National universities – approach with caution

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on May 5th, 2017

I was in a discussion with a colleague the other day in which mention was made of the Solomon Islands National University, usually called SINU (formerly the Solomon Islands College of Higher Education).

As always happens, I felt my heart sink. I am a great believer in university education. Some of the most actively engaged and most promising students I have taught are Solomon Islanders. But I cannot convince myself that SINU is the best way to provide educational opportunities for the best and brightest in Solomon Islands.

And the same goes for Vanuatu, where the topic of having a national university often comes up. Yes, our young people need opportunities to access tertiary education. But building a national university is not necessarily the answer.

I can understand where this thinking comes from. We have a young population and there are only so many scholarships available for study at overseas institutions. It’s more expensive to study overseas than if you can stay in your own country.

The University of the South Pacific has contributed to pressure for national universities. Although it is a regional university, the majority of its resources are in Fiji.

Twelve member countries own USP but one of them receives a much greater benefit than all of the others. In Vanuatu, we have Emalus Campus, which provides face to face and distance education. Compared to many other USP facilities in the region, ours is actually well served. But even a relatively brief visit to Laucala Campus in Suva should lead to questions being asked about why the resources in Fiji are so much better than those anywhere else in the region. After many years of negotiation, USP recently agreed to upgrade the University centre in Honiara to a campus.

This may have been partly a response to the establishment of SINU by the government of Solomon Islands. In which case it could well be too little, too late.

So, there is definitely more that USP can and should do to serve the whole of the region, which is its mandate. And there is scope for national governments (who are represented on the University’s council) to lobby for more and better services at national level in all of the member countries. A government’s ability to lobby effectively is increased when it is up to date with its financial contributions to the organisation, including payment of students’ fees. Sometimes this is not the case for all of the member countries of USP.

The key issue about university education is that it is (or should be) about quality, not quantity. The best and brightest students deserve and need access to an institution that delivers education to the highest possible standards.

Which makes universities very expensive things indeed. The bricks and mortar are only one small part of the equation. And the chances are that getting a building set up and putting a sign on it that says ‘University’ is possibly the easiest thing to achieve.

But that is only part of the picture. Lecture theatres need to be furnished, science laboratories need to be equipped, and libraries need books and subscriptions to journals. Technical services (electricity, water, air-conditioning, internet) are no longer optional and there needs to be a budget to pay for all of them.

And then you will need staff. A university is only as good as the academic staff it can attract and retain. And an academic programme needs good support staff to look after HR, procurement, payroll and so on. Good people with appropriate qualifications and experience expect (quite rightly) to be appropriately remunerated.

All of these require one thing. And that is a line (or possibly several lines) in the national budget. Not just this year, every year. And that means that governments need to generate the revenue to pay for all of these things. They may have to introduce or increase taxes. They will almost certainly have to charge fees. Is our society’s desire for educational opportunities for our children sufficiently strong that we are prepared to pay for it?

There is political mileage to be made of promising a national university so we should expect to hear more of it from our political leaders. When it comes up in discussion, there are some very important questions to be asked. We owe it to the future generations of our country to be prepared to ask them of ourselves and those who seek to represent us.

Photo credit: The British Mountaineering Council


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.


Pacific thinking & doing – September 2016

Welcome to the September newsletter

It has been a very busy month, with lots going on around our region. It has also been a busy time for TNC Pacific Consulting as I have been working with a number of clients to progress several projects.

As part of my work with the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS) I travelled to Honiara in Solomon Islands. There, I facilitated a workshop on ‘media and the law’ for journalists, broadcasters, editors and communications specialists. It was my 3rd visit to Honiara since 2000 and a good opportunity to catch up with old friends and make new ones to add to my networks. I was reminded once again of how each Pacific island country is very distinct with its own culture, economic outlook and political environment. Investment in nuanced research and analysis will assist those who want to work in these exciting and challenging environments.

My work with Pacific Islands Trade and Invest has given me an opportunity to learn and think about alternative financing instruments that may be able to support private sector development in our region. Modalities such as impact investing are well established in other parts of the world and we can expect the Pacific to become more significant for investors looking to expand their portfolios. They and their intermediaries will benefit from investing in detailed knowledge and profiling at national, sectoral and business level.

It was great to join the Coffee & Controversy team early in the month to discuss women’s voices and representation in public life and decision-making in Vanuatu. A couple of weeks later, we discussed the importance of sport for our country.

Collaboration in Canberra

Collaboration in Canberra

Matthew Dornan and I often co-write on Pacific regionalism and usually we do that from separate countries and different time zones. But on a chilly day in September we got to sit in the same room and put together our analysis of what did (and did not) happen at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting in the Federated States of Micronesia. You can read what we had to say here and you can hear Matt discussing the issues we raised with Pacific Beat here.

The main reason for my visit to Canberra was to take part in the ‘State of the Pacific’ conference hosted by the Australian National University. It was a great opportunity to catch up with a number of my Pacific colleagues to discuss politics and more, with particular focus on what might lie ahead at the sub-regional and regional levels. My presentation was part of a panel on ‘The New Pacific Diplomacy’ and was entitled ‘MSG – is the renaissance over?’ You can see the slides from my presentation here and if you would like to hear a podcast of our panel session, you can download it here.

Pacific island leaders joined their global colleagues for the United Nations General Assembly. Prime Minister Bainimarama used his address to flag (or, more accurately, restate a shift in foreign policy for his country. I discussed the possible implications of this with Pacific Beat.


July 2016

Welcome to my round-up of happenings during July.

July 30th is Vanuatu’s birthday and this year my adopted homeland turned 36. We are still a young country with much to learn and the Independence celebrations are always a good opportunity to reflect on our journey so far and look ahead to what is coming next.


I’ve been busy working with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat to develop a discussion paper that explores the opportunities and challenges associated with the interface between regional and sub-regional structures which has given me an opportunity to further develop my thinking about these issues. I have heard a few people recently make quite glib references to how we need to ‘pool our resources’ regionally to overcome national capacity restraints or achieve cost savings. This is an issue that Matthew Dornan and I explored in some detail in this paper, which informed some of the thinking that went into the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. The take-away: it’s harder than you think.

I also helped out my friends at Pacific Advisory with a feasibility study they conducted for the government of Vanuatu on how the country can make best use of our new Convention Centre. I provided a peer review of the draft report and identified some expert inputs for the study.

I travelled to Fiji to take part in the Pacific Update convened by the Asian Development Bank, the Development Policy Centre, the ADB Institute and the University of the South Pacific. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with a bunch of people from around the region and make some new friends. I gave a presentation on the challenges facing the Melanesian Spearhead Group and you can see the slides here.

We also officially launched ‘Pacific Stories’ and it was good to see the 170 copies we had available get snapped up. You can request a copy from the Development Policy Centre or download a PDF copy here.

‘Coffee and Controversy’ is going from strength to strength and is increasingly valued by politicians, officials and others in Vanuatu as a platform to discuss the pressing issues of the day. During July I took part in discussions about populism (Brexit, the rise of Trump, etc), management of the government vehicle fleet and roads and the vexed question of taxation.

In the media, I discussed the results of the Nauru elections with Pacific Beat here, the statement of congratulations to the Nauru government issues by the SG of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat here and the creation of assistant ministers by the president of Nauru here.

Other than talking about Nauru’s politics I provided this op-ed for the Vanuatu Daily Post, further to the MSG leaders’ meeting in Honiara.

As you can see, it’s been another busy month. Please do share this update with your colleagues and associates and check out how TNC Pacific Consulting can assist you to do more and better business in the Pacific.


Resources, regional architecture & leadership: Alf Simpson on some big questions for the Pacific

This item was first published on Devpolicy on April 8th, 2014

Whilst in Brisbane recently, Tess Newton Cain caught up with Alf Simpson, an independent consultant working in the Pacific region (with whom she normally converses via the internet). You can listen to a podcast of their conversation here. But for the highlights of what they discussed, read on…

We started by discussing Alf’s long and distinguished career in the Pacific. Fiji is home for Alf and after completing a degree in geology in New Zealand, he commenced work in the Mineral Resources Department. He subsequently moved into the specialisation of hydro-geology and from there developed a longstanding interest in management of natural resources in the Pacific. He spent nine years with the South Pacific Applied GeoScience Commission (SOPAC), which included a stint as the Director. Since 2004, he has lived in Brisbane and works in the region as an independent consultant.

So I’ve had kind of three phases in my career: one working for a national government, a Pacific island government; two working for a regional organisation working in the Pacific; and now the last ten years working as an external consultant going back into the region. So I’ve seen the region from three different perspectives. Which gives me a fair idea of how things were, how they’ve changed, and I think where things might go. As I said, I’m a bit opinionated, so where it actually goes and where I think it might go may be two different things.

As a result of a review of regional architecture, SOPAC was recently subsumed within theSecretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). Alf argues that whilst there is certainly plenty of need for improving regional organisations, this move is not easy to justify:

I think there were other organisations less effective. SOPAC I think, during my period, after Alexander Downer & Co tried to close us down, we rebuilt. We became focused on better governance… We became the first organisation to actually deliver corporate planning, which everybody takes for granted now… So other organisations followed us. And we moved on. And when I left, the organisation grew even more. Donors, funding, … increased about tenfold. So we weren’t short of donor support. We had great ownership by the countries.

In relation to management of natural resources in the region, Alf reflected that a lack of capacity within the region meant that it was difficult for Pacific countries to make use of resources that may be available:

… the opportunity for the region is still in the marine area. It’s very difficult for a region which doesn’t have basically any capacity, any resources, to do the work. So you have to work in partnership with other countries. And during the ’80s and early ’90s, the level of activity was quite significant. We had countries working in the Pacific, which we don’t see anymore. The British were down here doing mapping. We had the Americans… But of late, this seems to have died away… I’m not too sure how much scientific research is actually going on. And I could be wrong, but I don’t hear. It’s not as active as I think it was 10-20 years ago.

We then moved on to discuss the question of political leadership in the region. Alf commented that the only real criterion for judging the quality of leadership is performance. He queried whether those charged with regional leadership were performing or even judged on their performance with reference to how the lives of all Pacific islanders were affected and improved. He lamented the lack of ‘vision’ for the region:

I also find for a lot of them it’s all menu driven. There’s no vision there. They still they don’t know where they want to take the region. I was kind of laughed out of town at one of the last meetings I attended in early 2004, we had the group going around the Pacific finding out what should go into the Pacific Plan. And I said, you need a vision. And the Pacific is all ocean. So maybe for the next 10-20 years, the Pacific should say, ‘we’re a maritime continent. We want to move in this direction and develop our ocean’. No. They thought it was some kind of joke. But that’s all you have, that’s what you should do. You have to make that bold step. And develop the strategy to get you there.

These comments are reflected elsewhere, including in some of the public submissions made during the 2013 review process.

Going off completely at a tangent, we discussed the role that the Pacific might play in relation to developing radical geo-engineering responses to the impacts of climate change. My question was prompted by a presentation [pdf] made last year by Stephen Howes at an IMF conference in Port Vila. Alf’s response was cautious. The Pacific Ocean is, in his words, the ‘engine room’ of the global climate so it is very important in terms of research and innovation. However, he was concerned that there was not sufficient capacity within the Pacific to undertake this type of work. He made reference to the need for Pacific island countries to partner with others and was very pragmatic about what the region needed to get out of this type of process:

We’re not interested in usually the hard data, whatever. We want the product. We want our managers – our water managers, our fisheries managers, our coastal zone managers – we want them with information so they can make better decisions. And that’s all we want. That’s the type of thing we want.

We concluded our conversation with my challenge to Alf to follow through on his promise at the end of 2013 to adopt a ‘glass half full’ approach in 2014. He maintained he still has a number of months to go and acknowledged that some of what he had said painted a bleak picture. However, he pointed to the review of the Pacific Plan as an opportunity to refocus and restructure the regional architecture with a view to achieving – in a concrete way – positive development outcomes for the people and countries of the region. He ended with a final comment on the importance of leadership:

Leaders need to drive the process. They need to have the vision again. They need to establish what the goals are. And then I think the glass will be more than half full for the Pacific.

Alf Simpson is an independent consultant working on the Pacific region. Prior to his consulting career he spent nine years with the South Pacific Applied GeoScience Commission (SOPAC), which included a stint as the Director.  


What does the future hold for SPC? An interview with Colin Tukuitonga

This item was first published on Devpolicy on March 20th, 2014

Recently, Tess Newton Cain spoke with Colin Tukuitonga. Colin is the new Director General of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). You can listen to a podcast of their conversation here and download the full transcript here. But for the highlights of what they discussed, read on …

Colin began by giving us a ‘potted history’ of his life. He hails from Niue and did his medical training in Fiji. He has spent much of his professional life working in the field of public health in New Zealand and in the Pacific island region. He has extensive policy experience, having worked at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva and within the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs in New Zealand. He joined SPC in 2012 as Director of Public Health was appointed Director General in 2013. SPC is the oldest of the Pacific regional organisations, having recently celebrated its 67th birthday.

So, what is Colin’s vision for SPC?

For me it’s about moving an organisation that’s already good toward something even better: to have more impact in the countries that we serve, to try and secure sustainable, more predictable, funding for our programs.

Whilst he describes the organisation as being in ‘good heart’, there are still challenges to be faced, not least in relation to funding:

SPC is handicapped in many ways because the bulk of its finances are project based. By that I mean the money comes for a specific project, for a short period of time and when the money ends, the project stops. It’s very difficult for SPC, and indeed probably other organisations in a similar situation, to have better long-term planning to secure and retain good staff, and all of those sorts of things.

We then moved on to examine an often-raised criticism of regional organisations, such as SPC: that they are not relevant to improving the daily lives of most Pacific islanders. Colin refuted this in relation SPC. He made particular reference to the work that has been done within the organisation to improve coastal fisheries, increasing the yield and making them more secure. These measures have made a significant contribution to the livelihoods of many Pacific island communities. But he also said that there was more to be done, particularly in relation to impact:

I mentioned … that one of our issues is that we’re in some 20-odd sectors … there’s not enough … working across the sectors together, in terms of responding to the development needs of the member states.

He also reflected on the need for SPC to improve the quality of its scientific output and to adopt a global focus rather than maintaining one that is purely regional.

In a somewhat similar vein, we moved on to discuss what key achievements Colin would like to be able to point to at the end of his time as Director General. The goal he identified first is central to one of the most significant challenges faced by the region right now:

I’d like to be able to have worked with the team and other organisations and countries on trying to achieve a decline in the prevalence of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, those sort of non-communicable conditions, which is clearly a major issue in the region in terms of individual well-being, but also in terms of the drain, if you like, on the economic development potential of small islands.

Colin’s other goals were to have moved more of the Pacific islands toward the use of renewable sources of energy, to have improved numeracy and literacy rates, to have contributed to the improved management of tuna fisheries in the region and to have strengthened SPC as an organisation.

We made a small detour in our conversation about Pacific regional development to spend a small amount of time talking about Niue. Colin noted that the challenges facing such a small country were very significant. He felt that trying to achieve sustainable economic development through fisheries and tourism was very ambitious and could possibly have a detrimental impact on Niue’s fragile environment.

We ended our conversation by addressing another long standing and somewhat vexed question: the justification for having two peak bodies in the region. The two bodies in question are SPC and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS). In Colin’s view, the demarcation is very clear:

The Pacific Island Forum Secretariat is essentially about politics and policy, and we are a technical, scientific organisation. We do quite a lot of the implementation and the accountability reports in the various sectors.

However, he said that there were areas in which a perception has arisen that the work of SPC duplicates the work of other regional organisations. For example, I asked what the relationship is between the work SPC does on fisheries and the remit of the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA)?

That might be an area where people might have some concerns about duplication and whatnot. But fortunately for us, over the years — at least before my time — they’ve worked out pretty clearly who does what. … there are a number of other agencies involved in the fisheries space. For us, we’ve tended to remain pretty much focussed on the things we know best, and that is the scientific, biological, technical assessment of the tuna stock. And then we provide advice on the health or otherwise of the stock to the FFA and others involved in the fisheries. So, the area for misunderstanding of boundaries is more in that space, rather than between SPC and PIFS.

Colin agreed that whilst within SPC and between SPC and other regional organisations it might be clear as to who is doing what, there was more to be done about clearly communicating that to the wider community:

There’s a lot of good work going on. But not everybody knows what that work is. And potentially, again, in terms of responsibilities and boundaries, I wouldn’t be surprised if people are not all that clear about who does what.

Colin Tukuitonga has hit the ground running in his new role, and as we can see from this interview, has set himself a challenging agenda. We wish him luck and will be following his progress and that of the SPC with interest in the next few years.