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10. b) Describe the MIRAB model of development, and evaluate it within a wider Pacific context.
The MIRAB model of development has proven to be an influential model for understanding a unique set of external linkages between Pacific Island states, and certain former colonial powers. This essay will describe the MIRAB model of development as it pertains to certain Pacific Island states. Then, it will evaluate how well the model captures the economic activity of the Pacific Island states, finding that the MIRAB model has had notable successes in uncovering a unique brand of small island economic activity through the synthesis, recognition and collation of broad trends in macro-economic data. However,  broad generalisations stifle the potential for nuance in the analysis small island pacific economies, which in the absence of historical context can lead to a skewed understanding of the region. Compounding this there  are concerns that poor data recording, deliberate manipulations, and the prevalence of informal remittance processes make the  data difficult to account for.  This essay will then evaluate the MIRAB model in a wider Pacific context, in relation to a breadth of literature on the issues associated with single-disciplinary approaches to the study of the Pacific region,  before providing a potential alternative in the form of interdisciplinary, empowerment based scholarship. 

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The MIRAB model of development is an economic model developed by New Zealand economists; Bertram and Watters (1985) that proposes to explain why despite comparatively low domestic levels of production, certain small island economies manage to remain sustainable. The model emphasised integration with and dependence on former colonial powers (New Zealand in the original formulation) as the reason for this sustainability (Lee & Francis 2009). Bertram and Watters associate this integration as a reliance on a combination of Migration (MI), Remittances (R), Foreign Aid (A) and the Public Bureaucracy (B). Although to varying degrees, it is the view of Bertram and Watters that many small island economies rely on the above factors to sustain their economies and populations, and that dependence on these factors, and by extension, former colonial powers, is more desirable than independent capitalist pursuits (see Bertram and Watters 1985; 1986, Bertram 1986; 2004; 2006). 

Implicit within the MIRAB model are two distinct sets of processes (Tisdell 2014, 4). On the one hand you have the aid process, whereby funds are injected by aid partners in order to fund development projects and public bureaucratic activity, and on the other you have the remittance process. Loosely speaking the remittance process begins with the emigration of pacific islanders to overseas economies, the sending of capital back to their home islands, and the subsequent expenditure of that capital in domestic markets by recipients. This process creates a local multiplier effect, and stimulates domestic economic activity, however this is offset by leakages associated with reliance on imports.

Since its inception in 1985, the MIRAB model has been adjusted and applied to a number of Pacific Island nations, as a means of explaining  their sustainability in the face of economic vulnerabilities (see Bertram and Watters 1985; 1986; Bertram 1986; 2004; 2006). The vulnerabilities stem primarily from their inability to establish viable export markets, their isolation from economic centres, limited resources, and their susceptibility to natural disasters (Briguglio 1995).

 As Fraenkel (2006, 27) notes, the end of the indentured labour system in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century saw Pacific Island states undergo a difficult transition from labour-dependence to export-led economies. Trade between Micronesian states and East Asia was stifled by the post cold-war political climate, and Pacific states faced difficulty establishing export markets for Pacific Island products in France, UK, US, Australia and New Zealand amongst falling global prices for stapes such as copra. 

Isolation from economic centres increases service delivery costs and makes domestic exports uncompetitive, while limited resources impact a small island state’s ability to diversify in exported commodities. Accordingly, small island developing states run negative trade balances as they are forced to import more than they export in order to develop and sustain their economic population. Furthermore, small island states have a unique susceptibility to natural disasters, due to geographical location and the subsequent lack of resources with which to respond. These disasters cause significant infrastructural damage as well as impact land-based subsistence crop production.

The MIRAB model of development examined how these challenges promoted further integration of Pacific states with the mainland (New Zealand initially) and how this process shifted pacific Island economies from resource-based to rent-based economies (Bertram and Watters 1986, 57)

Importantly, MIRAB economies are not defined by a specific degree of reliance on remittances/and aid, but rather are best thought of as located on a linked continuum, between the two extremes of remittance and aid (Fraenkel 2006,16). With this in mind, Lal and Fortune assert that, despite dependency on MIRAB processes manifesting to varying degrees, countries that can be defined as MIRAB countries include but are not limited to; Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru, Cook Islands, Niue, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, The Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Tonga, Samoa, and  Rapanui (Lal and Fortune 2000, 397-398).

What the above countries have in common, according to Bertram and Watters (1985; 1986), is that they are all ‘rentier’ economies. That is to say, their economies are not sustained though conventional capitalism but through a unique set of external linkages to larger colonial neighbours and associated ‘rents’. These rents come in the form of remittances, profit and dividends, royalties, fishing license fees, tourism and services industry and aid; all of which share the characteristic of being disassociated with ‘direct productive economy on the part of recipient’ (Fraenkel 2006, 23). These  external linkages and associated ‘rents’ are considered not only sustainable, but more desirable than any independent direct productive economy.

What can the MIRAB model tell us about the economics of small island states?

As Fraenkel (2006,15) notes, the the MIRAB model has proved influential both academically and politically, with little descent amongst mainstream economists. This is a testimony to MIRAB’s illustrative power; namely it’s ability to dissect and interpret the peculiar patterns in current and government account inflows and outflows in small Pacific states, and succinctly explain them in relation to aid and remittance processes. The MIRAB model provides a historical, macro-economic account of how post-colonial small island states have improved their livelihoods through aid, remittance processes, as well as overseas property and resource rents (Fraenkel 2006, 25). 

However, the MIRAB model assesses and categorises data on small island economies against a prescribed set of general economic categories, which are unable to encapsulate neither the diversity of the region, nor the nuance of each nations economic situation. These generalisations facilitate the characterisation of a large number of Pacific states in relation to their isolation, vulnerability and dependency. This promotes a superficial and damaging perspective of the Pacific Region, that doesn’t represent indigenous perspectives of Oceania, nor does it afford the possibility of a nuanced understanding of cultural, historical, and political context. For instance, in the absence of any historical context, one might draw equivalence between the MIRAB economies of Tonga and Kiribati; two nations whereby contrasted cultural, historical and geographical contexts have precipitated unique economic situations that would make anything but the most general of equivalences between Tonga and Kiribati seem tenuous. For instance, there are important differences in the remittance processes of both Tonga and Kiribati that will subsequently impact economic forecasting for both nations. As Tisdell (2014, 6) notes, the majority of remittances paid to Tonga are from permanent overseas migrants (see Jimenez-Soto and Brown 2012, 426) whereas short-term and seasonal employment is the main source of remittances for Kiribati. This distinction is important, as remittances from seasonal and short-term employment opportunities are more susceptible to wider economic changes and volatilities, as well as being impacted by increased competition from other labour forces. 

One might respond here by claiming that the function of the MIRAB model is not to provide specific  historical context but to provide a general historical account of a diverse group of Island nations that share a unique set of common external linkages. This is I think is a fair rebuttal insofar as we see the MIRAB model as putting forward an historical descriptive claim. However, Bertram and Watters makes a further analytic claim; that they have ‘determined the evolution’ of Island societies, and that they have reached a ‘steady-state’ of development of which the descriptive claim is a principle justification (Fraenkel 2006, 26). In light of our brief comparison between Tonga and Kiribati, it is sensible to infer that both the ‘evolution’ and ‘steadiness’ of these island states will be nation specific and not generalisable. 

Furthermore, questionable data collection practices on the part of Pacific Island officials, as well as evidence of deliberate misrepresentations of import/export accounts call in to question the legitimacy of the supporting evidence for the MIRAB model, while informal distributions of remittances are unlikely to show up on balance of payments. For example, research by Brown and Connell (1993) found that one third of remittance practices in Tonga and Samoa were unrecorded cash or in-kind type remittance. (Fraenkel 2006, 19)

Nevertheless As an economic model, the MIRAB model has had notable successes in its synthesis, recognition and collation of broad trends in macro-economic data. The model provides an illustrative economic account of a unique brand of small island economic activity. Yet, the broad generalisations stifle the potential for nuance in the analysis small island pacific states, which in the absence of historical context can lead to a skewed understanding of the region. Compounding this there is cause to be sceptical  of the validity of the data collected in support of the model, as poor data recording, deliberate manipulations, and the prevalence of informal remittance processes are difficult to account for. 

Moving beyond MIRAB: a case for interdisciplinarity

So far we have evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of MIRAB as an economic model. However, the question remains ‘even if the MIRAB model does provide a satisfactory account of the nature of Pacific Island economies, is such an account appropriate or valuable in wider pacific settings?’. It is the authors view that there is cause to be concerned about the MIRAB model of development, as it affords a very limited perspective of the Pacific Region; one of dependency, isolation, and vulnerability. In doing so it advances neo-colonial and neo-liberal presuppositions  that are neither self-evident nor necessarily endorsed by the indigenous populations of the Islands to which the model refers. This section will claim that approaching the Pacific Region from a single western academic discipline will yield a restricted and occidental view of the Pacific region. Such views can have wider implications for politics, policy, development, and perhaps most importantly, for how Pacific Islanders view and interpret themselves and their region. 

Greg Fry in his seminal paper ‘Framing the Islands: Knowledge and Power in Changing Australian Images of “the South Pacific”‘ (1997) discusses a number of important trends in the way the Pacific region is represented both within the western academy, and in wider spheres of western ‘rational’ thought; by politicians, journalists and bureaucrats. Fry notes three ways in which Australian ‘rationalists’ apply simplistic frames to the Pacific Region and its peoples: “First, drawing geographical boundaries around them for purposes of making generalisations; second, intending to shape the lives of the people so bounded; and third, in the colloquial sense, setting them up for outcomes not of their making” (Fry 1997, 307). Extending on this, Teaiwa (2014 69) notes that the Pacific Islands are commonly represented as small, isolated, economically uncompetitive, politically unstable, and reliant on colonial neighbours, but that these representations arise not from a wholistic view of the region, but out of adherence to the prescriptions of certain western academic disciplines. Commenting on a similar point, Jolly (2007, 527) asserts that adopting a western disciplinary view of the region, such as the wholly economic perspective adopted by Bertram and Watters, will necessitate the omission of important dimensions of the Pacific experience, and neither engage with, nor represent, indigenous geological plots of connection and difference across the region (Jolly 2007, 515). 

A significant issue for the MIRAB model, and any single-disciplinary approach to the Pacific region is the issue of positionality. Despite I am sure the best of intentions, Bertram and Watters situate their research within the paradigm of economics, from a western academic perspective, directed to a western academic audience, with the intention of informing and educating about the way things are in the Pacific, as Wesley-Smith (2016, 159-165) notes the epistemic and ontological suppositions that underpin this positionally are implied within research of this kind, yet they are by no means universal. Research of this kind have a diminished relevance and applicability to Pacific Islanders, while the neo-colonial and hegemonic nature of the research often have net-negative consequences for the region (Hau’ofa 1994, 149-151).

The hegemonic and paternal nature of academic literature arising out of Australia and New Zealand raise a number of questions about the kinds of research that should be advocated for, the impacts of inappropriate forms of research, and the nature of Australia and New Zealand’s role in the region looking forward. The MIRAB model of development portrays the Pacific Region as small, vulnerable, isolated, and dependant. It asserts this portrayal as fact, and advocates for a post-colonial embrace of dependence as the only sustainable and sensible way forward. However, as we have noted, the manner in which Bertram and Watters arrive at this conclusion are open to criticism on the basis of their single-disciplinary reliance on economic evidence. 

Empowerment and the ethics of representation

Further to issues of positionally and applicability of the MIRAB model, there is cause to be concerned about the multi-scalar impacts that research of this kind has on the Pacific Region; ranging from the grassroots attitudes of pacific islanders to the structures of governance that maintain Pacific Island states. As Fry (1997, 309) notes, conceptions of the Pacific Region as small, vulnerable, isolated, and dependant are both belittling and oppressive, and reflect a trend in the way Australian’s and New Zealanders have historically categorised the post-colonial Pacific. The impacts of this common conception on Pacific Islanders have been explored by Jolly (2007)  who claims that many Pacific Islanders experience double vision, a situation whereby they simultaneously see themselves, their islands, and their wider region through both indigenous and western academic lenses. Moreover, Fry (1997) notes that depictions of the Pacific Island states as small, vulnerable isolated, and dependent, permeate the government and bureaucratic consciousness, and thus have wide and far reaching policy implications; a point that Fraenkel reaffirms with specific reference to the MIRAB model. that With this in mind, it is important that research is conducted from non-oppressive, non-manipulative, libertarian perspective (Said 1978, 24, 328). Interdisciplinarity and empowerment based study of the Pacific is a natural starting point, as they incorporate and celebrate a diversity of indigenous ontology and epistemology, whilst affording a wide range of academic perspectives. (Wesley-Smith 1995, 2016).

The economic perspective presented in the MIRAB model is valuable for its descriptive power, but should be situated within a wider academic framework that incorporates a diversity of indigenous perspectives, that celebrates and explores the Pacific Region’s long and deep history of commerce, migration, myths, oral traditions, cosmologies and connectedness (Hau’ofa 1994, 7). It is through recognition of the deeper truths of the region, such as its linguistic, cultural and historical links to the Austronesian language family (see Evans 2011, Pawley 2010) and the archeological evidence of ancient commerce, trade and movement evidenced by the Lapita culture (see Spriggs 2009); through the celebration of art and culture, and effective regional diplomacy (see Manoa 2015, Tarte 2014), that the hegemony of dis-empowering and oppressive perceptions of the Pacific can be stifled. 

This essay first described the MIRAB model of development as it pertained to certain Pacific Island states. Then, it evaluated the models ability to capture and categorise the economic activity of those states, finding that while the MIRAB model has had notable successes in uncovering a unique brand of small island economic activity, broad generalisations stifle the potential for nuance in the analysis of Pacific island economies, which in the absence of historical context can lead to a skewed understanding of the region. It then discussed concerns that poor data recording, deliberate manipulations, and the prevalence of informal remittance processes make the data difficult to account for.  Following this it evaluated the MIRAB model in a wider Pacific context, with particular reference to a breadth of literature on the issues associated with single-disciplinary approaches to the study of the Pacific region. Finally it provided a potential alternative in the form of interdisciplinary, empowerment based scholarship.