were comparable to middle class US standards or higher next to visible signs of extreme scarcity. She wondered how and why such extremes could exist in Belau.

I had to think hard at first, but then suggested first that Belau was no different from any other similar societies struggling to take care of its peoples. In nearly all places with similar histories, Belau was not unlike these places. You would find entrepreneurially motivated peoples rising to the top quicker than anything while huge sectors of the society seem to linger on or stand idly at the low-tide mark of a society’s measures of affluence. I lapsed into a focus on culture and traditional practice and tried to justify these practices as enduring and effective means of distributing resources among families and individuals throughout Belau. I said that while Belau goes the way of Capitalist development and maximizes all opportunities to achieve higher levels of prosperity and affluence for some, culture and tradition will remain critical in terms of curbing huge material excess and distributing at least the basic necessities of life among the masses. This is where a potential difference may mark Belau society from other similarly historied places; that is to say, Belau is unlikely to erupt in revolt and violence that have seemed as natural outcomes of HUGE GAPS in extreme wealth and poverty in other places. I am thinking of places like Haiti, although I admit that while Haiti is another island, the comparisons with Belau may be unfair. There are various outlets for huge gaps in wealth and poverty: societies will almost certainly descend into further chaos and turmoil, a nation will eventually be emptied of its citizens as people pack and leave for “greener pastures” elsewhere, people will revolt and their societies will be thrown into cycles of violence, and life will generally become miserable for all. Unless we do something about it re-directing our nation away from these unfortunate cycles that have gripped other nations around the world.

Anyway, back to culture and Belau traditions: we have continued to hold fast to many of our culture and I believe this is a good thing. Culture, according to many culture experts, contributes to and forms the basis for a people’s sense of identity, sense of community, and an enduring belief in the shared responsibilities of caring for one another, and not just our immediate family members. The Belau phrase “tekoi el buai,” I believe, best exemplifies an underlying sense of shared collective responsibility we each have to each other and to various tasks we do that contribute to the well-being of the whole.

Which is why, apart from my discussion with the person I met at the presentation, I think culture is an important element to consider in any political and economic development discourse and practice aimed at comprehending the broader goals of national economic development in Belau. Much has been said recently about the narrow theoretical confines of Western economic development models that are viewed, in essence, as stages of an airplane preparing for and then taking-off. In fact, these were how emerging economies were viewed and theorized at one time. Critiques of these development models are now the norms in academic and government circles.

I think it is vital that we come to understand the role of culture and just what parts of culture are relevant to our own version of development. That is, what are those specific things that ensure that channels for re-distribution of resources and wealth among the community remain? Many know and understand these things already. I do not presume everyone in Belau is ignorant of these. I want only for these words to serve as reminders only. As Belau continues to develop economically, we need economic development experts who are well versed in the tensions and conflicts arising from culture and modernity and who can offer smart advice on how we combine the best of our culture with modern tenets of economic development that ensures that ALL people have a chance at attaining some affluence. Perhaps this is our utmost challenge: ensuring economic development allows all who are entrepreneurially motivated to succeed at what they do best while paying attention that we do not leave behind the mass of our peoples in economically deprived conditions.

In the 1995 Options 2000 film “Islands on the Edge of Time,” Julita Tellei speaks about the kind of economic development that we want or should aspire to have: “If we develop and we use what the economists use to measure so-called development in terms of per-capita income,” we might still be missing too much. “…[I]f, 10 years from now we have doubled per-capita income for Palau, on paper, at least, this will look healthy, but you go around and you find 10 begging people, that’s not development to me.”

In her measured analysis of the fundamental goals of economic development, Julita was prophetic. Today, in November 2009, especially in the United States, we have seen an ironic twist of fate. American measures of economic performance record high levels of economic output, that is, increased economic profiteering. However, this prosperity largely benefits elite corporations and narrow sectors of the American population who are fortunate enough to be enjoying this rising affluence. This is happening at a time of huge increases in home foreclosures, rising levels of unemployment marked by concomitant emergence of homeless communities around the USA, among endless indicators of just how poor the regular American has become!

I wonder if Julita Tellei went to sleep one day in 1995 and dreamed of just such a time not only in America but around the world as well, nearly 15 years into the future. I venture a guess that should Julita and her female colleagues were to lead Belau, we would no doubt witness a fresh and qualitative shift in the political and economic direction that Belau is taking. Again, our very same culture placed women and their leadership, perhaps because of their intuition and acumen, at the forefront of our cultural ideas about how society was to be governed. Our culture never ceases to amaze us with the depth of its intuition, balanced views of gender equality, and even a progressive environmental stewardship, the very essence of responsibility that inspired our national consciousness and helped give birth to our republic as a nuclear-free nation.

Economic development will continue; it is vital to our continued development as an island nation and will be our savior as far as material comforts go. However, parts of the way it is pursued need constant vigilance and careful analysis into the way we manage it with the view toward addressing the gaps that naturally occur between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Belau culture figure prominently in that process of development and constant material acquisition. We retain various distributive and re-distributive mechanisms for sharing wealth and resources in our cultural and traditional practices for a reason. They help to level the playing field for all Belau peoples. They are an institutionalized mark of our compassion and further indication of our admirable attention to “the least of these” amongst us. Thus, what we need desperately are smart economists who are also trained to understand Belau culture and its role in contemporary economic development. We need to better understand what the mechanisms are for distributing resources and wealth in our society and create development that respond to those cultural factors.

It is both our challenge and our moral responsibility to ensure that opportunities for huge gaps in wealth and poverty are minimized. Public policy-making, of course, is a complex arena but it need not be relegated to politicians only. It is too important. Each Belau person has a stake in ensuring that Belau remains a place where both fairness and justice operate hand in hand with our borrowed Capitalist ethos. There is an underlying philosophy of community-building, collective responsibility, and social organization inherent in Belau culture. We need to understand it better, for our own good.

November 14, 2009
Honolulu, Hawaii

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