Friday, September 30, 2011

Island Economy: Exporting the ABCs

In the previous post “Island Economy:  Volcanic Trade” I mentioned my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Pacific in the early 1980s.  Last week the Federated States of Micronesia threw a party to help former volunteers celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps and the forty-fourth year of operation in Micronesia. 

At the reunion party last week one of the Jesuit priests who has spent many years in Micronesia gave a brief update on the state of Micronesia’s educational system and its economy.  The island nation is well educated, with strong public and private primary and secondary schools.  It has its own community college now.  Young people can get an education while staying at home.  This is in part the legacy of Peace Corps volunteers who toiled in tin-roofed classrooms, fighting off mosquitoes and scorpions to teach math and English and world history.

The lessons are serving Micronesia well it seems.  I listened intently to Father’s talk and I was taken back to the first lesson that I learned about the “island economy.”  For all the lush greenery that greats the unschooled visitor, small islands like those found in Micronesia, rarely have enough resources to support much more than a subsistence economy  -  a carefully regulated one at that.  Fias Island where I had been assigned as an economic development specialist had been uniquely able to export food in its early history.  However, its three villages also lived under very closely enforced rules that might seem social in nature, but really are ingenious means of allocating resources. 

Take for example, the island dress code.  Fais residents were prohibited from wearing more than one piece of clothing at a time  -  at least in the village area.  In gardens and elsewhere it is acceptable to pile on cover from the elements.  Most foreigners  -  including me at first  - thought it was intended to restrict personal freedom.  After I had worked with my counterpart on the island to count island resources, it because apparent that there was flat out just not enough material on the island to produce more than one article of clothing for each person  -  excluding imports.  When you live on an island without a lagoon and the strong current of the Marianas Trench run right by your front door, you do not build a heavy reliance on trade. 

Of course, now that Fias Island has an airport, transportation is no longer an issue. Remember the phosphate mining operation I mentioned in the previous post.  They filled in the holes left by Japanese soil extraction effort and laid down a tarmac.   Trade matters and the dress code are permanently changed.  Just the same  -  what can a little island produce?

Right now Fias along with the rest of Micronesia is exporting labor.  Truly Micronesia’s educated population is its most valuable asset.  All those little girls and boys who learned to count and say the ABCs at the urging of Peace Corps volunteers have become doctors and lawyers and engineers.  Micronesia has sent more than its fair share of young people to the U.S. military to serve in the Iraq and Afghanistan arenas among others.  Today remittances back home are the largest component of the country’s gross domestic product.

I learned a great deal about economics on that little island in Micronesia  -  and quite a bit more about my own country at the same time.  The spread of knowledge and understanding is after all the purpose of the Peace Corps.  Fifty years later it seems to have worked  -  at least for me.  We are spoiled in a land of plenty in North America.  In our decisions related to energy and other natural resources, we would do well to consider the merits of a “dress code” - of some sort,maybe not one-piece of clothing  -  to bring balance to our own economy.

Thank you to the Federated States of Micronesia a pleasant evening and a still-relevant lifetime lesson in economics.

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