All for one and one for all in Pacific development

By Pacific Region Team on Thu, 08 August 2013

Written by Beatrice Olsson and Nogendra Sapkota 

In Pacific culture the vaka, or outrigger canoe, represent Pacific islanders’ connection to their ancestry, their way of life, and the environment. Embodying respect, balance, harmony, and teamwork, the vaka is a symbol of community members working successfully together. 

When you see a vaka gliding smoothly across a lagoon or slicing through waves, you are witness to this community interaction. Whether it is the pacer in the front who sets the momentum, the steerer who sits at the back, reads the waves and guides the canoe, or those in the middle who drive the vessel forward and ensure it does not flip, each person on board plays a special role. So too, in the construction process where vaka builders use local resources, draw on local knowledge for the best materials, tools and applications, engage leaders for support and motivation, and tap the skills and expertise of men, women and even children. 

The community, like the vaka, is the sum of all its parts.  Each member dependent on the others for the community’s success and survival.  The community analogy of the vaka provides a valuable lesson for development agencies, including our own. 

We know that isolation, weak state functions and a lack of capacity to deliver essential services, undermines development and poverty reduction in many Pacific Island countries. At the same time close ties to family, village, island, and language or ethnic groups, means communities can be more effectively engaged in the development process with stronger results. Here civil society organizations, often working with communities in remote rural areas, play a key role. 

ADB recognizes the essential role that active community participation plays in effective development. Under its Pacific Approach 2010-2014 ―a policy document which guides its operational strategy in the region― ADB has stepped up the focus on community and civil society involvement in its projects and programs. 

We can clearly see the benefits of this participatory approach across our operations. One prime example is a pilot climate change adaptation project in the Cook Islands, in which ADB partnered with the government, the World Wide Fund for Nature, civil society organizations and target communities.  

The Protecting Island Biodiversity and Traditional Culture in the Cook Islands Through Community-Based Risk Management Project, has seen local communities and civil society groups fully involved in the design and implementation of all activities. 

The project engaged the communities of Arutanga and Ureia in Aitutaki, and Matavera and Rua’au in Rarotonga to carry out vulnerability assessments, analyze climate risks and formulate their own climate change adaptation plans, integrating local knowledge. Twenty five community representatives representing a cross section of the populations in Aitutaki and Rarotonga, were trained on community vulnerability mapping using preconfigured global positioning equipment. They also collected data on important social (e.g. schools, churches, community centers, sports fields), cultural (marae, a communal sacred place that serves religious and social purposes), and economic sites (pa’i or taro swamps, tourist sites), took photographs, and interviewed households to evaluate household-level vulnerabilities. 

Risk profiles were produced for each of the four communities based on the data collected, and this set the context for community-based adaptation workshops, where members developed their own priority adaptation action plans.  The government has now updated the national Geographic Information System list of assets vulnerable to climate and disaster risks, using data and feedback from the communities. 

The desire to restore or maintain traditional knowledge and practices to address local risks and vulnerabilities was notable during the workshops. This was clearly seen in the views expressed about traditional housing and buildings, including marae, which are more suited to the hot local weather conditions than modern designs, and are located in areas less vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surges. The wisdom that went into traditional infrastructure and settlement planning clearly remains relevant today. 

The project ultimately demonstrates the value of “locally grown and locally owned” initiatives, where a community, assisted by civil society groups and development partners, organizes itself and takes responsibility for managing its own problems.

Whether this participatory approach is a primary strategy or a complementary one is irrelevant. Ultimately what is important is that it does enrich and strengthen programs and projects, resulting in more sustainable and effective development outcomes.

Lessons from Participatory Community Approaches

  • Develop partnerships. These partnerships replicate the ties within a community – there needs to be partnerships among government agencies, CSOs, and other agencies, and most importantly with the local community.
  • Go to the people. Start the project where the people are. Use local facilities, for example community halls and women’s committees for catering.
  • Use and build local capacity. Involve local leadership, elders and stakeholders. Train local people who can train others in their communities; allow communities to select local trainers; and train in locally acceptable ways, methods and languages. 
  • Use local knowledge and understandings. Maximize use of local knowledge and resources.
  • Share. Feed and strengthen partnerships and collaboration through sharing data and information with government and other organizations.