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Hidden force

Dirk Jena
Tuesday, November 27, 2012

AT work this week we were not able to open a particular document because we did not have the software it was designed in. It brought home a point which I shared with community workers some weeks ago and that is how our world is increasingly dictated by consumer products churned out by global conglomerates.

What I had wanted to emphasise was the danger of allowing this trend to steer us towards an existence of dependency.

Our self-reliance diminishes with every step towards a market-based economy while the majority of our island communities continue communal-based lifestyles, utilising the resources available to them.

Such global developments unravel the nuclear family by shifting attention to the rights of individuals. This is not to say that we at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) do not believe in human rights; on the contrary, our work is to ensure that people can enjoy their human rights, more particularly their right to plan for a sustainable future of their families.

We are merely cognisant of the fact that the bulk of the communities — whose governments we work with to implement their development plans — continue to exist in communal-based communities whose ways and regulations are holistic and inclusive of both the human beings and the environment they live in.

We acknowledge that the lives of the majority of our Pacific peoples continue to be governed by cultural norms which are largely informed by spirituality and responsibility to one's extended family and community (as opposed to the individual), not the market trends and consumer products.

This is why the UNFPA Pacific Sub-Regional Office initiated the regional triangular leadership discussion in 2011 which had involved traditional, spiritual and state leaders.

This concept has been supported by our belief and continuing work towards understanding and promoting integrated household resource management (IHRM).

Pacific communities "live" IHRM; the resources within our (extended) families and communities are used collectively, whether one speaks of sharing the load of school fees or the village church.

This is the age-old way of mobilising our communities which we as development partners can borrow from. Harnessing it so it works for the improvements of our lives with considerations of today's realities may be the key to increased effectiveness of national development agendas.

Two columns ago I discussed that there was "something's missing" when it came to linking the national development agenda to an implementation that truly benefits the people, even if they lived in the farthest atoll from the capital. We have never stopped trying to find a way to bridge this gap effectively.

UNFPA recently partnered with the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), working with the Ministry of Internal Affairs to reintroduce the concept of mobile teams which is essentially the government getting on a boat and going to island communities.

The mobile team exercise was practised in RMI years ago until funding and co-ordination constraints prevented its continuation.

The difference this time however is the establishment of taskforces in communities visited; they comprise representatives of traditional and spiritual leaders, women groups and young people, health workers and teachers. We see taskforces in communities as a potential bridge and effective response to "that something that is missing".

The revamping of mobile teams was piloted in three of the 24 atolls - Arno, Aur and Mili.

The second tour to Aur involved 27 civil servants who represented, among others, the fisheries department, education ministry, youth and gender divisions, non-governmental organisations, water specialists who taught groups and left tools for regular water testing and a cultural spokesman who had a knack of breaking down for communities the various concepts and approaches discussed, with assurance than cultural considerations are part of what we are trying to do.

The tour includes a health team which, apart from advisories, catches up on immunisations that are yet to be done. The days were filled with activities and after an early dinner, the visitors and residents would settle into presentations by the various departments.

These sessions allowed children to sit in and listen in on the discussions; seeing how even learning was a communal exercise and children's mind being exposed to consensus was most encouraging.

Fisheries officer Candice Guavis said in relation to food security that conducting a survey among the residents allowed her an insight into their management of marine resources; fish biological sampling informed her discussion on fish population, their growth rates, spawning seasons etc.

Nixon David explained the concept of gender using the example of how Marshallese built their canoes; that without women who supported the builders (men), the canoes wouldn't get off the ground. Women were also responsible for weaving the sail and if people really thought about it, women were equally involved in survival although not usually recognised for it.

The response to this approach of using cultural icons to explain development concepts one could see was quite effective. The traditional dismissal of island folks as "uneducated" or "incapable of thinking for themselves" must end if development plans that will truly realise its intentions, are to be realised. The formation of taskforces as the mobile team travelled across the atolls has been an empowering experience — one sees the excitement in the faces of the residents when they realise that they are not being talked-down to.

Having an integrated and multi-sector team also allowed the various government agencies themselves to learn how and what things were being done by their colleagues across the sectoral boundaries and they themselves could collaborate for increased output.

The youth council member for Aur, Action Donkey, said he was very encouraged by the formulation of taskforces because he really believed that young people have a role to play in the development of their communities — they would not only be called upon when needed for building things but now they would contribute from the planning stages.

The only woman Member of Parliament in RMI represents Aur Atoll and is also the Education Minister. Dr Hilde Heine welcomed the mobile team resurgence; she sees taskforces as enabling platforms where communities would not only be able to identify issues that needed to be addressed but also come up collectively with their own solutions. Keeping our people informed regardless of where they are located can only assist us in strategically implementing development plans so they are effective.

People in the communities know themselves and their habitat better than we do and listening to what they have to say can also save us thousands of dollars from failed projects. Community taskforces can facilitate community submissions that governments can then work from.

In development cooperation, time has come to reverse the equation by carefully listening to what the outer islander and her/his community has to say. Their knowledge is an overwhelming though quickly disappearing asset which we should hurry to safeguard and value at its merits.

Today's digital technologies and virtual realities could complement but not replace these realities.

However back in the global setting of our office, it just may have been taken over by the conglomerates that have made me conclude to better hurry up and purchase the software on which we have become dependent to open that particular document.

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

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