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Empower ownership of development

Thursday February 21, 2013 Written by Published in Return to Pukapuka

Freelance journalist Amelia Borofsky is a regular contributor to Cook Islands News.

Borofsky is based in Pukapuka where she spent her formative years when her father was stationed there as an anthropologist for the University of Hawaii. She went back to the island in 2011, lived there last year, and is back again to pursue her dream of writing the new book of Pukapuka. Here she addresses the issue of development as raised by consultant Petero Okotai in his recent series of articles on development and aid.

Petero Okotai’s recent article about development in the Cook Islands ‘An exit strategy for aid’ sheds light on many important issues relevant to upcoming development projects, including solar and water.

It is vital that development be for, by and about the community, using local contractors and local knowledge to ensure the success of projects. Okotai makes an important point about investing in people themselves, in start-up local businesses and focusing on education rather than only infrastructure. In development projects all over the world, more harm than good often happens unless aid agencies use a bottom-up model for development.

The recent solar project set to begin in the Northern Group could become an example of the boomerang aid Okotai writes about. Last September an Australian consultant was hired and flown to Pukapuka. He stayed for only a few days, met with local leaders and proposed what would work best for the island. It was a top-down approach.

The last solar project conducted by the French in the early nineties worked in the short-term but not the long-term, in part because of its top-down approach. Individuals had to purchase batteries and inverters to make the solar power work. People did not learn how to fix and maintain the solar panels. Hurricane Percy in 2005 didn’t help either. The extreme weather conditions in Pukapuka require someone who knows the climate, and its people.

Participatory action development offers another model. In participatory action development, the project is for, by and about the people. It basically offers a bottom-up rather than a top-down process. The community lets the researcher, consultant or development partner know their needs. They have input at every stage about the plans. Whenever possible, local knowledge, local expertise, and local workers conduct the majority of the work. The community offers a constant loop of feedback about the process allowing for future improvements in collaboration. As Okotai suggested, it is not just about building infrastructure but about honouring the human capacity that already exists and building it up.

Participatory action development has been criticised for having higher start-up costs, but research conducted by several agencies (World Bank, CIDA, USAID, IRDP) shows many benefits. Research shows that using participatory development methods makes development projects more sustainable in the long run. Participatory development projects better address local needs compared to top-down projects. People have ownership and know how to up-keep and continue the project over the long-term. In the end, research shows that the up-front higher costs provide longer-term savings and benefits.

Many opportunities exist for bottom-up development. Local ideas for developing the resources within the Northern Group have included investing in a presser to make coconut oil to power motorbikes and generators on island and to export; selling more local crafts (kumete, hats, brooms, mats) to the Rarotonga market if regular transport allowed; coaches for sports training for national and international competitions; and improving transport, healthcare and education. It is about growing the human and natural resources that already exist here.

In Pukapuka and Nassau there is also a wealth of local knowledge on the island and abroad. Pukapukan educators, architects, doctors, athletes, construction workers, mechanics, horticulturalists, plumbers and more live in the Cook Islands and Australia and New Zealand.

They are extremely committed to their community. They have not however, been actively tapped. As Okotai wrote, much of the development projects go to overseas contractors bypassing those that know the language and the intricacies of this community. If they had jobs and projects, many Pukapukans would stay or return to give back to the community. It is about working with and within the community to empower ownership of sustainable development.

As the development awards begin, reviewers must carefully consider Okotai’s points about ‘bomerang aid’ and think more about a Participatory Action Development model. It is vital to the success of all projects, including the upcoming solar projects in the Northern Group that more donor-aid contracts stay in local hands using local consultants.

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