A meeting of the minds

Prospects for quality Pacific policy-making are brightening.

Tess Newton Cain

Development, Government and governance | The Pacific

18 November 2014

Developments in Pacific policy-making offer a ray of hope for positive policy change, Tess Newton Cain writes.

Ani-Vanuatu friend with whom I often drink kava has said to me on more than one occasion: “The difference between you Westerners and us Pacific Islanders is that you share your knowledge and hold on to your wealth but we share our wealth and hold on to our knowledge”.

In the Pacific, people hold on to knowledge because to share it would undermine an individual’s or organisation’s power base. But a number of stars are aligning (albeit slowly) that may see this beginning to change and, as it does so, the prospects for quality policy-making in the region are brightening.

Perhaps the most significant emerging force is the growing clamour for ‘home-grown’ policy development rather than imported solutions, driven by the imperatives of bilateral and multilateral donors.

In order to satisfy the demands of politicians and voters that programs and projects are context-appropriate and relevant to the current needs of communities, there is a need for consultation. This is leading to increasing numbers of spaces in which people from all sectors are coming together to share their concerns and ideas about what should happen next in any given area.

Image by thinkstock.

PHOTO: thinkstock.

Recently, the government of Vanuatu undertook a week-long consultation to inform national development planning in which they heard from non-government organisations and private sector representatives, among others.

Of course, the increasing availability of Internet access means that policymakers can collect information from a much wider range of sources than might previously have been the case. However, in the Pacific, there is still a lack of information from individual countries or the region as a whole.

Government departments and agencies in Pacific Island countries still struggle to provide detailed, current information about population, trade, employment and many more policy issues. The development of local content of all types is key for informed and participatory policy-making. In Vanuatu, it is one of the eight core principles of the national information and communication technology policy.

However, there is a bigger challenge for Pacific policymakers who want to make use of increased access to knowledge not only from within the region but from outside as well. And that is how the knowledge that is available can best be filtered, synthesised and translated to be of use.

It is certainly possible to overplay the ‘Pacific exceptionalism’ card and there are important global conversations about development, including how to use donor funds, which have application in the region.

But in order for policymakers to be able to make use of a wealth of academic, technical and other knowledge, they need access to a process by which information of all sorts can be collated and presented in appropriate formats to be of most use. In countries with small resource endowments, this is a lot to ask—in fact, in many cases, it is too much to ask.

It would be easy to become subject to some sort of decision paralysis, overwhelmed by the enormity of the tasks associated with effectively managing knowledge to support policy-making. However, there are opportunities to work in small, strategic but effective ways and use knowledge sharing as a way of enhancing policy-making processes and skills in the Pacific.

I hear of numerous instances of public servants meeting together informally to discuss common areas of interest and share information they have gathered, whether through study or otherwise. In Vanuatu, I have convened a number of dialogue events in which researchers present their work for discussion to people drawn from all sectors: government, the donor community, academia, civil society, and the private sector.

Each time something like this happens, connections are formed and trust is built. And as these relationships are built and developed, people share their information, their thoughts and ideas.

It means that policymakers can get access to people they might not otherwise meet, introducing them to a wider range of knowledge resources which they can draw on when making decisions. And isn’t that something worth raising a shell of kava to?

This piece was first published in Asia and the Pacific Policy Society’s magazine, Advance in September 2014: https://crawford.anu.edu.au/research/advance-magazine

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