IF there is anything that this column has managed to ascertain, I hope it is the acknowledgement of local knowledge and units like family and/or villages whose active participation are critical in effecting positive change, as we at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) work to fulfil our mandate which your governments as members of the United Nations have given us.
Working in 14 island nations means we have a repository of knowledge that may be unrivalled; although evolving communication technology threatens the survival of oral history that the Pacific peoples have lived by, this would include traditional knowledge of age-old fishing traps or certain mat weaving cultures, etc.
Having said that, there are current activities in most of our island homes now that aim to either maintain or revitalise certain practices. There are also various approaches, enjoying relative success I should add, that aim to integrate modern concepts of development, with the communal ways of life still widespread in the region.
A recent visit to Samoa allowed discussions and a closer look with one such approach practised by the Matuaileoo Environment Trust Inc. or METI. METI's approach reflects an integration of resources within households — from a personal (development) point of departure to household or communal-based efforts like bamboo planting using organic practices.
METI has expanded to 10 villages covering the two main islands in Samoa (Upolu and Savai'i); a unique element of the organisation is its taiala program. In the Samoan language, a taiala, literally translated, is a "path breaker".
Each village has two taiala through which the organisation lives vicariously, experiencing the people's angst, their concerns, development needs, etc. The taiala is therefore an apt description of what these village-based staffers are supposed to be: front-line education and sustainable development worker.
By the time METI celebrated its 10th anniversary in October 2010, the 20 taiala had been selected from an original pool of 182 individuals who completed the basic life skills coach (LSC) training from Canada's George Brown College Professor Ron Sluser. A total of 24 were selected for extra training — consisting of adult teaching, permaculture design and advanced life skills coaching — to equip them to be effective taiala.
The taiala are multipurpose agents who encourage one person from each household in the village to be part of their program. Apart from conducting life skills training (which promotes a culture of peace through its "learning to be and live harmoniously with others" and permaculture (the adoption of organic, sustainable practices in their farms), the taiala then facilitates the second chance education stream (basic courses in maths, English, computing, and business management). At the end of all these training, participants receive a Certificate in Peaceful, Sustainable and Healthy Living.
Life skills in this context are defined as "problem-solving behaviours, appropriately and responsibly used in management of personal affairs applied in five areas of life: self, family, job/school, leisure and community".
The organisation is meeting an education gap for high school drop-outs, addressing foremost, elements that the modern school systems do not have — learning to be and to live with others. Having one household member at each intake would hopefully ensure a positive ripple effect.
The ultimate intended outcome of the LSC is that individuals develop a "balanced self-determined behaviour"; making informed decisions to determine their reality. This is posited by postmodern philosophy that (individuals') realities are not "given" but are or can be "brought forth" through introspection and interpretation (by individuals).
In light of addressing the insufficient knowledge base caused by an early school drop-out situation, METI executive director Dr Walter Vermeulen aptly describes the ultimate objective of the organisation: "â€¦to build the capacity of the grassroots communities to allow the Samoan people to become meaningful participants in discussions with government to identify the measures that should be taken to face the many challenges that lie ahead".
METI as an organisation also reflects how successful different but complementary approaches can be, particularly with their trainers actually living in the 10 villages where the programs are being carried out. There are new villages starting the program and there are villages where bamboo plantations are ready for harvest.
Discussions with the taiala and beneficiaries also leave no doubt of how the LSC is meeting a real need. The program being holistic in its approach covers issues and concerns of parents, adolescents and children — all human resources within a family unit are being trained, are being sought for their opinions, and are challenged about how effective these and other household resources are managed.
Feedback spoke of more and improved communication among family members, especially between couples which is reflected in a drop in domestic violence, whether one speaks of children being verbally abused or women being assaulted. Such programs are encouraging for organisations like UNFPA because they utilise existing governance structures and a great deal of communication in local vernacular that adds to a greater probability of cultural appropriateness and impact.
There is promise in the story of METI in terms of our island communities thinking globally but acting locally. I am also greatly encouraged by METI's approach because their three streams of activities — life skills training, permaculture practice and second chance education — are critical to individual's capacity to make informed decisions, including those that pertain to the planning of their families.
It is in addressing these fundamentals that we will find strong footing for the bigger programs. It is also in our commitment to small things that determines how the big things pan out. And in this manner of speaking, if we are able to empower individuals, we can empower families and communities to make more diligent use of the resources Mother Earth is offering us.
At this eve of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era, mimicry and eco-literacy will hopefully become the guiding concepts that take the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda beyond the quantitative readings of the MDG indicators.
Let's continue to break paths for the ultimate good of our island communities.
* Dirk Jena is the UNPF Pacific sub-regional office director and representative.