MicSem Publications

Stepping Stones to Somewhere Else

by Francis X. Hezel, S.J.

2001 Religion

Throughout its five-hundred year history of dealings with the West, the tiny islands of Micronesia have been mostly way stations to other, more lucrative places. The Spanish ships that first happened on the islands in the sixteenth century were en route to the Spice Islands to bargain for the riches of the Orient. Following a two-hundred year lull in European voyages, ships once again began appearing from the late 1700s. There were China traders from Manila that sought products like beche-de-mer and turtle shell that they could trade for tea and porcelain and silk. Then came the whaleships seeking a brief respite from the hardships at sea. Then, by the latter part of the nineteenth century, came copra traders, who collected bags of dried coconut meat that freighters could transport to European ports for processing into oil that was used for soap and cooking.

The location of the islands, strung across the Western Pacific, had an appeal for foreign powers, flexing their national muscles at the height of the age of colonialism. Spain, in a last futile attempt to salvage its overseas empire, laid claim to the area in 1885. Germany, still a newcomer to the circle of world powers, took over possession of the islands after Spain’s defeat to the United States in 1898. At the outbreak of World War I, Japan seized the islands from Germany but lost them to the US thirty years later at the end of the Second World War. For a century, then, the islands that had been merely stepping stones to Asia had become something else: a prize of war for conquering powers.

Under forty years of US administration as a United Nations trust territory, the islands’ historical role as a way station to somewhere else assumed new significance as the Cold War raged. Military planners were unanimous on the strategic importance of Micronesia as a fallback from US bases in Asia and as a staging area for future possible conflicts there. When the Cold War intensified in the early 1960s during the Cuban missile crisis and the erection of the Berlin Wall, the US responded in part by increasing its subsidies to the Micronesian islands. New schools and dispensaries were built, thousands of new jobs were created, and salaries were hiked up to previously unimaginable levels. An illusion of prosperity was created, but the US-funded government was the mainspring of the island economy. The retail stores, pool halls, and restaurants-for that matter, the entire private sector-depended entirely on government spending to support it.

Today, Micronesia is not a single island nation, but a region as large as the continental United States containing two rather wealthy island territories of the US, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. It also includes three US-affiliated island states that were once part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific but have in recent years attained political independence: Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Even among these there is a wide economic spectrum. Palau, with a small population and a tourist industry poised for takeoff, has a per capita GDP of nearly $9,000 a year. The Marshalls and FSM, on the other hand, have a per capita GDP of closer to $2,000 and no viable economy in sight.

These new island nations have made serious attempts at economic growth since independence, but the fishing industry they attempted to create came to naught. A tourist industry pitched at the Asian market has also been unsuccessful to date except in the case of Palau. While islanders have tried to rid themselves of dependence on the US, old habits are hard to shake. The size of the governments remain inflated, at least in the eyes of foreign economic planners, and the government remains nearly as much the center of the economy as it was during Trust Territory days. Moreover, political independence has raised the ante, as it has everywhere in the Third World. The cost of nationhood today is staggering, especially when it comes to providing the services to which everyone has come to expect-running schools and modern dispensaries and keeping in operation the ships that serve the outer islands.

Like most of the Pacific, these nations are struggling to make it by something that has been termed the MIRAB economy. The "AB" in this term stands for aid and bureaucracy–assistance from abroad to fund the local government which, with its inflated payrolls, provides a cash income for so much of the population. The "MIR" is for migration and remittances, a part of the strategy that Micronesia has only begun to employ recently. As US funding has declined in the FSM and the Marshalls, in keeping with the provisions of the Compact of Free Association that the islands nations have signed with the US, the government has been forced to contract. With this contraction, jobs have also been cut.

Since it has been very difficult for young graduates to find employment at home, Micronesians are moving abroad in increasing numbers to find the jobs in the US that they cannot find at home. Today, about one of every eight islanders lives outside Micronesia. In all, over 25,000 people have emigrated abroad. Communities of island people are springing up wherever there are entry-level jobs to be found-in Corsicana, Texas; in rural Arkansas near the Tyson chicken farms; in Orlando, Florida, where job opportunities abound at Sea World and Disney World; near the pineapple plantations on Maui; and wherever there are nursing homes that recruit cheap labor.

Stay at home and live simply, well-meaning outsiders urge. But it isn’t that easy. Keeping company with the nations of the world means developing an economy that is robust enough to do much more than simply feed its population. What about providing all the amenities of citizenship that they see around the world? How does a small island nation do this without the natural resource base needed to provide industry?

Even if there is never quite enough money to go around, the cash economy has already made an irreversible impact on the traditional lifestyle of the island people. It’s not just a matter of putting pants on people who used to wear loincloths, but alterations in the most basic institutions at the center of the island societies. The extended family, or lineage group, that was once the basic unit of society, has given way to the nuclear family. Women, who once had so many roles to play as part of this larger kin group, now find themselves stripped of their traditional roles. Women, for instance, were once the custodians of the family land until land came to be just another commodity to be bought and sold. With the emergence of the cash economy, people need no longer depend for their livelihood on land-and on the extended family which alone provided rights to this land. The inevitable result is the sort of individualism that Westerners have learned to live with and even cherish, but which for islanders presents unlimited potential for cultural tension at every level.

Micronesians today face a clear dilemma. Modernization is forced on them, not by their former colonial rulers but by the economic demands of modern nationhood. Yet, it is just this modernization that does violence to their traditional way of life and the values that undergird it.

Jesuits assumed pastoral care of most of Micronesia in 1920 when the Society in Spain was asked to take on this mission. US Jesuits continue to play an important, although diminishing role even in the post-independence era. Since World War II, much of our development work has been centered on schools. Education remains a priority for us today, but we realize there is a growing need to expend efforts to educate the adult community to understand some of the challenges they face in the course of modernization. Only as they reflect on these changes and fathom the dynamics at work in their societies will they be able to steer these societies safely into the future.

The new island nations today may remain way stations to Asia in the eyes of the West, and stepping stones to the US for Micronesian emigrants. Yet, they are home to about 180,000 islanders who are faced with the problem of integrating the traditional and the modern. Today's social mission for the Society is to accompany them and support them as they try to do this.