Accepted Papers:

'Sharing out': divisions of labour, domestic anarchy and crises of redistribution in a rural Vanuatu community  


Rachel Smith (Cambridge)

Paper Short Abstract:

I focus on the politics of redistribution and exchange in a rural Vanuatu community highly engaged in overseas labour programmes. Returned workers were withdrawing from communal and reciprocal work and redistributive demands, instead espousing market exchange, microfinance, and voluntary donations.

Paper long abstract:

In Bislama, the pidgin lingua franca of Vanuatu, to 'share out' (seraot) can mean either sharing and distributing material goods, or to divide the people, according to context. I will focus on the politics and economics of redistribution from the perspective of the 'domestic moral economy' of a Melanesian community in Epi, Vanuatu, undergoing a process of accelerated socioeconomic transformation due to a high level of engagement in New Zealand's and Australia's Pacific seasonal worker programmes. Islanders' access to overseas seasonal labour opportunities was conceived by policymakers and workers alike as an alternative to foreign aid, and one that allowed them to bypass political corruption. Overseas wages were seen as funding a kind of 'do it yourself' community development, where the small island state was seen as too weak and dependent to enact major redistributive projects. However, the flow of cash into the community was causing a crisis of redistribution on home soil. The fiction of labour-as-commodity - the 'time is money' logic- appeared to be upsetting the generalized and reciprocal exchange of labour, and community work and mutual aid were said to be in decline. Meanwhile, workers resisted demands for fixed sums intended to compensate for their absence from community and church projects, preferring to emphasize the benefits of the local circulation of money and microfinance, alongside an ethics of entirely voluntary donations. However, the community-centric nature of redistributive debates belies any depiction of this process as simply one of 'globalisation'.

Panel P015
Forms of integration: redistribution and (market) exchange (roundtable)