Thursday, November 14, 2019

55 Things We Did In Europe

The obligatory 55 things to do in Europe having just been to Europe post. I've rated all the activities we did that seemed to stand out as "things" in their own right and left general exploring and eating as a score on the city itself, they're pretty close to being in the order that we did them. The first number on each of these is enjoyment and the second is value for money.

London 4 2

London was an okay city it had some of the best one-off things that we did(Hamilton and Alain Ducasse) but wasn't the nicest place to just wander around and definitely wasn't cheap.

Madame Tussaud's London 2 1

We thought there might be more of the history of Madame Tussaud's given it was the flagship but there was only really one small room. The wax models themselves are cool but not particularly exciting.

Tower of London 4 3

The tower of London has quite a lot in it. The crown jewels are impressive and the white tower is full of interesting stuff. I liked it for being almost exactly what I expected of a medieval fortress. 

Oxford 4 5(With an alumnus)

We went out to Oxford for a day. Luckily a friend of ours had just graduated and her alumni card allowed us into most of the colleges without having to pay. She was also an excellent tour guide who could share both facts about the history of the colleges and more recent gossip about which college had a feud with which. Without an alumnus, it would be both less entertaining and reasonably expensive as each college charges admission separately.

Highgate Cemetary 4 4

Highgate is a beautiful old cemetery that was allowed to fall into disrepair for many years. You have to go on a walking tour to get access to the most overgrown parts but it's totally worth it if you like wandering around weird old cemeteries. There are also some relatively famous graves like Marx and Douglas Adams if you're into that kind of thing.

Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester 5 4

We decided before the trip that we'd do one big splurge on a 3 star Michelin meal. We picked Alain Ducasse over Gordon Ramsey although they looked pretty similar in terms of what we would have likely ordered. At 125 pounds per head for 4 courses, it wasn't cheap but it also wasn't out of this world. The food and service were excellent with particular standouts being the beef and marrow, and the Rum Baba. They also snuck in so many little extras that we were too full to eat any of the little tarts they brought out at the end, which is apparently such a common occurrence they already had the takeaway bags with the tray.

Westminster Abbey 3 3

Westminster Abbey is an old church with a fairly large number of interesting sculptures and some nice tombs. If it had been the only church or set of old tombs we saw on the trip I'd probably rate it quite highly so if you're only going to London then do that. As it was it kind of blurred into all the other old churches and was by far the most uncomfortable to get around.

Shakespeare at the Globe 4 3

Shakespeare at the Globe was good. I think if the group that did the NZ pop-up globe hadn't done such a good job the last couple of years I would have been more impressed. 

We did get lucky in that the performance we went to had some deaf actors who signed their parts. Which was handled amazingly well so that everyone could understand what was going on regardless of whether they understood the signs.

Hamilton the Musical 5 5

Hamilton is a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton(one of the founding fathers of the US). It's excellent. 

British Museum 3 free

The British Museum has a lot of stuff in it. I'm not exactly sure what the logic is behind how they've organised said stuff.  Some of it is probably about due to be sent back where it came from(Greece has already built a whole museum in the hope that they can have some of the Parthenon back someday).


Paris 2 1

I didn't like Paris all that much. It was kind of dirty and frequently expensive. Luckily we had a day trip out to Giverny where we went to Monet's House and a cool chateau. As soon as we got out of the city it was clean, the people were friendly, and things stopped being quite as overpriced. So I came away with a feeling that I don't like Paris but the rest of the country seems nice.

Crazy Horse 3 3

Crazy horse is similar to the Moulin Rouge although slightly more naked. The show was well choreographed although dragged at times. Unexpectedly, my favourite act was two guys doing a comedic tap routine

Catacombs 4 4

The catacombs are a weird place, I knew a bit about the structures and history so was keen to explore. I hadn't realised before getting there that the famous bit with all the arranged bones was actually genuinely made as a tourist attraction a while after they'd started using the catacombs to store bodies. It's totally worth the visit although I would like a chance to see more of the areas that were used during wartime or some of the other bits that became popular for raves during the '80s.

The Louvre 4 4

The Louvre is huge and full of interesting things and tourists. We found some good advice that going on the late-night Wednesday would have fewer crowds and this was definitely true. We did most of the museum and then headed up to the Mona Lisa around 8:30 by which point the crowds had thoroughly thinned. My favourite part was Napoleon's stunning apartments.

Monet's House 4 4

Monet's House is beautiful and the garden is amazing. If you like Monet's art at all this is totally worth the visit. If you happen to be in a very small set of people who don't like Monet but do like gardens then it's probably still worth a visit.

Chateau la Roche Guyon 5 4

This Chateau has everything: an Orangerie, a medieval fortress on top of it, great views, a bunker from that time the German's took it over, some curiosities, far fewer tourists than the more famous sites, and a very surprising final couple of rooms.

Versailles 3 3

I was expecting more of Versaille but after the Louvre I had seen plenty of art and Napoleon's apartments had shown off the splendour. Versaille was also even more packed with tourists than the Louvre had been. The park itself is very nice and traipsing down to the Trianons is worth it as they give a better picture of how people actually lived. 

Eiffel Tower 4 3

The tower is worth doing once, make sure you buy a timed ticket so you don't have to join a long queue. We elected to take the elevator all the way to the top and then walk back down the stairs which let us look at the construction which was a good decision. 

Eat Cheese and Bread 4 5

Going to a supermarket to buy cheap cheeses and bread was good. This isn't a surprise but really it's one of the key things to do in Paris and is definitely worth it.


Lisbon 5 4

I didn't have many preconceptions about Lisbon but it ended up being my favourite city of the trip. It's warm, the people are friendly, the food is good, the food is cheap, and the city itself has plenty of interesting history.

Eat at the parks with kiosks 5 4

Every few blocks we would come across a park full of people. There were always tables of old dudes playing cards, kids playing, and a generally friendly atmosphere. There was also always a kiosk that sold a good range of reasonably priced food and drinks so you could just hang out under a tree and escape the heat.

Lisbon Science Museum and Botanical Gardens 5 4

I really liked this science museum, although I'm not sure everyone would. It was pretty simple but contained a lot of old stuff ranging from having kept the original labs and teaching areas from when it was an academy through to having kept a gruesome set of wax models of diseases. 

Lisbon Cemetary 3 free

The Lisbon Cemetary is a pretty fancy cemetery with interesting tombs and good views.

The Castelo de São Jorge 4 4

Lisbon has its own castle. That's pretty cool to start with but it's also on a site which has had habitation from at least the 8'th century BC. It's a lovely place to sit and watch the sun go down. Bring a bottle of wine and some snacks.

Banksy Exhibition 4 4

We happened to be in Lisbon when a rather good Banksy exhibition was on. I doubt it'll be there when anyone else goes but if you come across one I recommend checking it out.

Tile Museum 2 3

The tile museum has a lot of examples of the ceramic tile art that Lisbon is famous for. It's interesting but I felt more satisfaction wandering around the city and just seeing all the cool tiles on actual buildings than I did at the museum.


Grenada 3 4

Grenada is a nice city we may have missed some of it because our hotel was a little further from the centre than most of the other cities we stayed in. It was the only place where we bought the standard visitor card thing as it happened to match up well with the activities we wanted to do and covered some public transport.

The Alhambra 5 4

The Alhambra is an excellent palace with amazing carving throughout. Much of the work was done under the Nasrid Dynasty and the difference of approach made it really stand out against the various other old things we went and saw during the trip. MC Escher found the carving and tessellations in the design inspiring and it's pretty easy to see why.

Flamenco Show 3 3

We went to a flamenco show while we were there the ones that run regularly are pretty clearly set up to cater to tourists. The music was actually very good but the dancing was clearly more in the demonstration category than full performance. Probably worth doing if you don't think you'll be spending time somewhere where proper performances are likely to happen but not stunning.

Cathedral 3 3

The cathedral is very large and worth walking around. The audio tour is exceptionally tedious.

Royal Tomb 3 3

The royal tomb small and definitely worth looking at if you got the visitor card as it's included. The audio tour is truly astonishingly bad - for a tomb dedicated to some really interesting historical figures it spends most of the time telling you what every single painting is and overuses words "dynamism" in explaining them. 


Rome 4 4

Rome is actually quite a nice city to hang out in so long as you avoid the main tourist areas which are luckily quite small. The public transport was probably the most unreliable of anywhere we went though.

Trevi Fountain 3 Free

The Trevi fountain is overrun by tourists but is a very pretty fountain.

Spanish Steps 1 Free

The Spanish Steps were famous for being full of tourists. Unfortunately, it was recently made an offence to sit on the steps and multiple officers are making sure people keep moving. Although this has made them more functional as steps it's made them significantly less unique and interesting.

Pantheon 4 Free

The Pantheon is another of the very old places you can wander into for free(The version in Paris costs 9 euro). We were lucky in that it rained while were there and the big open hole in the centre of the roof letting rain in while every watched it come in was one of the more memorable moments of the trip.

Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary 5 Free

Rome has so many ruins that it spared one for a cat sanctuary in the middle of the city. If you like cats you should visit the cat sanctuary - hopefully, this is obvious.

Colosseum and Roman Forum 4 3

The Colosseum is old and huge and exactly what you expect. The Roman forum is a connected set of ruins in various states of repair. You should at least visit the forum to buy your ticket as it'll be much faster than buying at the Colosseum. However, Pompeii is far impressive that the forum when it comes to seeing a connected set of ruins so if you're making it out there it's probably fine to skip or just do a quick walkthrough of the forum.

Pompeii 5 4

Pompeii is amazing, I totally underestimated just how much of the city had survived. You can wander up and down streets and there's enough of the buildings left to be able to work out just from context which are shops and which are homes. It also has the oldest "beware of dog" sign.

Capuchin Museum 4 4

The Capuchin Museum starts with a good selection of interesting trinkets and bits of history of the order but the main reason everyone comes is the crypt. The crypt makes the ordering of bones in the french catacombs look amateurish. Apparently, a friar one day decided that the best way to make people contemplative was to take the bones of dead monks and arrange them to create art. It turns out that he was right.

Altare Della Patria 3 free

You'll go past the national monument a bunch of times in Rome and it's quite impressive. We went in expecting a particular museum that apparently closed a while ago and has been replaced with a rather strange exhibition to Italian patriotism.  

Non-Catholic Cemetary 3 4

The non-catholic cemetery has some interesting graves(Keats among others) and also quite a lot of cats.

Castel Sant Angelo 4 4

The Castel Sant Angelo was originally Hadrian's mausoleum before being used as an apartment by various popes. While most of the displays are pope focussed the various bits of history are still addressed and I found the combination fascinating.


Venice 4 3

Venice is a bit of a tourist trap. Definitely worth a visit but not a long one.

Wander around Venice 4 free

Visiting Venice could be almost entirely justified just to wander around for a day. The little alleyways, canals, and old buildings are all great to explore. Particularly if you've got the time to just head in a direction and see where you end up. There are obvious thoroughfares that are full of tourists and generic shops but it's pretty easy to nip down an alleyway and go in the same direction without having to deal without so many of the crowds.

Doge's Palace 5 4

Wow, so palace. I love the history it has and how the history of each room ties so close to the history of the Republic of Venice as one of the longest-running governments in history. It also connects directly through to the old prison over the bridge of sighs. The prison absolutely looks like the kind of thing you expect from a prison in a period drama including the graffiti scratched into the walls.  

Other Museums 4 4

You get a pass to another "three" museums with the Doge's Palace ticket. They're worthing visiting but they're all connected and the day we were there only one entrance was actually open so I'm of the opinion that it is actually "one" museum that you get free with the Doge's Palace.


Athens 4 4

Athens is in an interesting place, the effects of the financial crisis are clearly still being felt in terms of general maintenance and higher quantities of homeless people than we saw elsewhere in Europe. We weren't there for long enough to really get a feel for if things are getting better or not.

National Archeological Museum 5 4

The national Archeological museum is a good size and has some really old stuff. With plenty of Cycladic art and figures, it covers finds dating back to at least the 3rd millennium BC. 

Keramikos 4 4

Keramikos is one of several old things that you can get on a single ticket and then wander around Athens looking at. It has a good mixture of ruins and a surprising number of tortoises. A highlight was watching a father try and avoid explaining what was actually happening when his two young children ran up to him and told him two of the tortoises were "fighting".

Ancient Agora 4 4

The Agora is probably the best set of ruins in Athens that you don't have to climb a hill to get to. It's also on the way to the Acropolis so you may as well stop by.

Hadrian's Library 3 3

Hadrian's library is also on the ticket that gets into the other places, it's a bit smaller and you could probably just glance over the fence as you walk past.

Acropolis 5 4

The Acropolis is huge and includes multiple old things that would justify a visit all by themselves. The Parthenon at the top, as well as the odeon and the theatre of Dionysus around the base, are all worth the trip to see.

Acropolis Museum 3 3

The Acropolis Museum has a few good items and an excellent sublevel display of excavated buildings. Unfortunately, its main display is missing. The entire top floor is dedicated to the sculptures from the Parthenon, which are still in the British Museum.


Berlin 3 3

We had limited time in Berlin and it was a shock to be back in a city with cold weather. This was the only place I really bought anything on the trip as I went to Uniqlo and bought a very warm sweater. I am however a convert to currywurst and the general act of shaking curry powder over various foods.

Berlin Walking Tour 3 4

We did a Sandeman's walking tour of Berlin. It was a solid way to walk around and see a good range of buildings with some context as to their history. If we'd had more time in Berlin it would probably have seeded the things we would have chosen to do on the following days.

Sachsenhausen 4 4

Our other day in Berlin we went out to Sachsenhausen which was a concentration camp under the Nazi and then the Soviets. While it isn't the most famous of the camps it was large and being close to Berlin gives it a key place in history as a training camp and original home of many political prisoners. 


Amsterdam 3 3 

Amsterdam should probably be a four but I'm docking it a point for raining on us and being generally cold. The city is walkable and pleasant. It doesn't take too long to stop noticing the weed smell.

Amsterdam Walking Tour 4 4

We did a Sandeman's walking tour in Amsterdam as well, it was well worth it as everything is tightly packed but confusingly laid so getting a bit of guidance at the start made getting around easier. 

Anne Frank House 5 4

The Anne Frank house is absolutely worth walking around and has a great audio tour. Do be aware that even with timed tickets they absolutely max out capacity so you're looking at a slow shuffle around the building.

Micropia 2 3

Micropia is a museum of microbes, it has a few interesting exhibits but is quite small. There are definitely bigger science museums where it would count as a single exhibition in a bigger context.

Weed Shop 4 4

Go to Amsterdam, buy some weed. I was particularly interested in this given the prospect of a cannabis referendum in New Zealand next year, overall the environment was friendly and prices were low. The main thing I saw the security type guy doing was reminding people that they couldn't use tobacco in the shop.

Red Light District 3 3

The red light district is something that I find interesting to walk through but also weirdly anachronistic. Once upon a time, Amsterdam was viewed as a moral cesspit due to its existence whereas now it's just a bit odd really. 

Body Worlds Exhibit 2 2

Body Worlds do a rather extensive set of bits of the human body to examine, it's interesting but I wasn't amazed. Probably good for kids.

Van Gogh Museum 3 2

The Van Gogh museum was okay. If we'd gone at the start of the trip I might have liked it more but we'd seen a lot of art at this point. I also preferred both Monet and Banksy when it came to single artist related activities.

Best Old Thing - Pompeii

Best Activity - Hamilton

Best Meal - Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester

Best City - Lisbon

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Improving Elections Digitally

New Zealand just had another round of local elections with turnouts so low that it makes the link between elections and the democratic mandate of those elected tenuous at best. Predictably this has led to another round of looking at online voting as the solution to the lack of engagement with local politics. Which is a bit like using a sledgehammer for home repair - it might be possible but there’s a better chance you’ll just accelerate the demolition of your house.


Most technologists who have some understanding of the issues agree that online voting is bordering on impossible to make as secure as should be expected for a key part of modern democratic society. Unfortunately the popular discourse around electronic voting is being quickly reduced down to the debate between citizens who want voting to be as easy as online shopping versus the stereotypical IT professional who keeps freaking about security. Everyone is frustrated because to one side online voting seems obvious while the other is telling them they can’t have it with neither side really looking at other options.
Some of the onus is on technologists to describe how we can help improve the structures in which we live. So here are some of my thoughts on both the current challenges and changes that could be made to help improve electoral engagement without resorting to online voting. Many of these ideas have had parts implemented at times by smaller groups, but I believe they need the support of government to realise their potential benefit.

The Challenges

STV is a great electoral system that unfortunately also requires a fairly deep understanding of an election for the public to engage with. While the vote for Mayor may not be too hard to understand the tradeoffs involved in something like a DHB (District Health Board) election where over 20 people may be vying for 7 seats makes it difficult for the voter to know what their vote may lead to. Solutions need to make it easier to engage with this complexity and easier for voters feel confident that their vote will not lead to an unwanted result.
Local news has steadily become less well funded and less well read. While in the past there could be an assumption about how engaged people were with their local news and community this has steadily decreased as digital systems lead to people having connections and relationships that are less tightly tied to the physical location. Any approach to voter engagement must acknowledge these changes as reality rather than trying to turn back the clock to the days when everyone bought the local paper.
These challenges also play deeply into inequalities already present in society. Research in the US has demonstrated that in most cases the goals for improving equitable access to democracy have to include lowering the cognitive load of engaging with the electoral system and working out who has policies that will benefit you. There are also some findings that just improving access, such as through online voting, doesn’t help with improving the diversity of those engaging with democratic processes.

Some Potential Changes

Move candidate information online as a primary source

One of the limitations of the current system is that everyone gets their candidate statement printed out in a tiny little booklet that’s hard to browse. By the time someone has finished stating their hobbies, marital status, how much they care about the local community and that one scholarship they got that one time, there’s about a sentence left for policy. Moving online first opens up the space for candidates to share as much or as little as they want, which is necessary for people to be able to make informed decisions about their policies.
There’s also the benefit of making it so that those who can afford marketing and content writing have less of an inherent advantage. The new mayor of wellington Andy Foster managed to put an entire website online while most candidates were doing well if they managed to direct people to their facebook page.
Policy Local by the Spinoff did some good work in this direction but the simple limitations of their readership demographics and audience both means information on the platform won’t get to the broader public and that answers will be targeted to the Spinoff’s demographic.

Capture answers from candidates in a consistent way on issues that are key to voters

A few years ago I remember talking to Meg Howie about the Askaway Project for the 2014 election which set out to capture common questions from voters and then send them to political parties for answers, engagement was very high for a project that mostly spun out of a university paper. If a system like this for capturing common questions and keeping the answers in a public place can exist in parallel to the voting statement it becomes easier for people to find out

Keep Voting Records Alongside Candidate Profiles

For incumbent candidates it should be easy for voters to see how they’ve voted historically in the context of what they’re saying in their candidate statement. This just needs to be a link but it’s so deeply important that engaging with politics be easy. Not everyone will follow the information through but the option being there will improve both accountability and the feeling of powerlessness that comes from trying to make voting decisions off vague candidate statements.

Allow voters to select the candidates they’d prefer within the system as they’re searching

The same as in your favourite online shopping cart let people start favoriting and ordering their potential candidates as they work through the system and read profiles. For a ranked voting system it makes a lot of sense to be able to drag and drop your candidates up and down a list while you’re reading their profiles and comparing policies. You might transfer your votes to paper at the end, but flexibility makes it easier to really think about how you’re configuring your candidate list.

Create links for voters and organisations to share their preferred votes

People will still have difficulty getting through all the information on their own, so being able to share their thoughts is important. Often voters have a few top preferences and then don’t care too much about the middle of the pack while wanting to avoid a few candidates that they disagree with. If voters can share or copy from other people that they know have similar views then they’ll have more confidence that they’re not accidentally voting in someone they’d hate but just haven’t dug deep enough to find that out.
The concern with this kind of approach is that you’ll end up with a situation like that time the Australians accidentally elected the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party. But I think that can always be taken as a reflection of an election where voters were genuinely unhappy with the major parties. It certainly created the appropriate wake up call when a small party got elected simply by not enough people knowing enough about them to move them down their list.

Add a no election option for votes on positions where Crown appointment is possible

This isn’t really a digitally enabled option but it is one I’ve seen used to good effect by the Hugo awards for science fiction (which will be hosted in Wellington next year). I’m particularly thinking for DHB elections where there is a large collection of candidates for a lot of positions and the Crown often appoints members as well. There will be reasonable situations where voters would prefer to increase Crown appointments rather than fill all available slots with the available candidates.

Handling the move away from postal services

There is still the problem to handle of the postal service becoming steadily more inconvenient as an electoral mechanism. A better mechanism than being fully online will likely be the adoption of some kind of voting station (particularly around metropolitan areas), an obvious way to make this more convenient would be for users to be able to transfer their preselected votes to the machine via mobile (such as with a QR code) and verify them on site.
Some people will insist that that verification happens on a paper receipt while others may be comfortable with digital voting so long as it’s a closed system. Either way it’s still a long way from opening voting up to the wider internet and the multitudes of bots, viruses, and creepy uncles that might have access to your home computer.
(This article originally posted on the Ackama blog)

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Pacific Mission 2019

The week before last I was part of the New Zealand mission to Melanesia visiting Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Both countries are major targets of the New Zealand Aid Programme, with New Zealand involvement and support in areas ranging from police training to tourism. The reception in both countries was very friendly and showed there will be opportunities for New Zealand businesses to engage over the coming years either as part of the aid programmes or directly as the economies develop.

Pacific trip
One of the most interesting parts of the trip was the delegation itself which was lead by Rt Hon Winston Peters and consisted of 10 MPs (including members of Labour, Greens, NZ First, and National) a Pasifika and community group, a business delegation, and media crew on top of the MFAT officials and RNZAF staff. With around seventy people we filled one of the Air Force’s 757s (which we were very happy to be in, as there had been some suggestions we might be in the Hercules and everyone agrees the novelty of wears off in the first 20 minutes of the flight). Bringing such a diverse group together with various experiences in the region was hugely valuable in its own right with connections quickly forming that will allow more NZ organisations to cooperate on what they’re doing in the region.
It was also a fascinating look into how well respected New Zealand is at a political level across the region. I think some credit must be given to all the politicians on the trip for contributing to New Zealand’s reputation in the region. Although it was a cross-party delegation everyone was explicit that New Zealand’s role and aid in the pacific is not a partisan issue and avoided bringing any of the domestic political disagreements they might have on the trip with them. Although some top level policy and direction might change this firm commitment to the region across all parties has contributed dramatically to how well we are thought of.
The trip was valuable in terms of all the connections built both in country and between the group itself. New Zealand presents itself well and is well-liked. The parliamentary delegation in particular worked hard to present as a single group from New Zealand rather than letting any of the disagreements they may have domestically show. As a business delegate I found it useful. The main thing for any others approached for a similar trip to be aware of is that the schedule is hard to keep to, and although there are a couple of gaps set up which you can theoretically book your own meetings into, it’s pretty hard in practice to actually pull that off. I have suggested something like a business speed dating event next time around so that the meetings can be centrally managed rather than delegates trying to sort out emergency internet connectivity to rebook a meeting when they realise the schedule has slipped.
Pacific



Solomon Islands


Solomon Islands are a bit behind on their development journey in comparison to many of their neighbours (GDP per capita was estimated down around $2,380 USD per annum in 2017), but they surprised me the most in terms of the things that are going well and the potential represented. They’ve just gone through a successful election that, while tense, has had plenty of international oversight and appears to have been the most successful yet in terms of voter turnout and engagement (a particular shout out here went to the NZ Police trainers who have been working on helping bring community engagement strategies to the Solomon Islands Police Force).
Invariably the first thing people said to me after they learned I was in technology was that the country is finally getting a cable connection in about six months. That’s going to allow for a much more connected experience with the rest of the world. Even if access doesn’t make it to everyone immediately, the benefits of being more connected to their neighbours and being able to use the tools that other countries are using for planning and growth will be immense once they’re no longer dependent on satellite. To put this in perspective the roaming deal I was offered on mobile data was $5 NZD per megabyte and even locals were paying upwards of $250 NZD per month for less than a gigabyte of data.
Other pieces of infrastructure are also heading in a good direction. I was particularly impressed by our visit to the Honiara Port where the international side was in extremely good order and had deployed a fair amount of forward looking technology in terms of tracking systems and comprehensive dashboards in the main offices. New Zealand has also funded a second international airport in Munda to build a tourist zone around - this seems particularly positive in terms of allowing Honiara to focus on building itself out as the capital and industrial centre of the country.
On the industry side I found visiting Kokonut Pacific, an organisation teaching Solomon Islanders how to process coconut oil, interesting in terms of it illustrating a relatively complete supply chain all the way from small coconut growers through to export. People working in the coconut industry are producing a range of products including: oil, soap, copra, charcoal, bowls, carved items, and coconut water. This can then feed into the port that has plenty of backfill capacity allowing for cheap exports.



Coconut soap
Coconut oil soap at Kokonut Pacific

Most of the rest of our time was taken up by tours or events relating to the activity of New Zealand in Solomon Islands ranging from our support for the youth centre in Honiara through to official dinners more focussed on the political necessity of exchanging gifts between New Zealand and our hosts.
Solomon Islands has one particularly huge challenge in front of it - a huge youth population that is also mostly unemployed. To fix it they absolutely need to develop more industry but they’re taking many of the right steps to head in that direction. If they manage it then it’s likely they will end up in a good position as they have more scale and resources to work with, being comparatively larger (~600,000 people), than many of their neighbours.
The visit featured an amazing example of well-intentioned people making a small decision that has deeply negatively affected how they’re perceived. At some point someone on the policy side in Australia decided that the Australians should import Dole pineapples from outside Solomon Islands instead of buying the local produce as they were concerned buying locally would warp the domestic market. I’m sure the Australians did this with other things but everyone remembers the pineapples because it appears to be a point of local pride that their pineapples are extremely good (something I can attest to having sampled the produce). So a number of people bring this up in a variety of contexts including: talking about fruit, using it as an example of how the Australians didn’t engage with the community, and weird policy interventions when the price of pineapples seems so minor in comparison to how much aid money has warped the property market in Honiara. These three contexts match the three times I was told this story over the course of two and a half days on the ground. I found this fascinating as I’m sure no one agonised over this particular decision but it’s become so deeply entrenched as a bit of perception that people roll it out in conversation regularly.
Solomon Islands surprised me in terms of how far along their development journey they are versus what my preconceptions had been from outside the country. They’ve taken a number of positive steps towards building industry and infrastructure and what appears to be solid government vision for continuing to do so. Coming away from the visit I’m much more optimistic about what the next decade will bring for the country.



Vanuatu


Vanuatu is a very different experience from Solomon Islands as it is much more developed in the main centre. In Port Vila the internet speed is good and they already have a thriving tourism industry. Despite this the rural areas and islands are still mostly subsistence living with little in the way of access to services.
While Solomon Islands face issues from youth moving to the city and being jobless, Vanuatu was more concerned with the issue of less of the population moving to the areas that are easy to service. On the one hand it’s easier for everyone to stay at a subsistence level when spread across the region, on the other it’s harder to move towards industry and development.
Another challenge for businesses trying to work out what the future of Vanuatu will be is the complexity of the political situation - the current government is an eight-way coalition which is down from a coalition of 12 parties. This situation makes predicting what’s likely to happen on a political front difficult, with frequent motions of no confidence in parliament and a number of groups pushing very different futures.
Vanuatu’s economy is much more tightly tied to tourism than Solomon Islands with regular arrivals of large cruise ships supporting much of their economy. This is leaving the country with a different set of challenges around infrastructure and planning (more areas have to be able to handle the sudden arrival of a shipload of people). In the vast majority of cases the expats and businesses I met there were involved in the tourism industry in some way.
Because of its dependence on cruise ships Vanuatu is even more vulnerable to climate change having a long term effect on its economy than some other islands. Hurricane seasons are getting longer and the direct danger increases alongside the window in which cruise ships are travelling the region decreasing. Without the cruise ships there would simply not be enough trade to support the country and there isn’t a clear path to an alternative industry. This is a reminder that if the world as a whole doesn’t proactively address climate change the costs will also accrue directly in increasing aid and support needed by the countries affected.
One of the pieces of better news in the trip was our visit to the Fred Hollows eye clinic in Port Vila. Fred Hollows has some of the best investment to outcomes metrics of any charity I’ve come across, because restoring vision changes someone from permanently needing some level of support to being able to work or produce for themselves. The Vanuatu clinic is particularly notable for being the first time the foundation has successfully trained a local through to being a full opthamologist alongside building a new clinic that should allow for 800 surgeries a year.
One key part of any Vanuatu visit is sampling the Kava which tastes medicinal and is purported to have a relaxing effect. The impression I’d been given of it ahead of time overstated the effects as I can’t say I particularly noticed any mental changes but it was always served in a setting that was comfortable and open to good conversation so I recommend the experience.
We also had the notable experience of clogging up the airport on the final day with the RNZAF 757 had an issue and the other one had to be flown over to bring us back to New Zealand. Apparently the 757s are a bit error prone, but at least it gives the media some extra opportunities for stories.
Although it’s currently ahead on tourism I felt that Vanuatu was more vulnerable than Solomon Islands in terms of the various challenges facing it as a country. Everything from climate change to oil price can affect the tourism industry in ways that Vanuatu doesn’t have much power to change and there isn’t a good backup option at the moment.
Both countries I went to are amazing places to visit, and I look forward to watching their development over the coming years. The mission reinforced how key it is that we do our part in the region especially as other parts of the world prove to be less stable than we may have thought. A stable connected pacific region is good for us and good for the world.
Overall it was a hugely worthwhile trip in terms of connections built and for giving me some time on ground and experiences of things that would otherwise be hard to access.

(This article originally posted on the Ackama blog)