MicSem Publications

Examining the consequences of the Money Economy in the Pacific

by Francis X. Hezel, S.J.

2001 Economics

The Federated States of Micronesia, like other Pacific islands today, faces the dilemma of modernization. It is essential that the terms of the dilemma be properly understood if the new Pacific nations are creatively to take advantage of the full range of choices that they are offered in today's world. Talk of globalization and neocolonialist tendencies of international agencies may obscure the dilemma and lull these nations into a fatalism that leads them to abandon those choices that are theirs in shaping their futures.

Most of the Pacific Island nations realize the importance of expanding their cash economy through whatever means might be available to them. In this they are being encouraged and assisted by development banks and other international organizations. The Pacific nations have embarked on this course and continue on it despite warnings issued by militant groups in their own country and beyond that they may be actively contributing to a host of misfortunes that include environmental dangers, loss of subsistence sector production, cultural impoverishment, and the abetment of those global economic powers poised to conquer the world. These same militant groups often see their mission as awakening Pacific peoples to what they think are dimly perceived threats to the very existence of these peoples.

If the new nations plow on, seemingly heedless of the warnings, it is not because they embrace development at any cost, but because they understand the dilemma they face in a way that others might not. The choice is not between traditional values and modernization. It is a question of maintaining their status as a nation state or of dropping out of the world community of nations. The engine that drives Pacific nations in their search for modernization is not simply crass avarice, an insatiable desire for the goods of the West, or a lack of confidence in their own ways. In many Pacific nations people probably could be fed on their own local produce of the land and sea. They could provide for their basic needs using traditional resources, but they could not support the cost of their modern government. In today's world the cost of nationhood comes with too high a price tag to be sustained by a traditional economy. In the modern nation-state, there are schools to fund, health services to provide, roads to maintain, and other expensive services that the public demands.

The cost of nationhood must be paid somehow-either by modernizing the economy so that it is capable of generating the revenues needed to provide the accouterments of today's nation-state, including the expensive services that are obligatory today, or by becoming a client-state of a national power like the US (as FSM is). The second option, of course, may impose restrictions on the nation-state that are as onerous as rapid economic expansion. The only alternative to these two options is for the Pacific nation to abjure its status in the world community, deny its people the services that they have come to expect of their government, turn its back on the modern world, and attempt to return to its precolonial status as a chiefdom or network of chiefdoms. Essentially, therefore, Pacific Island nations have little choice over whether to modernize their economy-a point that is sometimes missed in the debate over globalization. Whether emerging nations like it or not, they must develop a productive economy of sufficient magnitude to generate a tax base that will fund the nation's government and the services its people have come to expect.

If the urgency of modernization is obvious to a new nation, the social costs that this modernization imposes might not be as clear. The transition from a subsistence economy to a cash economy has secondary effects that are pervasive and deep. The land-kinship complex that is at the very center of so much of the cultural life of people is shaken by economic modernization. Traditionally any person's livelihood depended on land (which was synonymous with food in most Pacific societies), but rights to land in turn depended on membership in a kin group since nearly all land was corporately held by kin groups. With the emergence of a cash economy based on wage labor, individuals are able to feed themselves apart from the land-kin linkage. This revolution not only engenders a degree of individualism that was unthinkable in the past, but it triggers dramatic changes in the social institutions tied to the land-kinship core.

Throughout Micronesia, with the advent of the cash economy, the quasi-nuclear household has attained a new degree of autonomy from the extended family since it is capable of providing for its own needs. This autonomy, while weakening the social bonds that joined the nuclear family to the larger social unit, has strengthened the authority of the father of the family. Correlatively, the reliance on the maternal uncle for support and guidance of his nephews and nieces-something found in every cultural group in Micronesia-diminished greatly. Where authority over children was shared by the maternal uncle and other senior relatives in the past, today it has become concentrated in the biological father. The lack of child-rearing assistance is especially telling when conflicts arise within the family.

As the extended family fragments, the control that it once enjoyed over the socialization of the young diminishes. In a more traditional day, children may have remained within the protective social environment of their own lineage or close relatives, where they were trained in life skills and in which they found companionship. This protective enclosure shrinks as the cohesion of the family dissolves, as greater mobility driven by the search of jobs creates a heterogeneous community, and as the young increasingly choose their own companions.

Meanwhile, the relationship of brothers to their married sisters is altered since they no longer share the same resource base. Because brothers are slower to intervene in domestic quarrels on their sisters' behalf, women find themselves subject to the whims and blows of their husbands as they never had been before. Moreover, married couples are more inclined to set up their own households at some distance from relatives on either side. Hence, the social and geographical distance grows between the nuclear family and their kin, leaving the spouses and children free to establish their own household rules, but without the protection on which they would have been able to rely previously. Even adoption changes its function so that instead of bonding lineages, one of the major purposes it served in the past, it becomes a welfare strategy to provide a home for a child not otherwise provided for.

The monetization of the economy has profound effects on land practices as well. Land is being commodified and alienated today as it never would have when it was unrivaled as the main resource. As the importance of the lineage wanes, the traditional corporate ownership of land is yielding to individual ownership. With the rise in importance of the nuclear family, land inheritance practices are also changing-from inheritance through the matrilineage to a father-son pattern. The confusion between the traditional inheritance practices and the modern ones invariably lead to a multiplication of contested land cases, many ending up in court. This generates further conflict between relatives and results in still further divisions in the extended family. Moreover, as the land passes increasingly out of lineage control, women, who were once widely regarded as guardians of the land, find themselves stripped of still another role they enjoyed in an earlier day.

There are other strains on the relationship between men and women brought on by economic modernization. With employed men absent much of the day, women's domestic work load increases. With their daughters at school during the day and fewer female relatives to share this work load, women find themselves taking on a disproportionate part of the domestic work load. On the other hand, women are losing opportunities for exercising informal authority in their community inasmuch as many of these were embedded in the lineage, which is waning in importance. As women seek wage employment, they are often seen by men as competitors for a limited number of paying jobs. To regard the sexes as in competition constitutes a radical redefinition of the traditional male-female relationship, for in a traditional society they served very different but complementary roles with very little overlap between them.

The introduction of a cash economy also changes the way in which political authority is exercised. If traditional chiefs have lost a good measure of their real authority today, it is because they do not exercise any control over money, the new resource that is replacing land. Nonetheless, chiefs enjoy respect from their people, perhaps even more than formerly, because they are utilized as a buffer against the modern government and a protection against monopolization of power by elected political officials.

The modernization of the economy even has an impact on the health of today's island population. Although infectious diseases are less serious a health problem than ever before, malnutrition among the young would appear to be on the increase. This is due in part to the use of store-bought foods rather than a balanced local diet, so that many children suffer from Vitamin A deficiency and sometimes from other forms of malnutrition as well. Adults also show signs of an improper diet. Diabetes and heart disease are due, at least in part, to the high-fat, salty imported foods that are eaten in such great quantities today.

These are some of the major consequences of economic modernization in the Pacific, as documented in the post-war history of Micronesia. It would be fatuous to assume that small island societies emerging from a traditional subsistence economy could somehow elude these problems. Yet, this is the toll that modernization exacts from a people who are seeking a place in the world community for their newly formed nation.

The consequences of such a transition are serious but not culturally fatal. Island populations undergoing such transition are better off dealing with such matters consciously than in being taken by surprise and being forced to puzzle out the reasons for the enormous social changes on their own. We may not be able to prevent island nations from making this necessary but painful passage to modernization, but we can help them anticipate and adapt to the social changes that will rock them on the way. We have it within our power not simply to speed the change to economic modernization, but to help people understand what social consequences to expect and how to deal with them as they occur.