BEING the last frontier of sorts in the discovery rush days of Captain Cook, the communities that comprise the Pacific region have largely maintained traditional structures and cultural practices albeit the firm replacement of ancestral spirituality with contemporary religion.
The Pacific Islander thus exists in duality; a modern person governed by traditional and religious philosophy.
With the inclusion of people representing a myriad of ethnic groups who have decided to settle and call this their island homes, one now begins to talk about heterogeneous communities subject to both constitutional and traditional governance.
Our traditional societies are not merely dances and villages which need development but rather organic communities with their unique modus operandi — an organising force that has survived in a vast ocean of water and time.
There is hierarchy which in most cases, revolves around a particular clan from which their chiefs come from, a designation by descent.
These communities had their own system of leadership which in most cases, continue to exist albeit with varying decree of effectiveness.
I can see you wondering why the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) could possibly be interested in this issue of leadership?
Our enquiry stems from our recognition of the duality that reigns over the individual as we need to then see where we can fit, in this day and age and in relation to our mandate, a shade of development that is effective because it is considerate of local dynamics, especially where it concerns social and health issues.
We are coming from places where we see that in most cases of public discourse, social issues have become 'restricted' to unemployment and/or crime, and the attempt at determining fundamental causal possibilities continues in different sectors of society, thus fragmenting the force that was organising us in quasi organic unity.
In his book Leadership in Fiji, anthropologist Dr Rusiate Nayacakalou discusses the confusion over the issue of leadership in the Fijian context and identifies three different types — the traditional, non-traditional in between which modern bureaucracy exists almost as a 'cross'.
Nayacakalou already discusses in 1975 how the Fijian individual must live in the traditional and the modern, choosing either of them as per circumstances they are confronted with, quickly learning the techniques of self-accommodation.
He discusses how in the evolving situations of having to deal with a state administration as opposed to traditional governance and the inevitable shifts in duties, obligations, loyalties and allegiances.
The process of self-accommodation in this instant is then compounded by the fact that tentacles of the administration has reached so deep into grassroots levels that the traditional leadership tend to be disempowered to the point of being ignored.
In a pledge to cultural sensitivity, UNFPA acknowledges that the majority of our people remain living in societies that are sourced by belonging, custom and tradition.
Some of them are not often visited by administrators for reason of the geographical particularities that go with a vast ocean and/or rugged highlands; disconnection to these communities or people can become a barrier to co-operation that agencies like ours are aiming for.
Nayacakalou warns of an evolving society which fails to harmonise structural changes in administration and decision-making.
While people and governments are fine-tuning these processes, UNFPA prefers to adopt a holistic approach of working in an alliance with all 'senses' of leadership.
In 2011, UNFPA's Regional Consultation for Advocacy on Population and Development in Suva harnessed the best of statesmen, clergymen and chiefs by underscoring the importance of their triangular leadership alliances for advocacy on population and development, including gender, sexual and reproductive rights.
Participants agreed that for our Pacific communities, this triangular leadership was critical in order to reach all sections of society.
Despite a constitutional mode of governance, discussions affirmed that a triangular alliance is inevitable as island communities continued to adhere to religious and traditional leaderships governing everyday life.
By doing so, we recognise the complex governance that informs daily decision-making for our people and sources intercultural and interreligious dynamics that have the potential of changing the development paradigm in the Pacific.
Engaging for a triangular advocacy alliance is particularly apt for UNFPA because of its focus on what is most intimate to human mankind, which are its sexuality and reproduction and the complex ways these are governed by custom, tradition and taboo.
We believe that realities like 800 women dying daily globally while giving life is a cruel irony considering all the medical advances humanity claims to have, because they (the senseless death of women and infants) are preventable.
We believe that strong leadership is needed to reverse situations like the above because people will listen to a chief for instance who talks to them about the importance of planning their family — that while couples have every right to have as many children as they wish, it is critical to allow women to be ready and heal well before their body can accommodate another pregnancy cycle.
Our island communities are adapting at different rates for obvious reasons.
This is reflected in how in some countries the council of chiefs can veto legislative initiatives; in others, church membership is prerequisite to running for office; and as in Samoa, clergymen front media campaigns for healthy living.
At UNFPA Pacific, we recognise that the issues we cover are sensitive and our circumstances are further complicated by faith and traditional practices.
We therefore attempt to weave our mission into those multiple facets of ethnicity, faith, tradition, custom, modern tripartite and human rights, and continue to pursue triangular leadership alliances that seek to bridge divides in an ocean of diverging interests.
Leaders will want the best for their people, their flock and their citizens.
As our island communities continue the journey of determining how best they will integrate the various forms of governance that now exists in our midst, UNFPA seeks partnerships that can reverse present trends like 21 million unplanned births, 79,000 maternal deaths and 1.1 million infant deaths each year.
We are confident that we can at least all agree that we owe this to our future island communities.
* Dirk Jena is the United Nations Population Fund
Pacific sub-regional office director and representative.