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Pacific realities

Alumna Sala Muliagatele Georgina Bonin is applying the knowledge she gained at Otago to her work at the Apia-based United Nations Development Program, helping to improve the lives of people in the Pacific.

Visitors to the Pacific often see the carefree tropical idyll but, says Otago alumna Sala Muliagatele Georgina Bonin, many people living across this vast geographic region often face less than ideal economic realities.

The Apia-based United Nations Development Program (UNDP) assistant resident representative works in the organisation's Governance and Poverty Reduction Unit to “improve the lives of people in the Pacific” by implementing and managing UNDP-funded projects.

Sala Georgina's role is far-reaching in a literal sense – the UNDP has offices in Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Fiji –and the organisation's political clout and resourcing frequently mean that it is uniquely placed to create partnership opportunities.

“We are often pivotal in taking the development ideas proposed by regional governments and bringing in other global agencies or private-sector partners to make them a reality. It's the UNDP's convening power to bring organisations together that makes projects happen.”

Since the early 1990s, the UNDP has produced the Global Human Development Report based on a formula that measures development using gross domestic product (GDP) and enrolment rates in primary schools, income per capita and longevity.

As a result, development initiatives have sought to address factors that stop people achieving a good quality of life.

“The UNDP programmes are about putting humans at the centre of development,” she says.

And, increasingly, it is the Pacific's young that are most in need of assistance: over 60 per cent of the Samoan population, for instance, is aged between 15 and 33 and, within this demographic, 16.5 per cent are unemployed.

This burgeoning group could undermine Samoa's efforts to consolidate the hard-won economic upgrade that saw it recently shed its “least developed country” status. Accordingly, when the UNDP's five-year development project cycle began in 2013 the Samoan government identified youth unemployment and gender inequality as priority issues.

“More than 3,000 young people leave the school system every year and the public and private sectors don't have enough jobs for them. Many are leaving the education system without the necessary skills, so our priority is to get young people to create business opportunities for themselves, rather than trying to find jobs that aren't there.”

In response, the UNDP has connected the government and relevant youth and social development and international agencies in public-private partnerships (PPPs) to implement programmes that assist young people in starting micro-businesses.

These schemes build on regional strengths, such as agriculture or tourism, so that locals benefit from producing globally desirable products. A recent example is UNESCO's Food and Agriculture Organisation initiative focused on increasing production of organic produce, such as coconut oil, which is in demand in the Pacific and worldwide.

“A good example of a PPP at work is the Samoa-based Women in Business Development group project, which helps primary producers reach high-value markets. For the last 10 years, group members have grown organically-certified virgin coconut oil for the Body Shop in Europe.”

The model's success is established and now, with US soap and beauty product supplier Dr Bronner expanding into Samoa, new opportunities to supply materials for cosmetic and health-care products can only have good outcomes for local producers, she says.

Central to her UNDP work is the concept of partnership and empowerment at all levels.

“At the third International Conference on Small Island Developing States in 2013 one of the main outputs was a drive for real and lasting partnerships. Small states don't want overseas donors coming and telling them what to do. They want their sovereign rights to be recognised, and for the UNDP and all actors to help make their dreams a reality.

“And for the producers, our priority is empowering young people by giving practical assistance with the complete agricultural or horticultural process – from growing crops through to marketing products to domestic or international markets.”

Aside from providing the basis for economic stability in farming areas, training at education centres such as the Asia Pacific Technical Training Centre in Apia, is aimed at addressing a skill shortage in an array of trades and the tourism industry. The priority with these initiatives is adding value to young people's products and services, and connecting them with employers. The benefits extend beyond the purely financial.

“Tuition in traditional art is paired with small business enterprise centre training, so young people learn how to make their art more marketable. We are also developing an app to connect them with training providers and employers. And we work with the Samoa Culture Centre, who are training 20 young people in arts and crafts.”

The demand for traditional craft is high and 20 women who were recently trained in tapa cloth production and design immediately found jobs.

In time, the cumulative effect of these “beacon” initiatives may be to improve the lot of local communities and help the nation's economy address its negative trade deficit: in 2014 its exports – 90 per cent of which were from the agricultural sector – were $52.6 million against imports totalling $458 million.

Sala describes studying social anthropology at Otago as a vital “springboard” to an enduring personal and professional interest in human development. Lecturers such as Professor Peter Higgins' insights into objective research and community tendency analysis led her to value a highly “applied” model for community work.

“I apply much of what I learned in my own work now. I have a master's in safety science, too, and so I would advocate for people to have a double degree, or a degree that includes the arts, because that side really opens you up to analytical and lateral thinking.”

Her Bachelor of Arts also provided specific knowledge required to work in an international organisation with broad areas of involvement.

“When you work in the Pacific you must be mindful of similarities and differences, both cultural and historical, or the context that's led to so much recent change. For instance, the development project might be in an area where they don't have a stable parliament, or in an independent country or territory.

“But, with experience, I've learnt to analyse and interpret things in my own way and to look at what's on the ground using various cultural perspectives. It's about finding what's real to the people I'm dealing with.”

Story: Sam Stevens
Photo: Sala Muliagatele Georgina Bonin (centre) with the Administrator of the UNDP, Helen Clark (right), and UN resident co-ordinator Lizbeth Cullity (left).
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