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What people really think

Off The Wall With Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, February 20, 2013

WHAT do we really think about how decisions are made in the family, the community and national level? Does consensus-seeking in village or town meetings provide another real model of democracy?

What kinds of rules/laws guide your conduct?

What types of leadership actually exist on the ground in Fiji, what do both "ordinary" people and elites think about these types, and what they think are desirable, legitimate forms of leadership?

What is the current understanding of citizenship among Fijians today?

This afternoon the results of a research project to identify ways in which the people of Fiji would like to be governed will be released in a book titled, "Voices of the People: Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji".

The research was undertaken in 2011 and 2012 by the Pacific Theological College's Institute for Research and Social Analysis, conducted through 41 focus group discussions involving 330 participants, and conducting 82 in-depth interviews, on the issues decision-making, leadership, citizenship, the rule of law, and democracy in order to understand what the people of Fiji think of, and what their vision is, for good governance — in the form of democracy, or otherwise.

IRSA is the research arm of PTC, specialising in applied social research, and capacity-building activities for churches and NGOs in the region.

Local and international researchers interviewed representatives of the government, politicians, traditional leaders, religious leaders, diplomats, academics, those in business and those working in NGOs, among others.

At the same time focus group discussions were conducted throughout Viti Levu and Vanua Levu by representatives of four local NGOs. These focus groups included participants from rural, semi-urban and urban areas; as well as men, women and youth - a consultation with people from all walks of life in Fiji.

Dr Manfred Ernst, director of the Institute of Research and Social Analysis and co-author and co-editor of the book said: "In writing this report, we have tried our utmost to reproduce faithfully the voices of Fijian people as we heard them during the focus group discussions and interviews. This report reflects both those things which people find positive in the current situation, as well as those things that they struggle with, and worry about. We hope that these findings will provoke thoughtful and reasoned debate on the issues outlined therein, and will enrich the dialogue begun under the current government through the process of making submissions towards the new constitution, as well as provide food for thought for politicians and voters alike in the run-up to the next elections."

In determining the sample for both focus groups and interviews, great care was taken to accurately reflect the composition of Fijian society in terms of gender, religion, ethnicity, age, education, status, living conditions and geographical distribution.

The aim of the report is to present the perceptions and visions of the people of Fiji for future democratic development, as well as their opinions as to the preconditions required for this development. To achieve this aim, researchers assessed the following five key areas:

(1) democracy;

(2) rule of law;

(3) leadership;

(4) decision-making; and

(5) citizenship.

Given that in the next few weeks the Constituent Assembly is to be named and convened, "Voices of the People" may be a valuable tool for Assembly members who wish to consider how locals understand the issues that may be elements of a new constitution and what a Fijian model of democracy may be like.

The book is more than just results of the research. It also includes a scholarly and theoretic discussion and key recommendations.

According to the book's authors, "where proposals for democratic reform are made in this report, it is important to view these as urging the provision of opportunities for the people to articulate and develop a form of democratic governance that is appropriate to and suitable for Fiji's cultural, religious and political conditions, while being mindful of the fundamental ideals and values of democracy".

Although the publication is primarily academic, this publication will be a useful contribution to the process of establishing a home-grown and appropriate form of sustainable democracy in Fiji.

Given that for the first time, voters may include young people still in school or tertiary study (18 years and over) this book will be of significant interest to senior students.

The launch for the book will be held at the Suva Civic Auditorium at 5pm this afternoon and is open to all.

For those who are not able to attend the launch or get a copy of the book, over the next six weeks, I will summarise the study's findings in the five key areas and present the key recommendations that resulted from the study.

The study may shed new light on issues we have been grappling with for the last three decades, if not longer. At the very least, it gives us the opportunity to hear the voices of others who may or may not be singing in the same key as us.

"Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity."

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

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