Last week I joined a whole bunch of people at the USP campus in Suva for the annual ‘Pacific Update’.
It is a conference that is convened by USP, the Asian Development Bank and the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University (full disclosure: I am a Visiting Fellow to the Development Policy Centre but have no role in organising the Pacific Update).
Up until a few years ago it was held in Canberra but for the last few times it has been held in Suva.
This makes it a much better conference for a number of reasons. One of the main ones is that no-one from the Pacific wants to go to Canberra in June. But, more importantly, it means that the content is much more home grown in nature, with presentations from academics, policy makers, people working in regional organisations, and members of civil society.
Another big improvement to the Pacific Update is that it has become much more focused on policy (development and implementation) in recent years.
This gives it a much wider appeal than previously when its focus was on updates about Pacific island economies.
So, for this year the conference used 3 themes to guide the selection of papers and the composition of panels.
They were: enhancing connectivity (e.g. regional cooperation, trade, infrastructure and ICT), blue-green economy (including but not limited to climate change and disaster resilience), and labour mobility, job creation, and labour market developments.
Vanuatu was very well represented at the conference last week. Anna Naupa presented with her colleague Devika Raj of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat on work that is ongoing looking at how regional financing can be made more effective.
Linda Kenni was part of a group that shared the findings of research they are doing about localisation of disaster response in the Pacific.
Fremden Yanhambath responded to the call for papers and presented on the work done by TVET to reform the way skills based training is delivered in Vanuatu. A conference like this provides a great opportunity for people to come together and share ideas.
It creates a space where people who work in government can find out more about what academics are researching and how that might be useful to them. Private sector participants have an opportunity to put forward their concerns and interests to add to the knowledge and understanding of policy makers.
There are a couple of things that would improve this conference for the future.
The first is that now it has got out of Canberra it needs to not get stuck in Suva. Before the Pacific Update came along, ANU would convene country updates in the relevant countries, i.e. the Vanuatu Update was held in Vanuatu.
Both USP and the ADB have vested interests in increasing their visibility in Pacific island countries other than Fiji.
Making the Pacific Update more mobile is a great way of doing this.
I would recommend that the Pacific Update is convened in Suva every second year and that it should be held in a different country in the alternate years.
This will allow for a wider range of people to take part and ensure that the content does not become overly dominated by Fiji concerns.
It will also build a wider awareness of the Pacific Update in several countries.
This will hopefully lead to more people responding to the call for papers each year or following the conference via live stream if they are not able to attend in person.
The conference organisers continue to do a good job in ensuring that we hear from a wide range of presenters and that there is a good mix of academic and practice-based material.
And there is more that can be done to ensure that this diversity is increased each year.
The annual call for papers is a key tool for letting people know about the conference and inviting them to take part. This needs to be circulated more widely and more often.
There needs to be a particular focus on getting the call for papers into local media (including social media) in Pacific island countries.
There is also scope for providing pre-conference support for people who may have little or no experience
in presenting at conferences but who are keen to give it a go.
This could be a website that collects together good resources about how to prepare a presentation and a chat forum where people can ask questions about what to expect.
Conferences are not the only way of facilitating discussions about important policy concerns and they may not be the best.
But the Pacific Update is good at what it does and deserves continuing and increased support.