Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Refining the Pacific Way

Dirk Jena

THE birth pains our region has been experiencing in the past two decades and how these have been managed by the Pacific leadership is nothing short of a miracle in the face of an extremely fast-changing global geo-political landscape.

Fiji Times News
 by Dirk Jena

The spirituality and customs of ancestors of ethnic groups which peopled this ocean of islands were, as is true the world over, very much linked to the eco-system they were part of.

Communities had leadership, societal structures, rules and regulations underlined by a deep spiritualism connecting the person, the biodiversity and their ethos of existence.

After the proverbial guns, germs and steel processes most Pacific Small Island Development States (P-SIDS) went through, the majority of our island nations were hurled into self-rule to which we have responded differently.

We are now at a critical decision-making juncture where the consensus points towards alternative approaches.

This is easier said than done because the new approaches would have to be 'extra-ordinary', in light of the times we live in and in relation to the conduits that must be used to effect the desired changes.

In my last column, I discussed two development models — the Planning and the Action models.

The former emphasises a united world view that prioritises balance or harmony, preaches accumulation — rather than replacement — which yields well-being, and the latter being typical of societies that believe science is the highest good, which encourages consumption and yields welfare. One of the discussions at a regional meeting in Fiji two weeks ago, the third Engaging with the Pacific (EWTP) meeting, attended by 14 regional countries centred on an alternative approach to development in the Pacific which leans towards the Planning model.

The discussion paper from the Pacific Council of Churches (PCC) suggests a fundamental shift that turns the development model on its head: the idea that humanity's cultures are the whole which the economy is but a part of, as opposed to the economy being the whole that cultures are merely parts of.

And when we begin to look at the Pacific way of life this way, we return to our concepts of sustainable progress, of conflict resolution, of the Oceania kinship and interconnectedness that sets this region and its way of life apart from the rest of the world. The Pacific way has been described in many ways but essentially it is about recognising existing differences while seeking out unity and consensus; that it is about justice, compassion, tolerance, understanding and palaver; that it is about honesty and mutual respect.

I was encouraged at the meeting of the participants' confidence that the Pacific way could even return to the global stage as the 'way the world should be'.

The PCC suggests that the Pacific culture must be considered an asset that yields wealth, confidence and sustenance.

Vanuatu for example still has its Kastom Ikonomi, its traditional currency of shells, livestock, etc.

Having said that, it would have to be positive practices that brings out winners; case in point is the practice of bride price which, for example, perpetuates violence against women as the practice implies a transaction over a property and feeds the mentality that as such, one can do anything with 'it'.

The concept of Pacific islands developing countries defining their own economics based on a different value system is nothing new — it is simply not recognised or accepted by the system practiced by the rest of the world.

A troubling thought however is that with culture being fluid, defining culture or the socio-cultural already poses a challenge from the moment we try institutionalising concepts like well-being, we lose their essence because social constructs come into play.

The value system on which development processes are analysed is monetary, and goes with a process of institutionalisation that for example turns 'volunteerism' into a commodity, a profession that warrants a monetary compensation, thereby losing the essence of what volunteerism is all about.

In the same way, one could link interpersonal communication to how social media has evolved: such as talking to each other without the help of a technical device was strangely enough never qualified as social; promotion for the adoption of a desirable behaviour became only popular when labelled and organised as social marketing; culture is now a commodity in most of our islands for example the resurgence of weaving for tourists rather than intergenerational knowledge transfer and/or the Pacific way becoming a tourism gimmick.

It is therefore prudent that we do more of the Planning model rather than the Action model — we identify and make the potential value systems under this rubric the tenets of our sustainable progress.

In the context of the fluidity of cultures, perhaps a focus on the processes rather than the results — the desired results will (ideally) naturally fall into place.

Coming back to the discussions at the EWTP meeting, the Nadi Communiqué (its outcomes document) among other things recognised the "essential and critical roles of spirituality and culture in the region's continued reflection on appropriate economic and development models to be researched at national and regional level".

As mentioned earlier, this leans to a development model in which planning rather than action is the overriding rationale underlying development that is more in harmony with humanity's cultures and habitat.

For the United Nations Population Fund, and the ICPD Beyond 2014 Global Review in which all UN Member States are currently participating, the Pacific's indigenous culture of consultation should help the world in rediscovering the importance of long-term planning and thinking that tends to be lost in modern day political, financial and economic processes.

The Pacific nations are already making headway structurally. Last Thursday's launch of the pilot study report "Alternative Indicators of Well-being for Melanesia" at the Chiefs' Nakamal in Port Vila is only testimony of an evolving Pacific way refined, so it is relevant and appropriate, more than an award-winning World Heritage, but a much needed recipe to today's hubris of which the Action model seems to have fallen victim of.

For the United Nations Population Fund in the Pacific, it is important that this fundamental shift is supported by more explicit attention to home grown processes such as the intricate decision-making through triangular leadership of state, clergy and chiefs.
This attention is expected to provide the indispensable roots to the programmes without which UNFPA's support want be more than the proverbial drop on a hot plate. Either way, if the people have ownership over the framework of their development processes because it is based on a reservoir of innate knowledge and practices which tend to be more humane and greener, then our approach will be a lot more informed and consequently, better planned and sustainable.

* Dirk Jena is the United Nations Population Fund Pacific sub-regional office director and representative.


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