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.


About Tess Newton Cain

With more than 20 years’ experience of living and working in the Pacific, I understand its needs, local customs, issues and challenges, and have built strong networks and productive relationships with policy makers, opinion formers, key institutions, private sector operators and development partners. If you are a development agency or NGO needing more and better information about the Pacific context for your work or a business looking to enter a new and unfamiliar Pacific market, I can provide you with the research, analysis and strategy you will need.

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