Data literacy is lacking in Vanuatu
Data is important for good governance and evidence-based decision making, and these are fundamental parts of any national statistical system. However, how much this data is used is dependent on the statistical literacy of the population. In Vanuatu this is limited. There is a shortage of standardised processes, a lack of fully open data and limited capacity to utilise statistics across Vanuatu. The National Sustainable Development Plan is not being sufficiently monitored because of a lack of dialogue and understanding, and mechanisms that integrate different stakeholders. Parliament has struggled to fulfil its oversight and representation function and there are weak links in the national statistics system as well as fragmented co-ordination between data producers and users.
In 2019, PARIS21 launched the Trust Initiative to build public trust in official data sources. In Vanuatu, this starts with being inclusive of the country’s diffuse population and devolved governance structures that are deeply tied to the history, geography and the culture of the country. Ensuring that data are reflective of populations, robust and built on quality foundations, as well as understandable and usable by different groups of people, means that these data will then be fit-for-purpose to inform policies that meet the needs of the people.
Policy making needs to keep up with Ni-Vanuatu’s changing circumstances
Lives and livelihoods in Vanuatu are closely connected to the quality of the environment, and the impacts of changes to it are hugely disruptive. Ni-Vanuatu rely on the rural economy and tourism for their livelihoods; at the same time, the country is at the forefront of climate-related disasters that directly threaten the natural environment. Vanuatu holds (by some margin) the unenviable title of the “country most prone to natural hazards”: it is vulnerable to the type of catastrophes that can wipe out years of development gains overnight, and which need swift and immediate responses to mitigate, as well as broad and in-depth information to prepare for.
In 2017, the Vanuatu island of Ambae was evacuated due to a potential volcanic eruption. Shortly after returning a year later, the island’s residents were again forced to leave for three months due to another potential volcanic eruption. The communities mainly had to relocate on the islands of Santo, Maweo and Efate.
A witness says
“Families had to leave their homes and possessions, and a community they had lived in for their entire lives. This had a tremendous impact on their mental health and wellbeing: not only the experience but also the worrying and fear throughout the entire experience. When the communities relocated those that could afford to bought land, however others were forced to stay in evacuation centres (often tents) which were overcrowded.
These traumatic events also had a profound effect on the elders within the community, who felt extremely drained. Those that were able to buy land, had mixed experiences with some communities being very open, welcoming and generous, and others creating restrictions to the freedoms of those that had migrated. On returning to Ambae, the volcanic ash fall had created more fertile land, and anecdotal evidence suggests that more fruits and vegetables are now being grown due to improved harvesting.”
How the Trust Initiative supports and works through Vanuatu’s inclusive governance systems
Vanuatu’s Decentralization Policy 2017-27 aims to provide Ni-Vanuatu with greater control over decision-making processes. But, dispersed across over 83 islands and speaking a total of over 100 languages Ni-Vanuatu do not all have the same proximity or access to centres of power. Ni- Vanuatu are represented by both formal structures – a uni-cameral parliamentary democracy - as well as traditional structures: such as chiefs who represent their communities in political processes.
Vanuatu, after independence, took on a Westminster-style governance system. However, in rural settings, where 75% of the population reside, traditional governance structures of Chiefs and the communities are the de facto authority. Within these rural settings, the traditional system focuses on building unity and harmony within the community. It is characterised by reconciliation and responsibility to one another, where the community is more important than the individual. For example, Chiefs do not take a salary, and instead have a responsibility to the community.
The Trust initiative is supporting inclusive governance in Vanuatu by building capacity among different groups to use data to a greater extent and forge closer ties with the Vanuatu National Statistical Office (VNSO). Underway is a project to develop Vanuatu’s first open indicator tracking platform: an adaptation to the Open-SDG Platform already used by several countries. This platform will make Vanuatu’s National Sustainable Development Plan (its highest policy framework) indicators, metadata, census information and financial statistics open and available to all. In addition, the new National Strategy for the Development of Statistics (NSDS-II) policy document is set to be reviewed by the Council of Ministers: the first time this has been done for an NSDS. Having this support means a commitment from government to allocate resources for its implementation.
As the highest level of oversight in the country, the Parliament of Vanuatu is also a focus of the initiative; building its combined, individual, organisational and system-level capacity to utilise trusted statistics. The Develop Constituency Indicator Profiles and high-quality case studies will use trusted statistics to tell stories aligned to Vanuatu’s National Sustainable Development Plan.
Other stakeholders such as statisticians, policy analysts, expenditure analysts in different line ministries and the Parliamentary Secretariat participate in discussions through the Trust Initiative to improve the links in the national statistical system and enhance co-ordination between data producers and users.
These stakeholders have shared their ideas on how to use data to improve public service delivery. These include using data to track whether scholarships are aligned with current labour market needs; developing M&E frameworks to understand the impact of investments; creating core performance indicators for MPs, so communities can hold them accountable in their role of representation; and using Inland Revenue data to understand how businesses and government can develop policies and legal frameworks to support growing industries.
As Vanuatu devolves decision making down to the level of local communities, this requires that at all levels of the governance system there is the capacity to use data both for policy making and in holding government to account. The case of Vanuatu shows how data can be a part of supporting a country’s development path, whatever that path might look like. Investing in data systems and making that data usable for the public and those that represent them is an investment in governance, which in turn contributes to a more inclusive society, better public services and more sustainable development.