Parliamentary committees – good for policy, good for politics

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 21st, 2017

I belong to a club with a very small number of members. I don’t often meet other members of this club and when I do they often look at me in disbelief.

I belong to a small group of people who get very excited about parliamentary committees.

It’s very easy to believe that what parliamentary committees do is very boring. The work can certainly be very technical. It involves close study of proposed legislation, reports and submissions. And the processes used by parliamentary committees are very formal and legalistic.

But the roles that parliamentary committees play in an active and vibrant democracy are far from boring. They perform three very important functions.

First, parliamentary committees are part of the oversight mechanisms that operate in parliamentary democracies. They are expected to pay close attention to bills put forward by government and raise questions and concerns about what the legislation is intended to achieve, and how. One of the most important and potentially powerful committees is the Public Accounts Committee. Its job is to scrutinise how government through ministries, departments and other agencies spends public money.

Secondly, they are often referred to as the ‘workhorses’ of a parliament. It is at the committee stage that the text of parliamentary bills is revised and refined to ensure that it is correct and ready for debate by the full Parliament.

Thirdly, committees are able to liaise with the wider society about proposed legislation. They can invite submissions from civil society organisations, the private sector and academics about the issues that a parliamentary bill is intended to address.

Or rather, that is what parliamentary committees are supposed to do. In Vanuatu, and in most other countries in our region, this system exists on paper but does not function meaningfully in practice.

There are a number of challenges that Pacific parliaments face in making best use of a committee system.

They include having sufficient resources to support committees in their work, ensuring that committee chairs and members understand their roles and how to perform them, and being able to communicate the work that committees do in ways that add value.

Recently, Vanuatu was one of a number of countries from around the Pacific that took part in a seminar convened by the United Nations Development Program.

The seminar provided an opportunity for committee chairs and clerks of parliaments to share their experiences and learn from each other.

One of the objectives was to identify ways in which Pacific parliaments can make more and better use of the committee system. Dyfan Jones is a parliamentary specialist with UNDP and identified a couple of ideas to explore. One is changing the rules to make them more suitable for parliaments with small memberships:

“Some Pacific Parliament have recognized that having a small number of committees meeting regularly and undertaking their work is preferable to having rules that provide for a long list of committees that rarely meet. A number of Pacific Parliaments have been looking at revising their rules to make them more appropriate for smaller legislatures.”

This, in turn, may make it easier to make sufficient resources available to allow the committees that are most useful to work in ways that support the whole of the legislative process.

Those who champion the work of parliamentary committees often point to why they are good for policy. They have the potential to greatly improve the legislative process. This is something that is much needed in democracies where bills can be passed by parliaments with minimal (if any) debate on the floor of the House.

The methodologies used by committees mean that members of different parties can work together to progress meaningful policy objectives. This is markedly different from the confrontational point scoring that characterises interactions in the parliamentary chamber.

The use of parliamentary committees can also be good for politics. On the government side, committee work means that MPs not in cabinet are still able to contribute to important decision-making. Taking part in committee proceedings, including as chair, is a good training ground for new MPs in preparation for them taking on ministerial responsibilities.

On the opposition side, active involvement in the work of parliamentary committees is part of demonstrating an ability to form an alternative government. In Vanuatu there are often very few differences of policy position between government MPs and their opposition counterparts. In committees they can work together to achieve positive policy outcomes.

In many jurisdictions, there is a convention that a member of the Opposition chairs the Public Accounts Committee. This is in recognition of the importance of that body in providing an oversight of public expenditure. The Public Accounts Committee has the ability to be a very powerful check on the exercise of executive power.

In healthy democracies, governments recognise and support the valuable contribution that parliamentary committees can and do make. They make appropriate budgetary allocations to support the work of these committees. They ensure that committee members receive professional development in how to fulfil these roles. They make good use of reports and recommendations that the committees produce.

In Vanuatu, a renewed and enhanced commitment to the use of committees may lead to better policy processes and a better political environment all round.

Photo credit: UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji

 

Australia’s missteps with Pacific media – it’s more than just bad manners

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 14th, 2017

So this week the prime minister of Australia visited Papua New Guinea. It was a very short visit (he was on his way to India).

The relationship between Australia and PNG is a complex and complicated one. Recently, it has not been an easy one so this visit could and should have been a great opportunity.

It seems hard to believe that one very short visit could generate so much controversy. But it did.

Before Prime Minister Turnbull arrived, there were concerns that it was too close to the forthcoming elections in PNG.

While he was there, he and his immigration minister (who was not in PNG) gave out mixed messages about what the long-term future of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus island might be.

In amongst all this, the apparent treatment of members of the PNG media corps is something that merits particular scrutiny.

A senior journalist reported that the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby told her that a press conference at Bomana cemetery was for Australian journalists only and she was turned away from another subsequently.

At a very basic level, this is plain bad manners. It is also a fail at Public Diplomacy 101. But the implications of this go deeper and are much more significant.

First of all, the Australian foreign service has form in this regard. Late last year, when the Australian foreign minister visited Vanuatu members of the local media were given the run around and were not able to be at the official press event.

It sparked an editorial in this newspaper. But it does not appear to have sparked a meaningful discussion about why this is a bad thing and how to make sure it does not happen again.

Australian officials who organise these press events need to think about the context in which they operate. In this country, in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in our region, the role of the media in the development and maintenance of democratic culture is not assured.

I looked recently at the disturbing comments of the prime minister of Tonga about what he thinks the media should or should not do. In PNG, we continue to see reports of journalists being vilified by politicians, threatened and attacked both verbally and physically.

In Vanuatu we can point to numerous instances of politicians treating the media with contempt and seeking to undermine their ability and willingness to ask hard questions or criticise failures of leadership.

Australia is the biggest democracy in our region. We might expect or hope that those who represent this democracy would provide leadership by example. But in this particular area, we have been sorely disappointed.

When Australian political leaders and officials treat our media badly it sends a signal to our politicians that it is OK for them to do so. The remarks of Justin Tkatchenko, the PNG Minister for Sports are telling in this regard.

At the close of Prime Minister Turnbull’s visit he made a reference to the local media having had a ‘rough time’ and then glossed over it with an airy assurance that all can learn from this for next time.

It may be that this is window dressing and behind closed doors Minister Tkatchenko will express his concern about the treatment of Papua New Guinean journalists in strong, possibly undiplomatic terms. Then again it may not be.

Australia is in the process of seeking regional and global support for it to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council. In 2015, Julie Bishop said:

Should we be elected, our focus would be on empowering women and girls, strengthening governance and democratic institutions, promoting freedom, freedom of expression, and advancing human rights for all.

As we all know, actions speak louder than words. And the actions of Australian politicians and diplomats when they visit our region are of particular import.

The role of the media is crucial in the establishment and maintenance of democratic culture.

Our neighbour’s leaders and representatives should use opportunities such as to encourage media professionals to develop their practice. This includes asking difficult questions and holding decision-makers to account. That is the public service they are mandated to perform.

Since the very shabby treatment of Papua New Guinean journalists came to light, the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby has issued an apology. It relates to a ‘misunderstanding’ although, as RNZI notes, it is not clear what the nature of this misunderstanding is.

All well and good but an after the fact apology is too little and too late.

 

Let’s get realistic about regionalism

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 7th 2017

Last week I was in Fiji, working on a research project as part of a joint ANU/USP team. For a number of reasons I spent a bit of time thinking and talking about regionalism in the Pacific.

It’s a tricky topic. Some people find it very boring. And if you are allergic to acronyms, regionalism is best avoided that’s for sure. The term ‘regionalism’ can mean different things to different people. For some people it is all about trade issues, others are focused on security and others talk only about pooled services.

But the most common reaction to Pacific regionalism is probably frustration. At the national level, policy makers and politicians say they are frustrated because regional organisations do not offer anything that helps with their domestic agendas. Within the regionalism machinery, officials bemoan the fact that delegations have agendas that are only focused on nationalistic concerns.

 So, should we call the whole thing off? One of the particular characteristics of regionalism in our part of the world is that it is voluntary. There is no grand political bargain such as exists (for now) among the countries that came together to form the European Union. We don’t have a Pacific parliament that can pass laws, which bind member countries. Pacific regionalism is more like a club, whose membership is voluntary.

So if Vanuatu (or any other Pacific island country) doesn’t want to take part in the regionalism project they don’t have to. The officials don’t need to go to meetings, same for the ministers and we don’t need to worry about paying (or not) our subscriptions to various regional agencies and organisations.

But we remain members, we send our officials and ministers to meetings (the Forum Economic Ministers’ Meeting took place in Suva this week) and we contribute to the costs of regionalism and the machinery it has spawned. So if we are going to remain members, how can we change the landscape so that the levels of frustration are reduced and the available opportunities can be better identified and acted upon?

The starting point is information. At the national level, we need to be better informed about what regional organisations and activities mean for us. This needs to go beyond ‘it’s all a waste of time’ to actually learn more about what regional priorities have been decided and how they are being progressed. What is the Framework for Pacific Regionalism? What does Pacific Islands Trade and Invest do? What are the implications of signing up to PACER Plus (or not?)

These are important questions that are significant at the national level as well as regionally. They reflect decisions made by our political leaders and they occupy the time and energy of our officials. If we are going to make sensible decisions about whether to take part in regional activities, we need to have access to information that informs how we answer them. We should expect representatives of regional organisations to be engaging with national media organisations when they visit member countries. We would hope that our national media outlets ask questions of these organisations about what they are doing and why it is important or relevant for Vanuatu to be involved.

In addition, those who represent their countries in regional forums need to have a better understanding of what regional cooperation is. It is not appropriate in all circumstances. But in some situations working together may have something to offer whether in terms of accessing climate finance or sharing the costs of promoting our region as a tourism destination to new markets. Those who take part in regional decision-making need to have a very clear as to what their national position is, there is no doubt about that. In addition they need to develop a sense of where there are more opportunities for everyone by coming together as a region. They need to feed back to organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat what advice is needed to inform this.

There are serious and ongoing concerns about the state of regionalism in the Pacific it is true. And there are plenty of pressing concerns for politicians and policy makers in their own backyards without looking for things to do regionally. But the fact is that we joined the club voluntarily and if we are in it, then we should be looking for opportunities to make the best of it.

 

Telling the policy story

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 1st, 2017

When I talk with people about elections in Vanuatu and elsewhere in the Pacific, there is a lot of concern about how the voting public behaves.

Sometimes this concern is about how people are being told who to vote for by their elders, spouses or chiefs. Sometimes it is about how they are influenced by promises of a job or donations of food, or money.

There are also concerns about the people who stand as candidates in elections.

 People may feel that they are not suitably qualified or don’t have enough experience in other areas.

There is often a concern that they take advantage of voters and manipulate them by making promises they don’t intend to keep.

There is a key missing ingredient in this mix. It is a discussion about policy.

This gap exists on both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ side of political engagement.

On the ‘supply’ side, generally speaking, politicians (and would-be politicians) do not talk to the electorate about policy issues.

During election periods, policy platforms are generally not well developed. And then when people are in parliament, including being in government, policy achievements rarely feature in discussions.

In particular, when MPs and ministers visit places outside urban areas, we rarely hear of them talking to the public about policy issues.

There is a lot of discussion about services. Sometimes we hear about how particular communities are receiving services they didn’t have before. Other times we see reports of communities being without services. But we don’t get much indication that MPs and ministers use these visits as a platform to talk about policy achievements.

It’s not that talking about service delivery is not important because it is. But it is also important that policy work is discussed.

In particular, MPs and ministers can use visits to communities to develop greater understanding of how the work of Parliament in progressing policy and passing legislation is connected with providing more and better services. For example, more and more people are now able to make use of mobile phones and the internet.

The provision of these services was made possible by serious policy and legislative work over a long period of time. But we don’t hear it used by politicians as a way of illustrating the relationship between the work of Parliament and things that have a real impact on people’s lives.

On the ‘demand’ side of political engagement, those who are seeking to be elected are rarely called upon to explain or justify policy positions. At campaign meetings it is not common that candidates answer questions from voters. If there are questions, they are almost always about issues related to service delivery.

This is reflected in how elections are covered by the media.

There is no developed culture of asking policy-focused questions of politicians and candidates. For example, where political parties and candidates do put forward policy positions, we do not see them being asked to provide more detail. They are rarely if ever asked to explain what the justification for a particular policy is or how much it is going to cost to implement it.

Similarly, they are not asked about gaps in their policy platforms. During the elections in Vanuatu held last year, only two of the candidates put forward anything about addressing gender-based violence.

This is a really important issue in Vanuatu (as it is in many other Pacific island countries). There is little if any ‘supply’ of policy discussion on this issue from our politicians.

There is some effort on the ‘demand’ side but it is not sustained. Neither does it exist in a broad-based way: there is a lot of demand in some places (e.g. the Vanuatu Women’s Centre) but huge gaps elsewhere. In particular, when members of the media interview MPs or political candidates, this issue is rarely raised.

This is just one example of many discussions about policy that are missing. To fill the gap, there needs to be movement on both sides of the equation.

On the ‘supply’ side our politicians and political parties need to expand their communicating to tell us more about what their long-term vision is and how they intend to bring it about. On the ‘demand’ side, we the voting public need to ask questions that draw out more information about policy achievements and challenges.

In Vanuatu, the next scheduled elections are for 2020. The time to start improving the amount and quality of political engagement on both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ sides is now.

 

The kava konundrum

 

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This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on March 24th, 2017

Discussions about kava are endlessly fascinating. There are always new things to learn about how it is grown, how it is prepared, and various rules and protocols around how it should be served and consumed.

Many of these conversations operate at the micro-level but increasingly we need to look at some of the macro issues that are relevant in this area.

Kava is something of a touchstone when it comes to many areas of public policy and the debates that surround them. Earlier in the year, I referenced issues about kava quality to illustrate the importance of law enforcement rather than simply more law enactment. During several discussions about the pros and cons of introducing income tax, a number of people raised with me the question of how (if at all) it would affect kava growers. I’ve been in numerous discussions about inter-island shipping where the ability of kava growers to get produce to market is a key consideration.

And in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam in 2015 when the disaster response experts were trying to work out how to get relief supplies to rural communities, one of the best pieces of advice they received was ‘follow the kava’.

It seems to me that we are at something of a kava crossroads. There are a number of new factors at play that mean the economic potential of kava, particularly as an export crop, is being given additional attention.

We are already seeing an increased demand from overseas markets and there is potentially more to come. Recent reports have documented an increase in Fiji importation of Vanuatu kava to plug holes in their supply caused by the impacts of Cyclone Winston in 2016. We have also heard that kava is becoming increasingly popular in the USA, and importers from that country are busy establishing supply chains with our growers. Although we have yet to see any impact from the revocation of the import ban on purchases from within the European Union, it is likely that this will become part of the picture in the short to medium term.

And now that Australia has removed its import restrictions in relation to kava for research and medicinal purposes, we can expect to see an increased demand from there as well.

We are in a demand-rich environment and this brings many opportunities. But there are downsides. Some of them are already becoming apparent and we can expect to see more evidence of them in the future. The Kava Strategy 2016-2025 does not address these impacts. They are missing from the macro conversations but they are very significant for those that are caught up in them.

Whilst the Kava Strategy makes numerous references to the existence of the domestic kava market and its relationship with exporting, one thing it does not do is discuss the negative impacts on the domestic market that increased export demand can create.

The result of high demand is that the price goes up. In relation to kava, this is compounded by supply constraints, which is pushing up the price even more.

This is good news for sellers. It is manageable news for those who are buying to value add and then export as they are selling a premium product and their markets are buoyant.

But what about people who rely on money they make selling kava in the bars of Port Vila or Luganville? If they own the whole value chain from garden to shell and their kava bar is on their own land, they are fine. For as long as they want to continue to supply the domestic retail market they will be able to do so. If they decide to close down their retail operation and focus on exporting, it will be a decision they make for themselves.

But for some, other people are making decisions that affect their ability to sustain their livelihoods.

If a kava seller is renting a stall at someone else’s kava bar and buying green kava in town, it is hard to see how they are making anything other than a loss.

That is before kava bar owners start increasing the rent they charge for stalls to counter the reduction in the number of available tenants. Why are there fewer tenants? Because the combination of reduced supply and higher price means they have decided it is no longer economic to sell kava.

And then there are those who sell the VT20 at kava bars, most of whom are women. If kava bars close, because they can’t make money, these stallholders have reduced opportunity to make money whether as their primary source of cash or to supplement other activities.

These activities are key components of the informal and semi-formal economy. They are part of how a large number of people in urban areas support themselves and their families. If these opportunities were to be reduced or removed altogether, it is not clear what is available in their place.

A conundrum indeed – one I look forward to discussing further over kava when I’m in town this weekend!

 

The media is not government’s PR agency

Credit: mynewnormals

Credit: mynewnormals

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on March 18th, 2017

Earlier this week the prime minister of Tonga, Akilisi Pohiva, made a startling announcement.

He said that he was proposing to introduce a piece of legislation that would see the national broadcaster closed down or sold off. One of the main reasons he gave for this position is that Tonga Broadcasting does not do a good enough job of supporting the government.

Tensions between the prime minister and the national broadcaster are not new in Tonga (so maybe the announcement wasn’t that startling). I heard a lot about them late last year when I spent a week working with media professionals from a number of organisations. And neither is this sort of tension something that is specific to Tonga. Across the region, we can point to many instances of where governments have tried to control the media.

We have seen outright censorship, manipulation of ownership laws, threats to journalists and editors, denial of access to opposition MPs, and more. Sometimes we hear governments make reference to the need for the media to act more responsibly or ethically. There are times when these calls are justified. Often they are code for ‘they are saying nasty things about us and we need to make that stop’. Actions of this type are, at their heart anti-democratic.

State owned media organisations are particularly vulnerable. They rely on government funding for their existence. This means that they are often walking a fine line between fulfilling their democratic function of being a public watchdog and not biting the hand that feeds them so hard that they end up starving.

Prime Minister Pohiva’s statement prompted a strong response from the Pacific Freedom Forum in which they pointed out:

“It is not the job of any news media to support the government of the day, but to represent the public — and they must be ethical when reporting criticism.”

Quite so. The media is not government’s PR agency. The media’s responsibility to the public requires that government activity is appropriately reported, analysed, questioned, and criticised. Journalistic training and standards require that all of these things be done ethically. Even if there are instances of a media professional or organisation acting unethically, that does not justify threats to undermine the essential role of the media as a whole.

Democracy is a process, not a product. When Fiji held elections in 2014, I commented that this was just the ‘first step’ in establishing a democracy in that country. Building and sustaining a true democratic culture requires ongoing activity across the whole of society.

The media plays a crucial role in providing good quality information to citizens to inform how they engage with the democratic process. That good quality information needs to include what government is doing well, what government is doing badly, and a range of things in between. An independent media that is able to act free from political interference and intimidation is an essential part of a democratic culture.

The PFF is right to push back so strongly against claims that the media is responsible for supporting the government. If this sort of thinking is allowed to persist, there is a risk of a ‘chilling factor’ coming into play.

This already exists in some places, including Vanuatu, where journalists will say things along the lines of ‘we have to be careful that we don’t undermine development by being negative about the government’. It is certainly the case that the media has a responsibility to consider HOW something is reported. Journalists and editors make decisions of this type every day to ensure that they are not sensationalising things or presenting material in a way that might inflame a sensitive situation.

But that is very different from promoting an atmosphere in which the media feels constrained about WHAT can be reported. Actions and inactions of government (both positive and negative) are matters of public interest. We expect and need our media professionals to be presenting facts and analysis about them in a robust manner.

If and when we see attempts by politicians, public servants or others in authority to constrain what the media tell us, we should be alarmed. We should express our concern in the strongest terms. It’s not about protecting journalists, newspapers and broadcasters. It’s about protecting our democracy.

 

The best investment I made in Vanuatu

Credit: oilsearch.org

Credit: oilsearch.org

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on March 10th, 2017

There have been several discussions about investment in Vanuatu recently.

At the end of February the Vanuatu-Australia business forum was held in Port Vila. It brought together a range of actors to discuss investment opportunities and challenges. It was good to see that it took place in Vanuatu and this is something that should continue in the future.

We have seen media reports about the need to make changes to the structure and operations of the Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authority. As John Ridgway of the Pacific Legal Network commented, it was intended to be a one-stop shop but is, in fact, ‘another stop’ shop. We look forward to reforms that will set up this agency to perform the roles for which it was intended.

And investment in Vanuatu was the topic of conversation on this week’s ‘Coffee and Controversy’. There were two things that stood out for me from the exchanges on the programme. On was that we are yet to see VIPA and other relevant agencies create a workable framework for joint venture investments in Vanuatu. This is an area that requires some careful thinking and there is scope for looking at how this is handled in other countries, in our region and elsewhere.

The other was that there is still a lot more to be done in ensuring the activities and programmes focused on supporting private sector activity are better coordinated. This is something that affects lots of areas of activity and it is evident in many countries in our region. ‘Dot joiner’ doesn’t exist as a job title and it probably should.

With all this in mind I’ve been reflecting on the investments I have made in Vanuatu.

There have been a few of them since 1997, of varying types. But there is one that stands out very clearly as being ‘the best’.

It was brought home to me a year or so ago when I attended a function to launch a report focused on media ethics.

I was introduced to a very well established member of the industry and said “I’m not sure we’ve officially met but I recognise you from meetings we’ve both been at”. He looked down at me and said “oh we’ve definitely met, you came to help us with our reading when I was in class 3”.

Not only can he read, he now works in an industry that is all about informing and educating an entire population.

And I made a very small contribution to that. In ROI (return on investment) terms, this is a stellar result.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time (but not as much as I could have) helping out with reading at a couple of schools in Port Vila. Working with class 2 was good fun and the look of joy and pride on a 7 year old’s face when they make a break through and all of a sudden things start to click never gets old.

And then there was the work I did with a class 6 group. These kids were all good readers and what I had been asked to focus on was helping them develop critical thinking skills. So, for an hour a week I sat on a bench and spent time with a series of 11 and 12 year olds reading texts of various types and then prompting them to ask questions about what they read. Questions like ‘why’ or ‘what do you think about that’ or ‘how could that have been done differently?’ Quite often this activity was the most exciting and rewarding hour of my week.

A couple of people have commented that they expected my interests to lie more with talking to students about PhD research, given my academic background. My response was always the same: ‘I do a lot of that, which I really enjoy. And one day I hope to discuss PhD research with those kids in class 6 so we need to get started on the skill set now’.

In Vanuatu and throughout the Pacific, education is one of the biggest public policy discussions there is. In Fiji, Papua New Guinea and here in Vanuatu we are recognising that there is more to education than simply increasing school enrolments.

Getting kids into classrooms is one thing. What we need is a system that gives them back with skills that will equip them to engage with the wider world. Part of that engagement is the ability to critically assess what they are told and ask appropriate questions to further develop their thinking.

We can and no doubt will discuss the finer details of foreign direct investment, domestic investment and more besides. We often hear politicians, policy makers, business leaders and aid donors talk about the importance of ‘investing in people’. I was fortunate to be able to find a way to do that in a small but meaningful way. Best. Investment. Ever.

 

Let’s hear it for our international women

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on March 7th, 2017

This week (March 8th) we will celebrate International Women’s Day. Sometimes this is a day to think about all of the challenges that we face in protecting and promoting the interests of women and girls.

There are certainly numerous challenges to address in this sphere in Vanuatu, just as there are in many other countries in our region and across the globe.

To take a different tack, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight and acknowledge the international work and activities that a number of women of Vanuatu undertake. Whilst there may not be as many women as men working internationally, their contributions are important and deserve recognition.

There are numerous members of the public service, male and female who are required to travel overseas in their official capacities. We can take pride in the fact that the women who represent us regionally and globally are often acknowledged as very diligent and hardworking. They make important contributions to conversations in many different spheres. They are part of how we ensure that the concerns of Vanuatu are heard beyond our shores.

And what do they bring back? Apart from the mandatory chocolates for the office, those who represent us overseas bring back new insights based on what they have learned from others. They return with enhanced relationships with their international counterparts that they can draw on for the benefit of their organisations in the future.

An overseas work trip may sound very glamorous but as anyone who has had to do them more than about twice will tell you, they can be very hard work. For those who have primary care responsibilities in the home (predominantly women), there are added factors to consider so that those at home are going along ok whilst they are away. In this their partners and other family members support them and this is a very important contribution that is often overlooked.

At a more substantial level, there are a number of ni-Vanuatu professionals working away from home in regional organisations. Jane Kanas has just completed an eleven-year stint working at USP in Suva. Her work has contributed to the ability of ni-Vanuatu students and others from around the region to study through distance and flexible learning. Anna Naupa is at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (also in Suva) leading a team that is working out how regionalism will look and work in the future.

Working away from home brings its own opportunities and challenges. There is often a trade-off between professional advancement and being away from extended family and friends. Birthday parties get missed and instead of seeing aunties and uncles weekly (or more often) there may only be a handful of chances for family get-togethers in any one year.

It is very important that our country is well represented in regional organisations and we should be proud of those women and men that are doing that. They bring what they know of our society, economy and culture to wider discussions. They are always on the look out for opportunities to remind others about how regional issues affect or are perceived by the people of Vanuatu.

We should also make mention of those women who are currently studying overseas, whether in Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, China and elsewhere. They have been given great opportunities, as have the men who are also studying abroad. We can expect them to return to Vanuatu equipped with new skills to apply to their work and enriched with cultural experiences and new insights to guide their future thinking. They are ambassadors for our country, informing people they meet about Vanuatu and sharing ni-Vanuatu experiences and ways of doing things.

We are all aware of the great achievements of the women’s beach volleyball teams. As we know, they do an amazing job of representing their country at the highest levels of their sport. Again, the amount of time they have to be away from home presents significant challenges. They are well supported by their partners and their communities who are an essential part of the wider team. And they are not the only women who represent Vanuatu in the sporting arena. We also have tennis players, surfers and others who overcome various obstacles so that the Vanuatu flag is on display at regional and international sporting events.

There are, I am sure, many other examples of women who are contributing to Vanuatu’s international profile in a variety of ways. In an increasingly connected world, they are an important part of how we present ourselves to others. International Women’s Day is a chance to acknowledge the work that they do and offer our encouragement and support for what they do in the future.

 

Listen carefully or risk killing the golden goose

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on February 24th, 2017

The opportunities that labour mobility schemes like the RSE (New Zealand) and SWP (Australia) present are many and varied.

These schemes have already contributed to significant livelihood improvements for individuals, families and communities in Vanuatu and other Pacific island countries.

After a very slow start, the Australian Seasonal Workers’ Program is building significant momentum. Influential people at the Development Policy Centre and the World Bank are using terms like ‘triple win’ and predicting increased income to the tune of $10 billion by 2040 across the region if these schemes are expanded and developed.

It’s very exciting and it means there is a lot to talk about. But there is a danger that this conversation is becoming one-dimensional. Some voices are not being heard. They are the ones that are asking awkward questions or raising concerns about the overall impacts of these schemes, good bad and indifferent.

Some of these questions were raised during a ‘Coffee and Controversy’ discussion during last year. It was a really good conversation, and identified a number of issues that continue to apply and need to be dealt with robustly so that the potential that these schemes present can be fully realised.

One of the issues is the rate of female participation in the schemes. It currently stands at 13% and this makes the ‘development’ people in places like the Development Policy Centre and the World Bank very twitchy indeed.

Their argument is one of gender equity: women should have the opportunity to earn money overseas just as men do. During our ‘Coffee and Controversy’ discussion we learned that the Vanuatu government had made a policy decision of not actively recruiting women in the interests of social cohesion.

This is a very important tension that requires careful investigation and discussion with all of the relevant stakeholders. It is a complex issue that cannot be swept away with a ‘because gender’ type slogan.

Another tension that arises is the impact that these schemes has on the domestic labour market and the costs to business that this incurs. When we discussed this on ‘Coffee and Controversy’ it was suggested that businesses needed to develop more flexible employment structures.

This would allow staff to spend periods of time ‘picking apples’ and then return to their jobs in Vanuatu, many of which are skilled labour positions. I followed this up with a couple of employers who were affected by this.

They reported that they had tried to put in place this sort of flexible scheme but hadn’t been able to come up with something that accommodated everyone’s needs. We need to look at this aspect more carefully and learn more about how this type of employment fits into our wider economy.

More recently, we’ve heard from chiefs who are worried that because young people are spending long periods of time each year working overseas, they are not learning enough about their culture.

They are missing custom ceremonies and not acquiring the skills to be able to conduct them in the future. Given that the new national development plan Vanuatu 2030 places culture as the bedrock of our future, there needs to be a space in which these concerns can be aired, interrogated and (hopefully) resolved.

And in amongst this there is a gap in the research. In very broad terms, the research falls into two categories. There is the research done by economists. It is all about how many people are earning how much money and how this will affect things like gross domestic product in sending and receiving countries. There is the research done by anthropologists.

It is more focused on documenting the stories of people and communities and how participation in these schemes affects their way of life. What’s missing is an objective assessment of the total impacts of these schemes, including economic gains, social costs, community impacts and perceptions, inclusiveness (or otherwise) and what this means for future policy making.

There are some very important questions that need to be examined meaningfully sooner rather than later.

But the appetite to take them on seems to be missing. In an exchange with a colleague at the Development Policy Centre, i raised this as an issue. I was met with the response that what was more important was expanding the schemes and getting more people from the bigger Pacific island countries (Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea) involved.

This seems like a very risky strategy to me. Vanuatu is considered to be a star performer in the region (the other is Tonga), and there are multiple conversations going on here about how these schemes operate now and what people hope for the future. So now is exactly the time to interrogate these issues and others to ensure that this golden goose can be fattened for longevity, not killed off in the rush for a quick result.

 

The report card wrap

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on February 17th, 2017

I was very pleased to receive a copy of the government’s report card this week. It provides a snapshot of what has and has not been achieved with reference to the government’s 100 day plan and the medium-long term plans that were already in place.

As Vanuatu moves into a ‘right to information’ era, an we should all welcome this type of thing. On the ‘supply’ side of political engagement, it gives government an opportunity to tell the wider community what their elected representatives have achieved. On the ‘demand’ side it allows the rest of us to see how political statements are translated into action. It also provides an insight into some of the challenges that government agencies face in doing that.

The report card is a meaty document that captures a lot of information in an easily accessible way. There are a lot of things in it that can and should merit discussions within government and elsewhere. I was disappointed to learn that no one from government was able or willing to join the ‘Coffee and Controversy’ programme on Tuesday to talk about what the report card says.

This was a missed opportunity I feel. Let’s hope that in future, documents such as these come with a meaningful communications strategy. One that goes beyond putting things on a website and sending them to some media outlets.

There are a few things in this document that caught my eye and that I’ll look at here.

First is the impact of imposing a 100 day plan on agencies’ ability to progress pre-existing plans.

Across the whole of government 52.7% of the objectives on the 100-day plan are considered ‘complete’ as compared with 30.7% of the medium-long term objectives.

This could indicate that the pressure to ‘act short’ is getting in the way of implementing plans that were already in place. If that’s the case, the ways in which something like 100-day plan is used may need to be revised.

There is a danger that it can become the only tool in the box. Ministries and agencies already have a number of plans they are working with (corporate plans, business plans, work plans).

Perhaps another approach would be to have a 100-day report – ministries and departments report every 100 days on their progress against the plans they already have.

In relation to medium-long term plans, there are a couple of ministries with no information in this report card. It’s not clear whether that is because they didn’t provide the information or because they don’t have medium-long term plans in place. Let’s hope it’s the former.

Another item that caught my eye is the continuing good work being done by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management in rolling out the use of Financial Service Bureaux (FSB) in provincial areas.

This activity is one of the best things Vanuatu has achieved in relation to public financial management and not enough people know about what they are and why they are so important.

In a nutshell they are facilities located in provincial centres that allow real time access to the government financial management system. They provide for timely payments of salaries and bills for goods and services.

These facilities have been in place since 2012 and the challenge is that line agencies have not yet given the appropriate authority to provincial officers to be able to make use of them.screenshot-2017-04-06-13-49-41

Again, this is a huge missed opportunity to make use of this service across most if not all of government. It is particularly important for the bigger ministries such as education and health so that their staff and suppliers can be paid in a timely manner.

It would be great to see ‘implement use of FSB’ on the 2018 business plans of those ministries and departments who are not yet on board.

And then I was struck by the number of challenges faced by ministries that indicate some sort of bottleneck occurring within the legislative drafting section of the State Law Office.

The report card does not indicate what the causes of this bottleneck are. It may be that we don’t have enough legislative drafters or the ones that we have require further professional development to be able to deal with the type and amount of work they are required to do.

Or there may be other reasons. Whatever the cause or causes may be this is something that needs to be addressed.

Too often I meet technical advisers who have been brought in from overseas to draft legislation for a particular department or ministry.

They often appear to do so without engaging meaningfully with the State Law Office. Inputs of this type may address a short-term technical need but they do not build institutional strength, which is what we need.

If you haven’t read the report card, I recommend you do so. It contains lots to think about and discuss with your MP next time you run into him.