What went wrong with Environmental Improvement Projects in the Pacific Islands?

This Participatory business is a new process for Pacific island governments. People make mistakes. At least there are a bunch of people trying to make it work. Here are 10 common mistakes. Some are easy enough to avoid, others are more complex. Also check out the major pitfalls with information flow in the Pacific islands and the SWOT analysis.

1. Too Quick.

The most common failure was the application of what might be called the TA syndrome. TA stands for Technical Assistance. Since nearly all regional or national research and development activities in the Pacific islands are funded by a variety of aid programs, and since most of the bilateral aid gets recycled back to the country of origin by hiring consultants from their own countries, there is a time limit. Often only a couple of weeks. In comes a consultant, stirs everyone up, makes a huge laundry list of things everyone needs to do, whips through a workshop or community get together, and then splits - sending back a report in a couple of months.

This is so common that most Pacific islanders have developed an immunity to it and a kind of relaxed cynicism. These episodes can be entertaining, or stressful, depending on the consultant involved and what is expected of the island officials and people. But they are seldom very productive and hardly ever followed up.

The end result is a kind of interesting form of entertainment, like a European rendition of a One Smol Bag Theater.

By contrast, NGOs are participatory oriented by their very nature and they tend to be locally based or at least they stick around for the long haul. NGO's have done the most promising work in the Participatory field but need to get their ideas more integrated with the government system. One of the major tasks ahead is improving the relationships between government and NGOs. Where this has been tried, the results have been worth it.

Too Quick leads to a number of other problems such as Rude Arrival and Paid Volunteers.

2. Rude Arrivals

Forging a lasting relationship needs time. There are cultural rules of politeness to be followed and these should not be rushed. The Samoan Fisheries project hired a socio-biologist for their team. This was a great idea as few fishery officers have had even a smidgen of training in sociology. Their sociologist told the team the introductory process would take about two months. Give it anywhere from six months to a couple of years to develop into something. Many of the projects listed here were run with an advance notice of only hours or days and were over before anyone in the villages figured out what was supposed to be happening. Often, whole teams of consultants and government officials showed up in a village where most of the people never knew they were coming and were not there to participate.

3. Paid Volunteers

This is Green Mail. Pay us or else (we won't cooperate in your project)(we won't set up the park)(we won't work towards what you call self-reliance).

Much of this results from the sudden appearance of a bunch of rich people with big ideas. They want something, therefore, they must be willing to pay for it. Without proper foreplay, the people don't get the idea (admittedly a bit opaque) that the rich and educated people actually expect the villagers to voluntarily want to "get developed" or "protect their heritage" or whatever.

The Samoan fisheries extension team had a reasonable plan for this. First they were careful about how they introduced the idea of the community managing their own fishery resources. They made it clear from the start who would be responsible for what, and what Fisheries was prepared to do for the effort. But, since the communities were often jaded to the ebb and flow of aid workers, they sometimes were waiting for the punch line (which is the bottom line). If the villagers did not seem sincere, the team simply got up and left, saying that if the people changed their minds, to get in touch.

Most of these unschooled rural villagers know perfectly well that consultants and aid agencies need to have their cooperation. So they apply the old financial lever whenever they can, often with great success. Government agencies do the same thing to aid agencies but that's another story.

4. Nothing to do.

PRA, and other participatory activities often fail to give the community participants clear tasks - something to do - once the meeting is over and all the views aired. People get properly concerned over the issues then the government officials, NGO workers, or consultant firm, vanishes and life goes back to the way it was.

Along the same line, projects that train officials or NGO personnel in participatory techniques will eventually fail unless they include a strong, primary mandate for the trainer to train others. It's called training the trainers. The only two projects mentioned in this web site to pay strict attention to this are the Streamwatch programme (the best project I know of) and the Vanuatu Land Survey project. When this works as it should, the trainers train trainers who train more trainers. The projects take on a life of their own and go on to success without constant effort on the part of the originators.

I used a different concept in the Community Giant Clam Sanctuaries of Tonga, but it seemed to work OK.

5. Hijacked.

Every village has its con artist. They are first off the mark when any stranger appears. Helpful, quick, offering their services and guidance in all things, fountains of information (carefully adjusted to the listener's expectations), educated and nice. These people are true adepts. Quick-run projects all too often fall into their hands.

This results in two problems;

1) Since everyone in the village knows the con artist and either fears or dislikes the person, the project is doomed from the start no matter what it is.

2) Reports on the progress of the project will be that wondrous mixture of truth and lies that con artists are so good at. Always just on the verge of a great breakthrough if only there was some additional funds, or equipment, or a boat, or a car, or more fuel, or whatever.

Another, related problem, is the personnel of the project making friends or being "adopted" by any one family, Church group, or person. In a small rural village, there are age old social stresses and factions. Join one, forget the others.

Still another variation on this theme, and one that plagued the WWF 9-Step Conservation Program in the Solomon Islands, is having the project taken over by the myriad day to day strife and agendas of the village. True, participatory projects are supposed to work with the villager's agenda and needs. But sometimes these can acquire an urgency for action that - once started - becomes a never ending saga. Very time consuming. It becomes totally reactionary and defensive, somehow dropping the original proactive theme in the scuffle.

6. The wrong village

Projects were set up in villages because they happened to be easy for the government workers to get to. Transportation costs are high in the Pacific islands. When a foreign funded program needs to have some villages as examples, the government team will select a village that they can drive to or at least fly to. But the workers don't really want to be away from home or their offices too long. So the village(s) they select may or may not have anything to do with the project. One participatory forest reserve project, for example, was conducted in a village that didn't have any forest land.

7. Touchy subjects

Some subjects are just too difficult to begin a friendly relationship on. Like Land Tenure. The Vanuatu land survey project ran afoul by starting out on the most controversial and explosive topic in the Pacific islands; people's control of their land. Measuring the boundaries as a prelude for land registration could only seem like a good idea to someone with no understanding at all of how touchy people are about the boundaries of their land. Even in European countries people squabble and fight and sue each other over who owns which two centimeters of land. As soon as one land owner measures where he thinks his boundary is, the neighbor will be fit to be tied over the idiot's land thievery.

If, like the Vanuatu Land Planning exercise, the survey team had used their GPS land owner measurements to define land zones for village development, and left the issue of land tenure and registration for sometime next Century, things would have gone much smoother.

8. Officious Officials

Let's face it, government officials are not always, or even usually, facilitators. Most of them are not keen on social and political fine points. Fishery officers can be downright abusive to rural fishers, and the feelings are quickly reciprocated.

This is a tough problem, but it is one that is slowly changing with the development of good training courses in group interaction. The problem is having a good training course.

9. Incomprehensible Participatory Experts

I don't know why, but the field of participatory research is full of the most amazing jargon. This strikes me as strange because, after all, the whole idea of participation is being able to communicate with a broad spectrum of other people. To me, jargon (Facilitator sounds a little obscene) and acronyms like PRP, PIP, AR, get in the way. The field is full of it.

Really, at the base of it all, the whole process is one of developing respect and consideration between groups of people that normally don't communicate very well. The theory is simply that when you involve everyone, and let each interested person have a say, people do get interested and will work together. There have always been people and organizations that have been good at doing this.

The participatory phraseology simply is a way of promoting what is otherwise known as being decent and cooperative. People who are supposed to be skilled in group interactions can either be precious beyond imagining or so confusing nobody can understand them. A good project idea can be flushed down the drain by a poor facilitator as easily as by an autocratic, dictatorial manager. It would be a mistake to think - as some workers in the field do - that participatory techniques will solve everything. Despite education and training, some people are nice and others are not; some are competent and others are not.

10. Conflict of interests

Government officials and research scientists don't necessarily see sharing information or authority as desirable. Some politicians and government officials have economic interests that might be embarrassed or made more complex if the people came up too far on the learning curve. This can be a serious problem, because in the Pacific islands, most everyone tries their level best to avoid controversy and stress. Which means if someone is against a particular action, nobody does anything about it. So, projects that start off with great enthusiasm can be smothered in a wet blanket of political opposition.

(There are local exceptions to the avoidance of stress. The people of Tarawa give every appearance of enjoying controversy and stress. They seem to generate it to give a soap-opera type drama to an otherwise dull existence. The end result appears, to aid workers, like a type of insanity, but then the aid workers don't live on a tiny strip of sand in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with 28,000 close relatives).