Strengthening Pacific Ties

Lonely Planet, the New Economics Foundation and Friends of the Earth all voted the Pacific nation of Vanuatu as the happiest place on earth in their happiness indexes. On an official visit in late 2016, Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai spoke to INNES LOGAN about his country’s growing relationship with New Zealand



Charlot Salwai knows all about Vanuatu’s colonial history. He lived it. Born in 1963, he grew up in a territory jointly ruled by France and Britain called New Hebrides, encompassing 138 islands where 83 different languages are spoken.


As a teenage Francophile, who grew up learning to speak French, Salwai admits there was relatively little fanfare about the transition to independence in 1980.


“It wasn’t until I went to New Caledonia in the mid-1980s that I became aware of its significance,” he recalls.


“Vanuatu’s independence had inspired the local Kanaks to also seek it from the French. There was a lot of violence and shootings in New Caledonia at the time. It made me appreciate what we had gained without too much trouble or violence.”


Three decades later New Caledonia remains a French territory while Vanuatu seeks its own path. It hasn’t been without its challenges, with a previous government led by Sato Kilman collapsing with half of its members jailed for bribery-related charges.


With previous ministerial experience (including Finance and Education portfolios), Salwai is seen as a trustworthy, dependable choice. A secret ballot following the fallout saw him receive 46 of the 52 votes cast.


He’s also a qualified accountant, who worked for a European bank and a power company, and didn’t enter politics until 2002.


Growing its economy from an overwhelmingly subsistence structure is among his priorities. The RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) Scheme with New Zealand has been one of its key growth successes.


“The RSE benefits both countries,” he says.


“New Zealand gains from having a seasonal workforce which they don’t have to worry about out of season. And Vanuatu benefits from the remittances locals send and bring back with them. They’re contributing to their communities and our nation’s economy.”


Since RSE began a decade ago, more than 21,000 Ni Vanuatu people have worked in New Zealand, predominantly in horticulture and viticulture industries, bringing back 7 billion vatu (approx. $NZD 90 million) to Vanuatu.


New Zealand is the fourth largest contributing nation to Vanuatu, ranking second in imports and tourism.


“New Zealand assists in many key sectors, including social, education, health, justice and sustainable development, particularly with energy,” says Salwai.


“They are helping the nation redirect priorities to more productive sectors for the country, particularly with agriculture. We have a fertile climate and can take advantage of that with sustainable planning.”



Vanuatu – Did You Know?


  •  Archaeological evidence supports the theory that people speaking Austronesian languages first came to the islands around 3300 years ago. Pottery fragments date back to 1300-1100 BC


  •  Locals’ first contact with Europeans came in 1606. Led by Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros, the Europeans arrived on the largest island and called it La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo, or The Southern Land of the Holy Spirit, in the mistaken belief he had landed on the Great Southern continent Terra Australis (Australia)


  •  Europeans did not return until 1768 with the arrival of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a French admiral and explorer


  •  British Captain James Cook arrived in 1774 on his second voyage down under, naming the islands New Hebrides, which lasted almost 200 years until gaining independence in 1980


  •  Growing interests from both the British and French resulted in the two European powers annexing the country in 1906 to administer the islands jointly


  •  Vanuatu has 138 different languages spread over 83 islands. It became more confusing with the arrival of the British and French. To solve the communication challenges, Bislama – a mixture of British, French and local languages - was introduced. It is now the national language


  •  Vanuatu has an estimated population of 300,000 people


  •  Father Walter Lini was the first Prime Minister to lead the country in 1980. He died in February 1999 and his birthday is now a national holiday


  •  Vanuatu is home to the highest number of active volcanos in the world with 14


  •  The origin of the bungee jump made famous worldwide by Kiwi AJ Hackett goes back to the traditional ritual jump called Ngol from the Pentecost Island in Vanuatu. A tower more than 30m tall is erected and the bungee consists of branches tied together with forest vines