edit The Capitalist, English Edition, 18 June 2008
Cheques on the Beach: The sale of the Tokelau Islands has won tentative approval from a League of Nations committee-- and may have opened the door for a new concept of privatised nationhood.
THE HAGUE, Batavian Kingdom-- A League of Nations committee meeting is nothing unusual in this, the world's diplomatic capital. But the Commission on Very Small States, an often-overlooked committee for extremely tiny countries, prefers to conduct its business away from the rest of the world. Its five-day meeting in the Palace of the Nations that concluded last week came in response to a new wrinkle on the normally smooth landscape of tiny countries: Englishman Andrew Morris's bold purchase of the Tokelau Islands from the island's people and its coloniser nation, the Fijian Kingdom. Since the deal was announced one month ago, it has raised questions in the hallowed halls of the Hague and in governments the world over: Can a nation be privately owned? And more broadly, how can the needs of small economies be met in today's rapidly specialising global economy?
The Commission on Very Small States debated the issue all last week. At issue was whether Tokelau would be able to support itself without some sort of dependency. Fijian rule had fettered the island, tying it to a backward system of mandated cash crops that inhibited local business initiative and killed any possibility of, for example, tourism. For nearly a year, Tokelau and Fiji had been in a political standoff that had resulted in a virtual blockade of the little atolls, leading to reported months of hardship and shortage and an aid request to the global community that embarassed Fiji. Morris promises that his privatised rule will lead to a modern infrastructure and the growth of an ecologically conscious tourist industry.
Under the unusual arrangement, Morris and his ecotourism company will assume full sovereignty from Fiji in Tokelau's four atolls and their territorial waters. In return, he will invest heavily in both Fiji and Tokelau. Under a draft constitution and treaty set still in the works, Tokelau's people will be guaranteed complete autonomy forever. This means that the Tokelauans will be governed like they always have, by village elders and island faipules chosen by community consensus, all under the benign, hands-off leadership of the scion of Tokelau's long-disenthroned chiefly line... who will, of course, be responsible to the islands' owner, Mr. Morris.
The committee reached a consensus of its own that projects a guarded open-mindedness. Geoffry Richards is a delegate from Hay-on-Wye, a little known English-speaking kingdom of a few thousand people located in the middle of Cambria. He explains, "Morris's own island, Lundy, has been affiliated with our committee for a very long time, so a number of us were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. But at the same time, there's this sense that a person shouldn't just be able to buy up countries whenever the fancy strikes him. So as a committee we very much want to assess this situation on its own terms rather than make assumptions." Lundy is a de facto independent 850-acre island in Cambrian waters, which Morris has ruled as "Master" since the Seventies.
To that end, the delegates approved a resolution that praised Tokelau's "confident pursuit of self-determination" and acknowledging that "nations of our size have always been places of political innovation." However, the meetings were far from a five-day celebration of Morris's growing private empire. Delegates from the Pacific nations in particular gave Morris a long, steady grilling, and the committee debated adding caveats to their resolutions warning against "paternalism" and "the greed inherent in modern venture capitalism."
"It was the autonomy guarantee where many of us on the commission were the most suspicious," says Jessaulenku Appi, committee delegate from the eight-square-mile Confederate Republic of Nauru. "If the island is his personal property, who will hold Mr. Morris to his promise? I worry that the Tokelauan people have sold away their rights and liberties along with their god-given land." It is safe to assume that one of Tokelau's greatest challenges will be winning the trust and approval of its Pacific neighbors, nearly all of which hold to very traditional views on land ownership.
It is abundantly clear that Tokelau's economy will benefit from Lundian leadership, which promises to shower the islands with resources. But what about the long term? One of the Tokelauans' most serious complaints about Fiji was that local entrepreneurs had no room to explore amid the tight government regulation of the economy. In a state where everything belongs to a proprietor, the same danger may exist. Even if Morris takes a liberal attitude toward local business, the danger lurks that the people of his islands will prefer indolent reliance on the Morris fortune to working to build a robust locally driven economy.
Tokelau joins the growing club of private ventures into statehood, heretofore seen in the light dusting of private fiefs and compounds in the wilds of Australia and North America. What sets Tokelau apart is its insularity: it is the center of two thousand people's world and the birthplace of all their ancestors since time immemorial. The Tokelauan experiment will allow us to see whether privatisation is a viable solution for struggling nation-states.
The Commission's diminutive Secretariat will relocate itself to the High Chiefdom of Banaba, a location more convenient to observing the outcome of the experiment, with regular missions of observation going to check in on Morris's growing enterprise. The rest of the world will be watching as well. C