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Something old, new at NZ Melanesia Symposium

Something old, something new at first New Zealand Melanesia Symposium

Friday 3 October 2008, Wellington NZ: Whether it be freeing up lengthy visa processing for transiting travellers from Melanesia, or forming new partnerships to boost trade, there was something for everyone at the first Tok Talanoa New Zealand Melanesia Symposium hosted by the Pacific Cooperation Foundation this week.

Fresh on the wish-list of ideas: setting up a new Melanesia-New Zealand Partnership for Development, more educational exchanges between the Melanesian Spearhead Group nations and their developed nations in the neighbour, continued work on agriculture and trade, and looking at the ways in which NZ iwi have negotiated with the crown over natural resource management/ownership and wealth.

Cultural, conflict, governance, and the challenges of modernity for more than two-thirds of the region's 8.5million population also featured -- albeit barely scratching the surface for many who attended and wanted to see more attention given to their areas of interest.

"I feel like we've just started a conversation here, and it's time to leave," said one observer, “I could have done with another day -- there's just so much more that's important and we haven't got space to deal with it all."

National MP John Hayes, a former diplomat to Melanesia, spoke strongly on the need for Parliamentarians from the sub-region to take the floor of the Beehive and spend up to a week with their NZ counterparts to deepen mutual understanding amongst leaders.

He raised the idea of 'Melanesia-house' accommodation in the city centres of NZ for travellers from Melanesia; made more relevant by the growing numbers of workers coming to this country for temporary seasonal employment.

As for action beyond the symposium, the notion of funding was taken up by symposium rapporteur Dr Yvonne Underhill-Sem, who heads the University of Auckland's Development Studies program.

While the current multi-billion dollar NZ aid program to Melanesia under the Pacific Strategy is a vast improvement on the previous years, it is still 'catch up money', says Dr Sem.

"It doesn't in any way satisfy the pathways we are talking about. We need to look at what the cost of engagement is." Overall, NZ aid levels have yet to meet international overseas development assistance (ODA) targets, with much of the recent increase in assistance to Melanesia since the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) program began.

Sem's comments as the event closed late Tuesday raise more follow-on opportunities for the Pacific Cooperation Foundation team behind the event.

And team leader Vince McBride in his closing remarks said the event has "given us new insights and challenged us to look at new issues relating to Melanesia in new ways."

A report encompassing what has taken place including recommendations will go before MSG leaders and NZ sectors in the next few weeks, he says. PCF, an NGO akin to the Commonwealth Foundation in terms of its links between government agencies in NZ, and relevant NGO's in the Pacific, will be following up on relevant actions it can take up which help build on what's already happening, or innovate as needed...

PNG's Sir Rabbie Namaliu and Sir Albert Rocky Palmer of the Solomon Islands had earlier called on the symposium to get over talking and move into practical actions. Namaliu had noted the need for walking in partnership -- and working the same way, beyond all the tok talanoa. Palmer shared a popular pidgin phrase “Man tallim, doim"(don't just talk about doing, do it) to push the same focus for action.

"Talk is cheap -- action is what we need," agreed McBride in his final comments.

Speaking of the Pathways to the Future theme of the event, he says "We have at the very least established some signposts, now it's up to all of us to go away and reflect on changing those signposts into activities and joint ventures to engage those pathways between Melanesia and New Zealand."

And in her own round up, the event rapporteur noted the mix of story-telling, humour, diplomacy and straight-talking taken by speakers and the '"shifting of imaginations" through topics including economics, security and governance issues on the workshop program.

Dr Sem said with the "very diverse ways we have to consider to take the pathways for the future, some will feel comfortable and others won't feel comfortable. We need to take the time to make space for uncomfortable issues so they will be included."

Pointing out the 'vulnerabilities and possibilities' of working in one of the world's most complex and diverse regions, Sem says the most important thing about shifting mindsets to change social relations is the issue of time.

With the symposium speeches also being rich with analogy, she reached for one from an earlier speaker that summed up the troubled emergence from tribalism to nationhood for Melanesia and the need to ensure pathways to the future are built to last. Solomon's Chief Justice Sir Albert Rocky Palmer; speaking of the issue of reform and governance, said taking on the beauty and strength of a diamond only comes after a long period of pressure and pain. The alternative, encasing oneself in glass, would create something that could shatter easily.

But food for thought, strewn throughout the day of discussion, was perhaps strongest in the point from former diplomat Bernard Narakobi. In his presentation on culture; he brought listeners back to the crux of the issue - the tenuous nature of nationalism for villages still finding their united identity after centuries of tribalism, and a few generations of colonialism.

"We have to create our own visions and definitions. What is Melanesia? Is it a reality, or is it a dream?," he said, leaving listeners wondering what words can truly reflect the most challenged and rich-beyond-imagination corner of the Pacific map - and in which language.


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