The practicalities of change: Positive deviance and land reform in Vanuatu

13th April 2016

This guest post by Anna Naupa draws on her Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture, presented at the DLP Annual Conference 2016: Power, Politics and Positive Deviance. It is the perspective of Anna Naupa and not that of any organisation with which she is, or has been, affiliated.

I don’t have a rebellious bone in my body – after all, I’ve been a bureaucrat for many years. But when thinking about this year’s DLP conference theme of 'positive deviance', I recalled Adrian Leftwich’s point that it’s not the rules [or the institutions] that matter, as much as the way the actors play with the rules.

I have always considered my first encounter with the work of Adrian and Steve Hogg (AusAID), back in 2007, as a turning point in my career. At the time, I was the wearer of many hats in my role as an AusAID officer. I am ni-Vanuatu – born and raised there; I am a mixed-race woman, and I am also a member of the urban, educated 'elite'. I had trained as an anthropologist but I understood the agency bureaucracy; and I had wide social and political connections, particularly in relation to custom land governance.

Being acutely aware of all these relational spaces was, to my mind, simply part of Vanuatu life. But when I became involved in a Drivers of Change analysis in Vanuatu in 2007, the first of its kind within AusAID and influenced greatly by Adrian and Steve Hogg, I realised that this awareness could also be applied to how we navigate the power dynamics in development work.

We used the Drivers of Change analytical tool to unpack the politics around Vanuatu’s hot development issues at the time, and to identify the elites, coalitions and champions for change whose support was vital for success. This analysis in turn informed all of our development programming work through AusAID in Vanuatu.

And when I think back to what this meant in concrete terms, I start with myself. As Chris Roche and David Hudson have suggestedknowledge of our own agency – and its limits – is a particularly crucial aspect of any political and power mapping. 

So when I list the many hats I wear in this story, I include the fact that I was (and am) a champion for the protection of land rights, including recognition of women’s rights to land.

Land reform was and still is one of Vanuatu's hottest development issues

Land reform was and still is one of Vanuatu’s hottest development issues. Indigenous land rights have been at the heart of Vanuatu’s constitution since it gained independence 35 years ago; Vanuatu has a unique system of dual land governance administered by both customary leaders and the state. However, by the early 2000s alleged corruption, weak policy and eroding cultural institutions had become an increasing source of tension between and within clans, communities, government administrators, and local and international actors in the private sector.

Land disputes overburdened the legal system and were seen to influence political stability, hampering equitable economic growth. There was limited political will to tackle any of this head on.

In short, it was a mess, a ‘noisy issue’, the kind of problem that all of us in development are familiar with. The noise may be media hype, fraught politics, miscommunication, competing interests and actors, hidden agendas, or all of these – a lot of noise to make sense of.

Political economy analysis using the Drivers of Change tool helped us map the various change agents in Vanuatu’s national development landscape, and helped us at AusAID know how to engage as an external actor. To pinpoint the fundamental development challenge, we needed to sift through the rhetoric and the agendas and understand the motivations of institutions, coalitions and individuals:

  • The Church was vocal about the social issues;  
  • The government and private sector wanted to focus on the economic issues;
  • The holders of customary power, the chiefs, wanted to mitigate conflict and maintain their role and voice over land matters;
  • The wider public, non-state actors, politicians and media equally had a lot to say, particularly about transparency and accountability.

AusAID, despite its institutional baggage and mistrust caused by Australia’s own historical record on indigenous land rights, was able to build credibility as an external actor/donor. It did this partly by showing its willingness to invest in the multiple conversations about land in Vanuatu, and by regularly bringing together all the different change agents.

It also gained trust by supporting safe spaces to test ideas. For example, women’s rights to land had traditionally always been secondary considerations. Through a trial gender officer placement with the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs, pockets of conversation around group rights to land in the context of planned broader legislative reforms led to the emergence of a group of chiefs who became champions for women’s rights to land. This was something that women champions alone would not have achieved – a good example of how important it is to know the limitations of one’s own agency.

Investing in safe spaces to test ideas is an important aspect of creating the space for the different actors to identify where their values and visions for change converge and agree a change narrative. Deciding together on a narrative for the reform can help build a critical mass of support.

We will never be able to deviate from technically solid, yet politically weak, programs or solutions unless we can increase the appetite for risk and pilot different ideas.

But the opportunity to provide the space for ‘safe fails’ correlates greatly with the appetite for risk. We will never be able to deviate from technically solid, yet politically weak, programs or solutions unless we can increase the appetite for risk and pilot different ideas.

Adrian Leftwich was a thought-leader on how politics is about more than incentives and interests; it is about the power of ideas and human agency. Positive deviance is about giving these powerful ideas a platform for testing.

Who were the positive deviants in this story? I think two organisations qualify for the title, even though neither would perhaps be expected to feature high on a list of mavericks – AusAID, being willing to work slowly and incrementally to help build a reform coalition; and the traditionalist Malvatumauri Council of Chiefs, particularly for their buy-in to the advancement of gender issues. Both were able to ask and answer the question all actors in development should be asking, as individuals, organisations or coalitions: what can we do differently? How can we be positively deviant within the power structures that we engage with?

Land politics have changed yet again in Vanuatu and efforts are underway to ‘reform the reforms’. The actors have changed – AusAID is no more – and the power dynamics have shifted. Vanuatu has a new government. Political agility is a fact of life in Vanuatu – and everywhere else. This is the political process, and the cycle continues.

We need to be investing in regular analysis to help understand the shifting political dimensions of progressive change in our contexts and in supporting spaces for innovation.

Our challenge as individuals is to seek out the different ideas, and do whatever we can to build the appetite of those around us to try something a little different – to be a champion and agent of change in our institutions.

Image: A bus near Port Vila in Vanuatu (Phillip Capper)

To hear more of Anna’s reflections on change processes, watch her full presentation (28 mins):


See more conference resources, including a discussion between Anna Naupa and Nic Maclellan on Regionalism, Coalition Building and the Pacific.



Anna Gibert

13th April 2016 at 13:13

Great article, Anna - this is the sort of thinking that needs to be guiding how development assistance is 'done' - thank you for sharing

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The views expressed in Opinions posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of DLP, the Australian Government or DLP's partner organisations.



Anna Naupa

Anna Naupa

Anna Naupa has more than 10 years' experience in Vanuatu and across the Pacific region as a governance and land specialist, and as a communications for development and gender equality advocate. She is currently Regional and International Issues Adviser at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. In previous roles, she helped bring gender to the forefront of land issues in Vanuatu. From 2009-2013, she was one of only three women appointed to the Vanuatu Land Governance Committee.

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