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Community service goes hand-in-hand with study

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Community service goes hand-in-hand with study of Samoan society

Dr Maria Kerslake spends her weekends at the local rugby field organising fundraising barbeques to pay preschool teachers in her village, but her mind is also on the bigger picture of Samoan society and the forces shaping it.

Her study of the fall-out from the restructuring of her country’s Public Works Department for her sociology doctoral thesis has made her the first Samoan to gain a PhD from Massey’s Auckland campus.

The mother of six and grandmother of five (pictured with family) lectures in sociology at the National University of Samoa, where she is Dean of the Arts Faculty. She flew from Samoa last week for graduation in Auckland and was one of three Pasifika PhDs to graduate this year – a record for the campus.

For her case study, Dr Kerslake interviewed a cross-section of Samoans from the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Aiono Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi, to government road workers to gauge the effectiveness of free market reforms in combating corrupt practices, nepotism and inefficiency.

She set out to establish whether the changes, which aimed to improve economic growth, productivity and efficiency, benefited Samoans as promised by the politicians and international financial institutions that promoted them.

She says many felt the restructuring was successful, “partly because Samoa is a small country, and also because the changes were introduced after those affected [by redundancy] were thoroughly briefed and it was done with a Samoan flavour and in tune with Samoan culture”.

But she also found some Samoan employees felt they had been victimised by the privatisation programme. “The promises of flourishing businesses and becoming a member of the business elite are an elusive dream as the employees of the former PWD experience financial hardship and sacrifice,” she writes.

Dealing with the human toll of the structural adjustment she studied consumes much of Dr Kerslake’s time. On the positive side, restructuring and upgrading of public services has meant people in small, remote villages now have electricity. But they lack the income to pay for it, so Dr Kerslake has been devising ways for Samoans to earn more money by pushing for better trade deals for the export of local produce with New Zealand, Australia and other countries.

While juggling family commitments and work demands as a lecturer and researcher at the university in Apia, she is also involved in numerous community projects. She also helps run an internet centre in her home village of Saoluafata, where local students can use five government-funded computers for research, and village women use them to organise budgets and accounts, and email family overseas.

She also established a preschool for 35 village youngsters and organises fundraising barbeques at weekend rugby matches to pay the teachers.

And as board member of Samoa’s Family Health Association, she is actively involved in sexual health public awareness programmes, coordinating a mobile road show and health clinic to combat high teenage pregnancy rate.

Dr Kerslake says she finds it hard to believe she completed her PhD. “I’m amazed. I had to be very focused and lock myself away any time I had a break to get it done."

One of her supervisors, Dr Cluny Macpherson, a senior sociology lecturer, says her thesis is important because her discussions with a wide range of people, including many whose views are not typically considered, challenged the view promoted by international financial institutions and the Government that structural adjustment programmes were generally successful and beneficial.

“It was also important because she suggested that while the privatisation programmes were successful in purely economic terms, they came with high economic and social costs for some people who were displaced in the process. Dr Kerslake’s thesis is also constructive because it suggests ways in which privatisation programmes, which are clearly here to stay, can be refined to produce both economic and social benefits.”


ENDS

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