A Trojan Horse?

Children play on a wharf at Mele beach.

As two Ni-Vanuatu Fellows who participated in the course that was the subject of a highly critical, full page feature article in New Matilda 06/11/2015, we wish to respond.

The article was supposedly written by Aminio David and Anita Tenkon from the Lands Desk of Cultural Centre in Vanuatu. However, they received writing ‘assistance’ from Thulsi Narayanasamy, Senior International Programmes Officer (Sweatshops and Plantations) from War on Want, and a former director of AID/WATCH, an NGO based in Sydney, Australia that criticises Australian aid in general.

We note with interest that both ‘authors’ of the article told us personally how much they enjoyed the course and gave no criticism of the course until now.

We, Mike Waiwai and Jeff Malmangrou, are both educated senior policy and delivery policy analysts working in two key ministries in Vanuatu government (Ministry of Climate Change and Ministry of Lands) and found the program ‘Valuing Culture and Nature for Sustainable Resource Management’ to be well targeted, useful and adding value to the government of Vanuatu policy development and programing in the area of traditional knowledge and culture and its place in a modern world.

Furthermore, as co-authors of this rebuttal we are not hiding behind someone else’s names and have approval from our Director General to publish this response.

The article, while appearing well written, made some notable and glaring factual errors, which, once addressed, render the arguments of the article invalid and without grounds. Firstly, the training program itself was not DFAT’s as claimed by the article because Australia did not set the agenda nor did it develop the programme. There is a difference between a DFAT programme such as Australian Sports Outreach Programme (ASOP) for Pacific countries as opposed to a home-grown programme implemented through funding support from DFAT.

‘Valuing Culture and Nature for Sustainable Resource Management’ is a Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) leadership programme developed for young professionals in Melanesia in collaboration with Griffith University and with funding support through DFAT’s Australian Award Fellowship. It was the first of its kind and was aimed at exposing mid-career professionals to an array of policy options and global developmental initiatives to foster dialogue and critical thinking around sound policies and decisions for Melanesia in regards to resource allocation.

The content of the programme aligns with the MSG Leaders Declaration on Environment and Climate Change, which MSG Leaders committed to in 2012. These aspirations are now being captured in the MSG Framework for Action on Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development formulated by Heads of Climate Change and Environment Ministries of MSG countries.

Nothing in the program directly or suggestively indicated Australia’s subversive motives as claimed by the article. We would like to point out that there was a PNG participant who played an integral part in developing the programme, contrary to the claims of the article that the absence of PNG at the course was DFAT trying to push the agenda for mining in Bouganville—a subject matter very close to the heart of Thulsi Narayanasamy, who ‘assisted’ in writing the article.

The lack of reference to MSG as the initiator of the programme further emphasises the ignorance on the part of the writers or if they did, they hijacked a programme for Melanesia to publicise some grievances, which would have better been served through other mediums and channels without compromising the integrity of MSG, Griffith University and DFAT. In doing so, they place the programme’s future at risk and disadvantage other young Melanesian policy professionals from benefiting from the programme.

We support the programme as most policies and legislation in Melanesia are still being developed by foreign Technical Advisors and we need to boost our in-country capacity to be able to develop our own programmes and policies.

The Fellowship programme had sessions on how to identify and understand issues and how to write policies, which will address these gaps. It is a necessary component to develop scenarios to play out different aspects of policies. It is called envisioning, not brainwashing.

We hope the program will increase the number of policy drafters who can support good resource management in Melanesia by using Melanesian inherent cultural values to advance policy decisions that serve the role of government in improving the conditions of its people.

In Vanuatu, the mandate for the custodial role for culture and land is accorded to the chiefs represented by the Malvatumauri Council of Chiefs—not a project of the Cultural Centre, represented by the Land Desk.

Vanuatu and MSG countries are in desperate need for change as we rank really poorly in Corruption Perception Index (CPI) and in order to do so, we have to be willing to explore new ideas and to challenge our notions of development to ensure the survival of our cultures and people without destroying our abilities to sustain our future generations.

Our customs and cultures define who we are and we should be proud to maintain good principles and values, but not at the expense of progress where we use culture to prevent other members of the society from living with dignity to their full potential or enforce our insecurities on others to keep them locked up in some abyss of cultural romanticism.

Mike Waiwai is a social scientist on traditional knowledge and human resources manager, Ministry of Climate Change, Government of Vanuatu

Jeff Malmangrou is the former Land Sector Coordinator, Ministry of Lands, Government of Vanuatu

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