Views from Auckland

Facts, reality – and spin

Dev Nadkarni

There is no reality. Only perceptions. There are no facts. Only interpretations. I can’t remember who said that – but it’s a line that rings true every time you stop to take another look at the “spin” that is bandied about as fact by “experts” of all persuasions.

And somewhere in the midst of that, there is statistics. Which most malleably lends itself, especially in the deft hands of whoever is doling it out, to all sorts of perceptions and interpretations.

Vanuatu

Last month, for the second time since 2006, Vanuatu was voted the happiest nation on the planet. The first time, it won the top slot in the happy planet index, a measurement system devised by the New Economics Foundation and this year it was top travel publisher Lonely Planet that billed it the happiest country in the world.

While few bother to actually find out what sort of objectively compiled data goes into the statistics for computing such indices, it is the fluff of the stuff that sticks in people’s minds – cool “facts” that have fantastic value as a sales tagline; great copy for tourist brochures. Who would not want to visit the happiest place on the planet?

Visitors to the island nation’s swanky resorts could be forgiven if they believed they were in paradise on earth, what with the lush beauty that permeates the verdant tropical isles – that feeling often reinforced by “facts” like being in the world’s happiest place, according to a set of distant economic gurus whose brilliant minds churn out spectacular statistics.

But scratch the surface and one encounters a wholly different picture. Merilyn Tahi, co-ordinator of NGO Vanuatu Women’s Centre says the women of the happiest country in the world are among the most abused anywhere. The problem of violence against women and children and widespread sexual abuse is something that’s well hidden from the touristy persona of the increasingly favourite Pacific destination.

As many as 60 percent of offenders apprehended by the police are sexual offenders, she says (see story on page xx in this issue). The incidence of teenage pregnancy is also rising alarmingly. These statistics fly in the face of whatever figures or parameters that are used to determine that the country is the happiest place on earth. “That may be the opinion of the world. It is definitely not the opinion of the women and children of Vanuatu,” says the humble, mild mannered Tahi.

Yes, Vanuatu has most certainly conducted its affairs commendably these past few years and has registered an impressive economic growth rate, boosted its inbound tourism numbers and created a whole new revenue channel by exporting labour particularly to New Zealand under the Registered Seasonal Employer scheme. But it has done little to actively improve the lot of women and children who continue to bear the brunt of traditional attitudes toward them. Ask the women themselves.

Papua New Guinea

Then again last month, at the well attended inaugural Pacific Investment Summit in Sydney, a global risk management advisory company presented the risk profiles of Pacific island countries and explained how it advises its clients who seek to invest within the Pacific islands region on the risks of doing so.

According to the tools the company uses, the presenter said Papua New Guinea’s profile presented a higher risk. Obviously that did not go down well with the substantial contingent from the region’s fastest growing and most resource rich country that is courted by the likes of China and Australia.

At the end of the presentation, several anguished hands went up and questioned the presenters on what sort of data was used to arrive at the perception that the country presented a higher risk. The presenter was a little hard put to explain.

The problem with countries like Papua New Guinea and many others in the developing world is that numbers and data are hard to come across, even if they are compiled at all in the first place. So most opinion is formed by “perception” of anecdotal stories mostly gleaned from word of mouth and news sources, which indeed piece together into an overall picture that looks bleak.

In reality the law and order situation may be no worse than that in the developed world, for all we know. There is just not enough objective information and data to compare.

However, ultimately an investor weighs the level of risk with the quantum of both short term and long term return – something that hardly needs to be proved in the case of Papua New Guinea. For if that were not the case, none of the world’s core sector players would have been doing business in the country.

And what really can ensure or guarantee the security of your investment? No legal system is good enough. The global financial crisis that essentially played out in the developed world is proof enough. Nearer to home there is the equally sorry example of New Zealand’s dozens of finance companies that went belly up with billions of dollars of mum and dad investors’ hard earned money.

True, a lot of the stuff in PNG may not be up to scratch, but one would do well to take the opinions based on the “perceptions” of “experts” on matters of law and order and suchlike with a grain of salt – just as you would in the case of “expert’s perceptions” about Vanuatu being the happiest place on the planet – or for that matter any media spin that you come across.

Fiji

Also speaking at the Sydney summit was Warwick Hotels’ Pacific boss Jamal Serhan who said that despite all the negative advisories issued by New Zealand and Australia about travel to Fiji over the past couple of years and the doom and gloom of the global financial crisis, the Warwick chain the Pacific had the best ever occupancy rates.

If you were to go by the spin that has permeated the global and regional media since the global financial meltdown and the Fijian political situation, you would be forgiven if you believed that it was all but dire straits for the hotels sector in the region – particularly so in Fiji. Apparently this is not the case – at least according to one of the biggest and most successful players in the region’s hospitality industry.

Ultimately, there is neither fact nor reality. But one thing there is plenty of is spin.

And is completely up to you how you interpret it.

First appeared in Islands Business, September 2010