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Working with People in the South Pacific


This book was written during forlorn moments of my four months development work for the International Labour Organization in three island countries in the South Pacific: Vanuatu, Samoa and Papua New Guinea. This is neither a novel nor a technical report. It is a therapeutic recollection of notable events, unforgettable places, and wonderful people that I had the rare opportunity to work with in astounding yet poor countries in South Asia, the Caribbean region, Africa and now in several enthralling but still struggling island countries in the South Pacific.

My work is not yet finished, as development is a continuing process that evolves and re-shapes in every situation driven by the dynamics of social, economic and political events that are obtaining especially in every community of third world countries as they struggle within the sphere of the global economic village.

Most of the motivations of the materials that I mentioned in this book were on-the-bush experiences that I had in the course of working directly with people in dire need for development assistance in ordinary poverty situations and also in situations of post-conflict and post-disaster. They were also driven by the realities that I discovered in rural villages whose economic structures are well known in the development community but where solutions have always been dictated by the will and caprices of influential arm-chair technocrats and the rules and regulations made by traditional bureaucrats. This is one reason why solutions to poverty have never gone beyond piece meal and perfunctory social welfare programmes from aid and donor agencies – assistance that are based primarily on statistical analysis of the problem and/or situational assessment of the face and manifestation of poverty, seldom on the real causes – although these are well known to everybody.

The poverty that I discovered is both material and psychological from the eyes of the poor, but it can be solved if only we would do things “out of the box” – programme assistance that are compatible to their productive and management capacities, programmes that are anchored on their empowerment and program strategies that are compatible with the nature and characteristics of the informal and dual rural economy.

Contrary to prevailing academic theories of democratic capitalism the fruits of development do not trickle down to the rural communities. In the land of the poor, macro-economic policies simply do not apply. The re-distributive theories of the free market economy do not automatically work for the larger mass of people in the villages because of the absence of commercial scales of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services – and Capital.

Surplus production by the rural folks does not result into increased incomes and generation of savings. Whatever added value is generated from their agricultural activities, forest work, or seafaring ventures is being sucked by urban-based middlemen and moneylenders who make and keep the profit for themselves leaving the poor in the cycle of hard work and destitution.

In the rural areas, commercial private investment is non-existent as a result of very low consumer demand and spending capacity. Household needs are simple, meager, and most of the times are being satisfied only by customary friendly and family sharing and indigenous cooperative undertakings. Livelihood and mini enterprise activities are highly informal and seasonal. Capital is generated internally through traditional sources and social relations. Government purchase subsidies do not reach the rural communities.

Attempts to address this economic reality have not worked. The reason behind this is the “System” – the presence of a strong and closed structure of ownership of financial capital and market systems. This structure is fortified by government rules and regulations, and exacerbated by the absence of political will that could give more opportunities for the poor to participate and to compete. Development planners assumed that the poor must, and can live within such “System”. When it does not happen the poor are blamed for being poor in a society that guarantees “freedom” in the pursuit of one’s future – and so the poor are considered burden to society rather than as partners in national development.

So, until now economies of rural communities are merely subsistence – in fact most are even below the level of subsistence. Hence, as poverty becomes a part of everyday life the ultimate result is apathy, civic inertia that leads to belligerency and the feeling of hatred against society and the institutions that it represents. In extreme cases, the poor resorts to communal violence, revolutions, terrorism, with guns and bullets as their champions against the system!

The System that causes poverty is formidable. It encompasses various aspects of human activity; social, political, cultural and religious aside from skewed economic practices and principles. In view of this, it cannot be conquered in global and institutional battlefields. Conventional actors will have to accept the fact that they cannot do it using the old technocratic and bureaucratic tools. They should start giving up their messianic belief that they have the solutions to poverty and that they are clothe with the authority to dictate to the poor what should be done, and how should it be done.

This inherent defect of the modern economy cannot be solved by one-size-fits-all formula alone, which is what most development planners have been pushing all this years. Formal economy cannot just happen from a subsistence state. There must be a transition period – the conscious promotion of a transition economy including training and development tools for transition enterprises and community-based market systems. Rural development must not be focused only on agriculture development, which is the present case. It must be focused on “rural economic system and community development”.

My exposure to social and economic development taught me that poverty can be fought best in smaller communities with the use of indigenous and customary structures, simple systems and procedures. The battle against poverty should be waged by the poor themselves who should possess the ownership of the strategy and the weapons that they will use – capital and the support mechanisms that they have to learn, and with the help of people that are totally committed and trained on the practical applications of such tools and strategies. There can be no strong country with weak communities!

In my work, and while developing and implementing such kind of tools that I am talking about, I came to learn and apply a set of development principles that I call the 10+1 Philosophies in rural economic empowerment:

  1. Don’t plan for the poor, plan with them

  2. Don’t just give resources, teach how to make it grow

  3. Don’t just conduct skills training, train in entrepreneurship

  4. Don’t just organize, do it for economic development goal

  5. Don’t advice to secure loan always, capital is not only money

  6. Don’t force them to go big time at once, give transition periods

  7. Don’t provide assistance forever, let the poor accept that

  8. Don’t enforce your will on the poor, trust their intelligence

  9. Don’t impose your own standards, adapt to their needs

  10. Don’t engage in politics or religious debates, focus on the human being


Relative to these philosophies, some of the tools that I have developed on the ground tested and adapted in many countries and situations are the following:

  1. How to facilitate local economic and community-based development planning

  2. How to implement a community-owned and managed micro financing scheme

  3. How to facilitate target group-based employment and self-employment planning

  4. How to facilitate local development planning from an anchor firm or industry

  5. How to teach business management through transition enterprise approach

  6. How to prepare skills training outline and syllabus

  7. How to prepare training and project proposals

  8. How to conduct monitoring and evaluation of enterprise projects

  9. How to provide small business advisory services

  10. How to teach adult learners – ten training techniques

I guarantee that working for the poor in their communities is truly enriching and extremely pleasurable. I would like to thank all the wonderful people mentioned in this book, and all those who, for editorial purposes, I have painstakingly omitted but whose names will always be enshrined in my memory; to my family and friends in the social media, my project staff members who have inspired me in my work and in my life.

R. R. Baldemor

Chapter One

Vanuatu: Home to Earth’s Happiest People

I arrived in Vanuatu in the early morning of August 8, 2008. There was a drizzle but the weather was warm unlike in Sydney where there was a chill the whole day of my stop over from Manila. As the plane descended I tried to peep out of the window. I was seated at the aisle side so I could not clearly see the backdrop of the airport. The night was stark black except for a few lights that streaked past as the plane touched down. I am in another land in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. Uncertainty overcame me. I will be in these Southern Pacific islands for four months! I wished that I could be back in time for Christmas – God willing, as my Muslim brothers in Mindanao would prayerfully wish.

I was on a new mission for ILO – the UN agency which has been my regular client for 14 years running – there were only an aggregate period of about a couple of years that I did not have a project with them when I worked for projects funded by other clients; USAID, ADB, WB and other small consulting firms. Just one month of rest from a two and a half year project in Sri Lanka, and here I am again, in a back-breaking flight to a place that I have only known from an old musical movie – “South Pacific”. I was supposed to test and adapt the TREE Methodology, a community-based training approach that promotes “rural economic empowerment” - the REE in the acronym TREE. I developed the tools, utilized them in Mindanao for a post-conflict project for the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF, the rebel group that signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996. I have just finished applying also the strategies in Sri Lanka for the victims of the tsunami that struck a day after Christmas of 2004. The instruments were likewise used in Pakistan, India and partly in Indonesia, making it known as TREE within the ILO circle of technical assistance projects. This time the Youth Employment Project of ILO in the Pacific wants to test it as a youth employment strategy. My interest was tainted with personal aim - to test it as a community-oriented economic development strategy in small island economies – my perception of the systems obtaining among the independent islands of the Pacific.

Prior to this mission I was waiting for a call from another ILO project in Vietnam which was also seeking my services to test the same tools in that fast growing Southeast Asian economy. The contract with the Youth Employment Programme came earlier, however, so I fixed my prospects on the Pacific project.

Shaun Kennedy, the ILO National Project Coordinator in Vanuatu, met me at the airport. Few weeks before we had a whirl of emails on my accommodation, opening of my bank account where my daily subsistence allowance would be deposited, and also travel bookings, which were being passed through the ILO sub-regional office in Manila. As another new acquaintance I prepared myself to know more about Shaun’s own astonishing life story later on my two-month attachment to his office.

A Flat in Port Vila

Shaun fortunately arranged a flat for me to stay within the compound owned by the Philippine Consul in Vanuatu – Roger Fabros. We had also exchanged emails while I was still in Manila; how much will he charge me, how far his place from the center of the city, etc. He said the place is just 5 minutes walk by a 50-year old woman – I laughed at his inimitable standard of measurement! Right then and there I had a feeling of ease since I instantly knew that my future landlord was a man of the world, unusually not found in diplomats of his stature. I thought I will have a nice time in his company, which was proven correct in days following.

Roger’s island-type residence is a haven for Filipinos working in Vanuatu, and there were a number of them – more than 60 in a small country with 200,000 populations. It is virtually a community bar with flowing beers, wines and liquors open for pinoys who would visit the couple once and while for assistance or just to see DVD films in their large home theatre. It was difficult to leave the house without having drinks until your face is red – because Roger is a wise host, he would not allow himself to get drunk with his visitors. I had to experience receiving a plastic bag of ten big frozen tilapias that I could not consume for one week. In secret, I have to share with Shaun three of them because I could no longer eat other viand except tilapia.

The couple also operated a small Filipino restaurant downtown named Snackee where I used to eat the same tilapia and chicken cooked Filipino style. Alex, with his Ni-Van boys (short for Ni-Vanuatu, the name referring to the people of Vanuatu), run the eatery and would pride of their native customers eating with gusto their Filipino menu.

My old rubber-less wheeled luggage was still locked when I woke up in the morning – just 4 hours after my arrival. Only my backpack was opened where I took out my toothbrush and toothpaste to brush my teeth before I went to bed. The place was painted white all over, even the wooden three-foot fence that characterized the light security measures around houses in the west, was dyed white. The apartment was a single floor duplex unit. So I had a neighbor, whom I met later. He was a young guy from Uganda working as a volunteer with VSO, an international volunteer service agency engaged in development missions in Vanuatu. At the other side of the main residence was another flat occupied by another VSO volunteer whom I would know later as Edgar, also a Filipino who once worked with the PBSP in the Philippines. I was in the best of company, I thought with unexpected delight.

At the back of our flat, right side of the residence of the Consul was a small waterless swimming pool. Alex, a brother of Lucy, Mrs. Fabros actually, told me that it is used only during certain occasions, or when the children of the couple, who are all in Australia, come for vacation in Vanuatu. Only one of the four children lived with them, the eldest, Randy, the one who opened the gate when we arrived the night before. In front of my flat was a tall mango tree heavy with its young green fruits. The dogs, five of them on my count, one a six-month old German shepherd named Hurley and the rest of local breed but seemingly related to retrievers, were up in front of my gate, maybe trying to figure me out whether I was a stranger or will be one among their guarded tenants in the following days. The animals would later become my guests every morning as I stealthily feed them with bread or leftovers from my diner or breakfast – hidden from the eyes of Alex, or Roger, or Lucy, otherwise they would accuse me of treating the dogs like “askals”, a Filipino name attributed to stray dogs in the streets.

The place is 15 minutes walk to the central district of Vila – not 5 minutes as mischievously advertised by Roger to me. I timed my stroll one morning. But it can be reached also by bus – well minivan bus, for 100 Vatu (the currency in Vanuatu), however, you have to tell the driver your destination so that he can drive you there, like a door to door taxi service, otherwise you have to get out in front of the “Stad” which means stadium, the place where I have to start climbing a 30 degrees 100 meter road to get to the Flat. It’s a little bit tough but good for the legs and the heart. If I take a taxi, the fare would be 500 Vatu and I would inform the driver to take me to the Bahai Center or the Nakamal in front of the Bahai Centre. I never had a glimpse of that religious place, but the Nakamal, which is a place to drink kava, the most famous local drink in Vanuatu, had been a prominent place of reference for me.

Journey to Nostalgia

As I sat in the cushioned old sofa beside my bed I thought of my life – how it was, and where I have been spending it for the past one and a half decade since I resigned, I called it declared professional independence, from my previous government employment in Manila to venture into the unchartered waters of private consulting – without a name, without a firm, and with nothing and no one to vouch for me except my concealed but unwavering faith in my God, my perilous impudence, and my disappointments in government service and in its inept bureaucracy. Faith, audacity and disappointments could have been the three big driving forces that changed the course of my life, for what - I still have to discern. While looking around my single room abode I glanced at a low dresser with a broken leg (which I had to temporary fix later) and mirror standing beside my bed. It was inordinately low that I have to bow at least one foot in order to see my face; a four-door closet with keys hanging in each of the keyhole; a two-door refrigerator, a gas stove and a meter-tall multi-function cabinet with a faded blue table electric fan on top.

Aside from a bathroom hidden by a thick curtain, my place was bare of affluence and material comfort. I had neither television nor radio. I would have to depend on my old laptop and two cell phones for music and pictures and views which I had gathered incessantly through a number of SLR and point-and-shoot digital cameras that have, one at a time, occupied numerous backpacks, as I have this inexplicable and crazy addiction to all sorts of bags – my only claim to self-indulgence, or maybe my peculiar quest for a bag or backpack that has everything that I need, whatever it is, I could not explain. Sometimes I even thought that I should just design my own bag and have it made especially on my liking – everything; color, materials, pockets, strap, zippers, and everything, for I am never satisfied with the design, color, or shape of the ones that I buy. In fact, there are times when I would look with awe at exemplary luggage bags of other people, mostly young backpackers, and wonder whether I could buy it from them! This is weird, I reckon.

The mirror of the dresser pensively reflected memories of the appealing places that I affectionately referred to as my “transitory homes”; my small rented house in Davao City, Philippines where I contentedly stayed for more than three years while I was assigned for work in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao – eating and spending days together with my colleagues in the project who were also staying in an adjacent apartment; my hotel home-rooms in every country where my job had brought me; in Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Jamaica where I was assigned for one year to develop a programme that would teach destitute beneficiaries how to earn decent incomes and get out of food stamp programme that further debased their poverty.

I thought with gratefulness of those momentary shelters as they helped soothe my solitude and consoled me in my hours of depression by providing me a place to loosen up, and as I, in a rare experience, and while earning a living at that, would exploit the exceptional and extraordinary opportunities to watch nature bare its beauty and grandeur - some of which I might never see again; the wonderful sunset of Kanniyakumari punctuating the southernmost tip of the huge country of India; the eternal beauty of Lomboc and Bali beach, the serenity of Bandung, Malang, Surabaya and the fragileness of Jayapura city at the edge of Indonesia; of the rocky mountains of Pakistan as I went to visit Projects in the New West Frontier Province, and Mardan near the border provinces of Afghanistan. I recalled my hotel room in Ampara, my immediate past project assignment in Sri Lanka where I spent forlorn months for an intermittent period of more than two years helping the hapless victims of the 2004 tsunami that killed tens of thousands across Asian shores. I remembered how Prince, the owner of Monty’s place, surprised me with a treadmill that he ordered placed in the veranda of my private room – a gesture of entrepreneurial gratitude for my long patronage of his business. These people’s unparalleled kindness had made my long hotel sojourns like really home away from home.

And Nepal, how could I forget Nepal, my first foreign venture, and the unforgettable Hotel Gautam near the King’s palace whose roasted chicken had kept me alive for months and months of my mission, and from which room I built my “base” to occasionally scour the exotic country starting from the olden Hindu temples of Baktapur, Lalitpur and Kirtipur the three ancient cities that now form the city of Kathmandu, the venerated wooden palace of the girl-godess Kumari, the splendor of the golden, dark, and shifting snowy colors of the mountaintops of the Himalayas as I often watch the rooftop of the world through the tranquil hill resorts of Nagarkot during lonely weekends. I recalled with fright the burning tires and overturned vehicles in the streets of Kathmandu at the height of the Maoist revolution that toppled the Monarchy under the very nose of the United Nations (I now wonder what is the excuse and explanation of the UN that had almost all its agencies brought to Nepal to promote development, reduce poverty and avoid communist subversion in that destitute Hindu Kingdom).

I recalled the mysterious diminutive old woman whom we picked up from one of the small alleys of the quaint colorful shops of Thamel, the most famous tourist shopping center in Kathmandu, who cured me from my kidney stone ailment through her Christian prayers but who just disappeared form her cardboard shanty from where Sannu Kansa, my driver, had picked her up during one of my painful attacks – one of the unexplained mystifying event that I will never forget in my life. I crisscrossed the terrai districts of Nepulganj, Birganj, Janakpur down to Biratnagar nearing the boundaries with the mysterious kingdom of Bhutan organizing training for income-generation for wretched villagers, walked the serene grounds of Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, the villages of Annaphurna around the serene Lake Pockhara, and the cool hill villages of Dharan and Hille whose kind and adorable people, inspite of their hardships, would offer me their traditional drink and bowls of food whenever I come to visit their projects.

After deep moments of muted soliloquy, a cold feeling of anxiety struck me with desolate compulsion. Where, still in the world, would my destiny bring me? I referred to my terms of reference for the mission, I recalled it might bring me not only to Vanuatu but also to Papua New Guinea and either of the countries of Samoa, Solomon Islands or Kiribati – at least, and I thought with a sigh of consolation, they are some of the renowned islands of the South Pacific. My colleagues in ILO Manila even reminded me not to forget bringing a camera. Boy Dulce my town mate working with the USAID noted with impish jest that my upcoming assignments are slowly becoming increasingly interesting and exotic. I comforted myself at their amusing assumptions, but deep inside me was a craving for shorter times and nearer places that I can go for work – hopefully only in Mindanao.

I went out of my flat and saw, from its prominent location, a distant segment of Port Vila harbour where a few dozens of small and medium sized yachts and other forms of sea crafts floated underneath the morning mists between the mainland and a small islet which I would later know as the resort island of Iririki. My memory initially brought me back to Jamaica and its harbours at Montego and St Ann’s Bay with their marvelous yachts deliberately hidden by high concrete walls that secure great private villas and mansions of the rich and famous; of the fabulous cruise ships plying the routes of the infamous Haiti to the exhilarating shorelines of Trinidad and Tobago. And, as an avid movie fan, I remembered with childish demeanor Golden Eye, the name given to the mansion of Ian Flemings, the creator of my favorite movie series, British Agent OO7 or James Bond, in that magnificent beach resort of Montego bay.

First working days

My first days in Vanuatu were spent on one-on-one meetings with possible ILO project partners – to me I referred to them as advocates. My CTA, or the Chief Technical Adviser of the project, who happened to be a Filipina acquaintance during my earlier mission in Fiji several years back, met me in Port Vila. She went there to brief me and induct me into the project with Shaun. Earlier she was frantic about the details of my contract, in my case I was also frenzy about signing it immediately so that I will have an excuse not to accept the two-months job offer for that ILO project in Vietnam. The magic of South Pacific beckoned from the moment I received the job invitation more than my eagerness to go back to Vietnam where I had already experience working through a three-month consultancy job a few years back for a Netherlands-based firm called TOOL whose director I worked with in the former NMYC in Manila. The one-on-one encounters with government officials and NGOs provided me with initial information on their preparedness as well as needs as far as the planned adaptation of the TREE methodology is concerned. Their openness, for instance, were amazingly encouraging. Invited for the scheduled one day formal orientation meeting on the methodology, they readily accepted with unabashed gratitude. I felt relieved that my mission might be a success in Vanuatu.

The one-day workshop that followed was an introduction of the rationale, concepts, theories and principles behind the methodology. Through Shaun’s indefatigable effort of inviting people, the meeting was very well attended by about 40 participants from Vanuatu and some officials from the Secretariat of the Pacific Island Countries. My presentation, using my trademark powerpoint diagrams, was focused on arousing rage over the exploitative factors that cause “hardships” – a deviation from my usual term “poverty” upon the intimate advice of David Lambukly, the CEO of the Vanuatu National Training Council or VNTC, one of the local officials that I had associated with earlier and with whom I would have to develop another friendship in later days. That activity was to be followed by a five-day workshop on the tools and strategies of the methodology for representatives of concerned agencies and organizations from seven countries in the Pacific region including Tuvalo, the latest member country of the ILO.

So, a few days after the advocacy programme, I was facing another throng of partners and stakeholders eager to hear and discuss TREE for a good five days. But unlike the first group, majority of the participants in this workshop were coming from outside Vanuatu; Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands. Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, and Tuvalo – highly-placed people in government, policy makers, NGO workers, trainers, project implementers who are actually and deeply involved in customary island socio-economic development.

With a modest amount of conceit I would say that facing such crowd was no longer strange to me. In my long years of work for ILO this kind of audience had always graced my path. I have discussed my principles with government executives, policy makers and field workers; I have defended my theories and practices with academicians and university students, with idealists, progressives, activists as well as conservatives. I have presented the methodology with international experts and consultants and development managers; I have talked with poor farmers, fishermen, forest workers, from the lowest industry workers to their supervisors, I have faced legislators, members of parliaments, and I have even introduced a Philippine President in one of my project activities related to this methodology. Coupled with my modest familiarity of the TREE instruments that I principally researched and developed, the feeling of self-confidence had already been entrenched in my system. I did not only know the methodology, I have walked through it. I did not only design it, I built it. I did not only teach other people to use it, I used it myself.

But the apprehension that faced me was a new one - the duration of the workshop; five days! I have never done this before, single-handedly, without the help of a facilitator or the assistance of technical staff. My record is three days, and with some kind of help. Shaun was overloaded with the administrative and logistic matters concerning the workshop which he was forced to attend to – being a one-man project army without a clerk or administrative assistant. How can I generate and hold on the interest of these people for five long days? This was the thought that was bothering me days before the workshop.

The TREE Methodology

TREE stands for “Training for Economic Empowerment”. While it was referred to as a product of the ILO TREE Project for the MNLF in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, its roots came from my long years of fondness with rural vocational training that I had even before I joined ILO as a consultant. This was followed by my consulting jobs with the agency in such countries as Nepal and Jamaica. While working with the former National Manpower and Youth Council in the Philippines I was already beginning to extend my interest of training young people beyond the confines of the training center to small shops and villages. When I was assigned to the national headquarters in Manila as Executive Director of the Institute of Vocational Training and Development (IVTD) I pioneered community-based training and training in the informal sector which was not even the function of my office that was then involved in formal vocational training.

Such period has shaped my strong affection to community development work, one that would be developed into a training philosophy for people and community empowerment. That philosophy would metamorphose from four to seven to eight statements of advice as I reached the apex of my commitment during my work with the former rebels in Mindanao and the victims of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka.

I now call these statements of personal conviction as the 7+1 Philosophies of training for economic empowerment which I am bringing to the Pacific:

  1. Don’t plan for the people - teach and give them the tools needed to plan their own development

  2. Don’t just give resources – be sure that they need them, teach them how to maintain and sustain their utilization

  3. Don’t just conduct training - train on combined skills and enterprise development, provide start-up tools to implement their projects using their newly found skills and knowledge

  4. Don’t just organize - organize for the purpose of managing their community’s economic development affairs

  5. Don’t tell them to go to banks always for capital - train and provide them with a system on how to mobilize resources and how to manage their own micro-finance system

  6. Don’t force villagers to go big time - give them time to develop their individual and communal capacities and capabilities before giving them a choice to join or not join the formal sector

  7. Don’t provide assistance forever – give time frames and target objectives that everybody understands and can achieve

  8. Don’t just talk about these philosophies – provide the guidelines and teach people how to make them work

With local partner’s assistance, these philosophies have guided me in crafting the tools and instruments of the TREE methodology. Hence, they are specifically, and deliberately, designed to counter the existing and old strategies in rural economic training interventions for marginalized and disenfranchised target groups in their remote communities - people who are already weary of endless consultations, assessment, and planning without implementation; communities that have been treated as innocent laboratories of development policies. The methodology is focused on developing a transition economic stage by creating internal market system through training for income-generation, organizing and strengthening the customary cooperative undertakings among families, clans, ethnic groups and neighborhood that are obtaining in most rural villages of the world, developing a parallel mechanism to take care of the less fortunate who have been left behind by the global force of unhampered capitalism or free market and enterprise system.

The force that compelled me to document into manuals the tools and strategies that we used in project implementation was to provide answers to pestering questions and concerns on a full range of training and development issues for poverty reduction in rural areas such as; how to conduct planning for small community-based enterprise projects using faster and practical methods that the villagers will appreciate and utilize by themselves; how to promote the concept of profit-oriented rural enterprises as against the habitual subsistence livelihood activities in the villages taking into account the limited educational capacity of target groups but taking into consideration their tremendous indigenous skills and knowledge; the limited buying capacity and un-commercially viable consumers demand of villagers but taking into consideration the local economic resources that are available; the micro-financing needs of small enterprise projects that are not qualified for micro-finance programmes of banks but taking into consideration the indigenous systems of family and neighborhood support systems obtaining in cooperative and customary villages; and the improbability of occupational transformation of workers in the rural informal economy.

With the tools the project concepts and proposals from the villages were transformed into simple standard formats without the necessity of technical narration that the poor target groups cannot prepare because of their limited educational preparation - but with complete information for assessment and approval of donors and assistance providers so that release of financial assistance will be faster with lesser red tape and bureaucracy. Standard monitoring forms and guidelines were developed so that outputs and outcomes are measured in relation with the true goals and objectives of the projects and not to be diluted by many experts’ eternal “formula for all”. Information materials were prepared so that policy makers will be convinced that community-centered and people-oriented development is true, it is reality not just a theory, where effects are measured by everyone’s proposition of horizontal growth and where projects are sustainable not because of the interveners’ formula but because of the sense of ownership by their beneficiaries. Furthermore the instruments of the methodology were designed to help interpret and implement social and economic development policies of governments and donor agencies so that they can effectively and efficiently reach their target groups in their remote villages.

This effort would bring forth some 20 practical “how to” guidelines and strategies for conducting democratically rapid community assessments, creating transition enterprise projects, developing community enterprise system and operating community fund schemes – non-traditional concepts that I have to fight with great conviction and passion among conventional experts and other development specialists. I fact I would not be surprised if the methodology will be lost and eaten again by the old system that it has tried to change. These were the concepts, theories, principles and philosophies that I was supposed to discuss and promote in that five-day workshop in Vanuatu.

New friends and advocates

I won’t describe the activities that transpired during the five days workshop as it would be self-serving. First, I would not accept any shortcomings, and even if there were, and there were, definitely, I would justify them as any other consultant will do. But I would be remiss if I would forget some of the interesting personalities that graced the workshop. They were marvelous individuals whose brilliant responses to my discourses provided me with the motivation and strength to go on. In certain moments that my spirit was almost lost and down they would challenge my reservoir of theories and principles, concepts and strategies, tools and management models so that I can go back to my track and keep the discussions moving. Some of these remarkable personalities include Jefter from Save the Children in the Solomon Islands with his challenging insights on the development principles of the methodology, Sydney from Samoa with his timely and amusing anecdotes, David of the VNTC with his structured analysis of issues, Taua, the ILO National Officer of Papua New Guinea with his constant pledge to try the methodology in PNG, Peta of Samoa with her motherly comments when discussions were sounding off-beats, Erin from the Youth Challenge with her calibrated queries, another David of VAC in Santo Islands in Vanuatu with his insistence that the contribution to Co-Fund is the same as interest payment, Sushil of the CYP with his attempts to inject regional views on the tools. The other participants were not necessarily unremarkable but they, undoubtedly, ended up as champions of my advocacy; community-based and people-centered development.

The closing ceremonies was graced by the Commissioner of Labour who assured Peta that I shall return to Vanuatu and not be kept in asylum in Samoa once I got there, statements that, as a foreign consultant, had bestowed me with a strong feeling of appreciation for a five-days of intellectual skirmishes with a group of passionately committed people from the islands countries of the Pacific; 45 wonderful personalities in five days of intellectual intercourse – a rare chance of loaded experience in testing and improving the philosophies of TREE!

Port Vila

Port Vila, the cute capital of Vanuatu is a tourist city where the presence of multi-national tourists is the tourist attraction in itself. It is also a city of contrasts. On one hand are duty free shops that lined the less than a kilometer length of the main thoroughfare, on the other are Chinese stores that crowded a parallel street that made up the back of a city road network. Native dark-skinned Ni-Vans punctuates the city landscape together with white skinned tourists that pour everyday from ships of all sizes that docked at the port in their usual stopovers while cruising across the islands of the Pacific. Western cuisine competes with local food; air-conditioned restaurants operate side by side with open coffee shops. Supermarkets that sell imported goods contend with local markets that sell fresh vegetables and fruits of local varieties from village farmers of several islands in Vanuatu.

But the most puzzling scene is my unanticipated sight of charming yachts, sea crafts and ships that prettify and paint Port Vila Bay. Aside from my initial reference to the Caribbean, Vila’s small port could match sceneries of rich coves in Sydney, Brisbane, the harbours along lakeside cantons and cities from Italy to Switzerland, the open ports of Venice, of Paris, England and other parts of alluring Europe. I tried to reconcile such sights of progress and development with the visibly deprived and impoverished economic status of the Ni-Vans. This stark socio-economic contrast would haunt me in the succeeding weeks that I spent doing development work in this enchanting island.

Nambawan café, actually a local lingo for ‘number one”, an open joint located near the seawall of Port Vila bay, was to become my most favorite hangout. It was the most sought after place by people with laptops since it offered free internet service for customers. But a couple of weeks after my arrival they controlled the free access as they realized that some people were abusing their marketing strategy by staying for long hours, sometimes without even ordering food. But on my part I had a continuous free supply of passwords as I started to befriend the girl waitresses with the frequency of my meals and coffee and as we indulged in pleasant conversations about “Sa Piling Mo” and “Gulong ng Palad” and other Filipino TV movies that I have not heard of while I was in Manila but surprisingly very popular in the Pacific.

Beside Nambawan Café were the tourist stalls selling various kinds of gift items; wood carvings, necklaces, bracelets, native paintings, lava-lava (the skirt for men), shorts and other articles of ethnic arts and designs. Once I was lured into buying a choker and bracelet made of coconut shell – I have already paid them when I noticed in the tag that they were made in the Philippines! As I have already parted with my money I have to wear them with total amusement. Anyway, four oversized pieces of lava-lava, which I bought in the same store to liven my place with local colors and taste, served well as pleasant seat and bed covers for my room.

But one of the striking inconveniences for afternoon mall-touring people like me was the inexplicable business hours for shopping – well for me, window shopping only. Stores start closing at five, some even earlier in the afternoon, the time where people have just finished their office work and ready to toy around. In fact most of the shops also close their doors at lunchtime. Saturday afternoons and the whole day of Sundays the alleys are bare except for a few Chinese grocery stores and a laundry shop that also closes after the Sunday lunch. This setup makes Port Vila, and other urban centers in the Pacific, a frustrating place to explore at times when you want to enjoy it.

The rolling terrain of the city, however, is an excellent place to discover. As you wind around the charming streets that circle the interior of Port Vila you get the feeling of riding a tamed roller coaster smoothly combing the rails in between intermittent rows of colonial buildings, island style homes and open spaces punctuated by small shanties where local children and adults leisurely playing and happily chatting contributing to the happy and laid-off atmosphere of life in Vanuatu. Your encounters with the natives on the bus or taxi will be greeted with their warm greetings and smiles and would truly remind you that they are really one of the happiest peoples on earth – so reported in one global survey a few years ago.

There is no “poverty” in Vanuatu, maybe only “hardships” in developing skills and knowledge to explore their natural and indigenous resources and in accessing support to engage in economic opportunities, said my new friend David Lambukly.

A place not for Ni-Vans

My first impression of Iririki Island was a cute little sanctuary where I could go to unwind after the five-day workshop. I was intrigued by the enchanting image of the place that was within viewing distance from the seaport of Port Vila – but blocking the mysterious horizon beyond the bay. So on a sunny Saturday I decided to go. Somebody told me that, to go there, I should take a shuttle boat, for free, in a wharf near the port’s urban savannah. I did – but when I started to board the boat I was stopped by the guard who asked me for a ticket-voucher. It was no longer free, I learned. All persons going to the resort islet will have to pay 1,500 Vatu which would cover the ride to and fro and consumables if one eats at any of the three restaurants operating there. If I knew it before hand I would have second thoughts in crossing the bay – there are many other places to go in Vila that might not require a monetary insurance that I will spend for something while visiting. This is forced spending, I thought with a certain feeling of aversion.

But the sights from the small island were extremely fascinating – one can easily forget the 1,500 Vatu as consumption assurance fee. The Port had its different visage looking from the small island. The seawall and the plaza behind it looked like a modern port of entry in some western cities complete with commercial buildings as backdrops that appeared tall in the distance. The house of Parliament stood majestically on top of a hill, across the waters, and projected the happy and peaceful countenance of the Ni-Vans from that angled vision.

Strolling to the right of the main reception building of the resort island a visitor would be astonished by the marvelous cottages and huge multi-level apartment-type villas for moneyed people complete with a Mediterranean type of restaurant and elevated swimming pool. This is one of the three places that I could use my food voucher – I thought, only to be discouraged by the prices of the menu posted on the entrance of the bistro. They were so costly that my voucher would not be enough – I have to shell out double the money that I paid, a thought that revived my earlier mood of disgust.

A tall lanky resort worker approached me offering to take my picture using my compact camera. I obliged on his insistence thinking that it was a free service for visitors. It was, until the poor guy whispered to me to please give him 100 Vatu because he did not have any money to pay the bus on his way home that afternoon. Blast the 200 USD room per night resort – they did not even have free shuttle bus for their employees! In gratitude for 200 Vatu that I gladly gave the resort worker guided me at the back of the island where I saw a couple more of amazing islands beyond the western horizon – adding new enthralling images in my mind about the renowned magnificence of the South Pacific seas.

Circling the little island of expensive accommodations I saw more charming sea crafts and yachts of various displacements and designs. They were hidden from view at the port of Vila – perhaps because of lack of anchor areas, or perhaps there were really paid or privately owned yachting marina. But they were incredible ships which I have only seen in American movies about high sailing romance and adventure. Less than 30 minutes walk is required to circle the small isle. And at the close of my circum-walking I ended up in a lesser costing restaurant overlooking a small man-made beach of white sand where four white ladies were having their swimming and sun-bathing. A small yellow seaplane was parked nearby – perhaps waiting for the ladies or maybe for some other reasons. As I took one of the tables in the open restaurant I made it a point to chose and order the food that would not require additional payment for me – even if I did not like it. It was a sort of revenge to my growing abhorrence of the place. It was filthy rich, a place in Vanuatu where ordinary Ni-Vans are no longer qualified or cannot afford to visit.

Even with the exhilarating view of Port Vila in the opposite side of the resort island, and the occasional glance towards the swimming ladies in their skimpy bikinis, the feeling of revulsion continued to devour me. Maybe it was because of my pro-poor development orientation, or maybe because of my anti-rich background. It only stopped when I heard the man seating adjacent to my table giving me his morning greetings, for which I responded rather automatically. His salutation was a cold puff of air that tempered my heightening antipathy. He introduced himself as Wolfe, a German who owned and operated a modest yacht that he rents out to tourists on cruise in the Pacific. He said he wanted to talk to somebody for he had been alone in his boat for two days without anybody to talk to because his passengers were all in the mainland for their sightseeing tour. That was a nice introduction. We talked about Vanuatu, the pacific, the Caribbean, the Philippines, his business and yes – about Iririki. I was relieved that I was not alone on my aversion about the small resort island. We separated with a common scrutiny of its possible future, because Iririki already looked like a foreign city within a native city in Vanuatu!

Quo Vadis Vanuatu

Vanuatu, a Y-shaped archipelago of more than 80 islands and islets in the Southwestern Pacific Ocean is home to more than 208,000 people, mostly ethnic Melanesians, reputedly the happiest people on earth. Formerly called the New Hebrides, Vanuatu was a former British and French condominium which explains the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the islanders in the midst of “hardships” and ethnic diversity. English and French are still widely spoken. The native lingua franca, Bislama, a form of Pidgin English, has absorbed a mixture of both European languages much like Creole of North America and the Caribbean islands. In the afternoons when I would bought my food supplies of Thai rice, beef, chicken legs, cabbages, and onions and garlic and fruits from Centrepoint, my favorite supermarket because of its proximity to Shaun’s office, I would often hear the counter lady talking to fair-skinned customers in French with excellent fluidity. In the streets the islanders speaks English like their own language with a native accent and twang as they greet you with their usual morning or afternoon halo.

My revolutionary mind-set mind was not kept silent for long as I passed daily by the real estate company below Shaun’s office. Pictures of real estate properties and prime lands are advertised for rent or for sale with regularity. Because of their prices only foreigners could afford to rent or buy. I could not stop thinking with dismay, based on my experience, the possible future of Vanuatu and her happy people. I watched this up close and personal in Jamaica in my one year of stay in that place of similar black communities.

I wanted to tell my new Ni-Van friends about the negative and destructive effects of wanton and willful sale of lands to foreigners – of the disastrous impact on the future of the country by the treacherous disposition of national patrimony, not only in the Efate Island, where Port Vila was, but also in other islands of the country, as I would observe also later, to start happening in the most beautiful landscapes in Luganville in the other island of Espiritu Santo. The income to the national treasury through sales tax is nothing compared to the profit being earned by private real estate developers, brokers or speculators that make more money at the expense of the future of the country. In Jamaica, the best farming lands, residential and coastline areas in the side of the island facing Cuba no longer belonged to Jamaicans. They are owned and titled by foreigners, multi-millionaire Americans, Canadians and Europeans who built huge villas and palace resorts along the stunning seashores of Montego Bay, St Anne Bay, Runaway Bay and Ocho Rios. Such enclaves are secluded from the public through high concrete and guarded walls virtually prohibiting locals from enjoying and even viewing the most beautiful sights of their own country.

This affluence didn’t trickle down to the natives who remained poor and became poorer looking at their wretched selves as they compare it with increasing envy of foreigners enjoying good lives in their own land. The famous Jamaican, Bob Marley, in his original reggae music, had articulated these national sentiments in the lyrics of his immortal songs. They were later manifested by the pronounced hatred and displeasure of the local people on their unfortunate destiny shown through very high crime rates in the country committed against foreigners. One can feel this horror even in the streets of Kingston and other urban and sub-urban centers where stores protect their interiors with iron bars and where a few remaining kind taxi drivers would advise their passengers to close their side windows especially at red lights intersections to avoid youngsters from snatching their belongings while selling anything from newspapers, to candies, to chewing gums.

Could this happen to Vanuatu in the near future? I thought with terrifying recollections of those repulsive sights in that otherwise beautiful country that is still being propped up by the western media as a haven of contentment, pleasure, and kind people – a product of democratic capitalism for moneyed tourists to explore and enjoy.

The presence of duty free shops and Chinese imported goods that characterize trading in the country does not auger well for a country whose exports of copra, kava, and other traditional crops are not enough to maintain a balance of payment with foreign creditors. Incomes from indigenous products and crafts, whose sale to foreign tourists is made difficult by strict quarantine controls in entry ports such as Australia, do not bring prosperity to a tourism industry whose parsimonious clients come and go with very little spending – only enjoying the sights and fresh sea breeze of the gorgeous islands.

The current manifestations of this economic malady is a growing unemployment among young people, parents aspiring to work for seasonal plantations abroad while islanders with popularly known savings from the sale of kava and other agricultural products chose to keep their money at home and do not invest them for more productive and job-creating undertakings.


The village of Ohlen lies east of Vila. It is reputed to be a growing sub-urban settlement where unemployment is a rising problem. It was the place selected for the pilot testing of the TREE methodology by our NGO partners during the five-day workshop. It was a sunny afternoon when we arrived through an L-300 yellow and red van – used as passenger buses in Vila. There were 8 of us, 6 from the NGOs, me and Shaun. The road was unpaved, with occasional rain-made canal crossing them so the driver would zigzagged the van to avoid being stuck up on deep holes and water ways. Along the way were small shanties, old rusting vehicles, clothesline with worn out clothing hanging to dry, children playing but would run towards the road to see who was passing by and then waving their tiny hands to greet us with innocent smiles; electric posts and concrete pallets where electric meters were positioned for easy reading, and tables where fresh fruits were displayed for sale. John Salong, the managing director of the micro-credit organization VANWOODS, explained that in the evening those tables are used to sell kava for weary men who drive buses and taxis and others who find odd and temporary jobs in the city. He was quite familiar with the place as they have some Mommas who were their clients in the village. In fact, VANWOODS, through the personal initiative of John Salong, was constructing a small multi-purpose center in the village which was to be our meeting place in the days that followed.

Two young guys, who happened to be in one of the junctions, were approached by John. They talked and the guys looked suspicious and hesitant to respond to Joe’s persuasive tones – as we could only see it in their faces from inside the van. Later I would learn that most of the young people there are out of school, jobless, and suspected – with apparent evidence, that they were on drugs and/or marijuana. The physical appearances of the two guys would easily convince anybody that it was true.

Viviane, from Habitat, was the most active among the ladies. Lena who was heavy with a child could just agree with Viviane’s insistent that we all get out of the van and join John in the unanimated conversation. John was negotiating, with doubtful enthusiasm, for a possible gathering with the youth group for a meeting for the ILO project. With his familiarity of the place, he was making a success, I supposed, because when we joined the talks he asked me and Shaun if it was OK for us to meet the youth group on the 2nd day following that visit. I agreed, also with Shaun, with a feeling of excitement – at least we were getting somewhere. As we departed I took a second look at the two fellows; they were well-built, strong, maybe not yet 20, with cheerless looks in their faces and their eyes poignant, full of emptiness and uncertainty. While they walked on the opposite direction of our van I watched their footsteps without direction as if bringing then to nowhere and to nonexistence.

We decided to go back together for the meeting. I would have to demonstrate to the group the strategy for generating enterprise project ideas and how to prioritize those ideas using simple and practical tools that they can use in their community work. This is the tool that we were adapting for the youth employment project – and I was hoping that the planning technique would work with the Ohlen youth.

We met at the appointed day and time in front of the VANWOODS office in downtown Vila. John could not come as he had to attend to some office matters. Lena of Wan Smol Bag also failed to be with us because of earlier appointments (good for her because she was having a hard time climbing up and down the van with her pregnancy). But Janet and Edna came to represent VANWOODS. Viviane came, so with Wendy and BJ, the director of Vanuatu Rural Development Training Centers Association. A newly elected member of parliament, Ralph Regenvaneu, who was a former NGO worker, came with us and, naturally, a TV crew that was still hot on the heels of the highest vote getter in the immediate past elections followed with their news team and equipment. Their presence would have helped us in the hours that followed.

When we arrived at the meeting place, the unfinished multi-purpose center of VANWOODS was bare. Nobody was around; the place was unprepared, dirty and disorganized as if our coming was never expected. Did the two guys take our agreement seriously? Or did they forget about the meeting? Anyway, Viviane and Wendy started to search for people around while the rest of us begun arranging some light lumber materials inside to serve as benches. We cleared the area of obstacles and seek out for places where we could position our worksheets on the corrugated sheet metal wall.

It was not after about 20 minutes when people started to gather, children, who are always interested in everything, were the ones who entered the place ahead of the others. While the elders came casually, the younger ones came surreptitiously, some came from the back of the building, a few entered stealthily as if afraid of something, the ladies came not without a company. Everybody was indifferent. As if they came just because they were forced to do so – failure to respond would mean punishments from the local secret police. Once they were inside, the youngsters sneakily positioned themselves along the far corners of the room; it was the elders who were kind enough to provide doubtful exuberance about what would happen. The atmosphere was neither a challenge nor an encouragement for development work. It was disheartening to say the least.

It could have been the presence of the TV crew, or of MP Regenvaneu that helped us gather enough village people. And it could have been my strategy to mention the Filipino movies that helped us maintain their attention to carry out our mission – to conduct community planning that could help in the creation of self-employment opportunities for the youth through viable enterprise projects that they would identify and propose. Upon the edging of the elders some of the few women youth sat over a mat placed in front of us.

Surprisingly for all of us representing the ILO project, the process was able to identify 20 project ideas from the coldness of the participants. Furthermore, our bewilderment would be enhanced as the youth asked for a 15 minutes caucus before they came up with three prioritized project ideas – all and all within only a span of two hours! Maybe the tool was really effective. Maybe we were just lucky to force doubtful interest from the youth. Or maybe because of the presence of the TV crew and MP Ralph who might be known to them personally as their new representative to the Parliament. So, as part of the planning technique, we scheduled a follow-up meeting to validate their project concepts. It was a chance for them to discuss further their proposal as they would meet with other youth members and apply the discussion techniques that they learned about the factors of enterprise creation and how to conduct an initial test for their viability. They have, we were told, a youth organization whom they called Progressive Youth of Ohlen – but might not have a reason to be active.

A moment of victory

September 11 was a date of blissful feat for all of us! It was a different 9/11 event that shocked the western world but a moment of awe as we witnessed a kind of social transformation among the youth of Ohlen. We went back to the village prepared to tell the young proponents that we have decided to provide technical and financial assistance and to facilitate their preparation of the standard TREE project proposal, if there were no changes on their project ideas.

We arrived at the village a little late than the appointed time of 2:00PM. We were excited but not too much. We were still shocked with the experience that we had in the past meeting, and we were ready for another scene of apathy, coldness and indifference. When we approached the usual meeting place we thought that the village was having a special occasion, or a big government official was coming; for as we got near the center we saw a different building with clean surroundings, doors and windows with decors of green banana leaves and fresh flowers, everybody was busy moving around in extraordinary festive mood. I asked Viviane whether it was confirmed that we will have our follow-up meeting that day – since we never re-confirmed it having no means to call or send SMS messages. She said yes, also with reservations in her voice. We were already parked in front of the building but had no reason to get out – maybe we were wrong in our date recollection, maybe we agreed at different place for the meeting, or maybe they will suggest that we postpone the meeting because they were busy with a special occasion that they forget to tell us during the previous encounter.

But they urged us inside; and to our unguarded bewilderment we saw that the interior of the building was immaculately clean and surprisingly very orderly. It was even more beautifully decorated with additional green leaves and more flowers, benches were carefully arranged, food and drinks and fresh fruits were prepared on a table and welcome garlands of flowers were placed around our necks by ecstatic youths double the number than what attended in the previous gathering. All of us were rendered speechless and dumbfounded. A local paper journalist who was incidentally present for some other purpose started to gather the information of the unexpected unfolding event – a feature, complete with colored pictures of the youths, that was to appear on the Newspapers the following day.

As we delightedly proceeded with the interesting meeting that followed, we thought that we had our hour of triumph. One initial proposal was recalled and changed based on their assessment using the simple planning tool that we introduced. The proposals were prepared and the Village Chief endorsed them happily without question. We were, definitely, on with the first pilot projects in Vanuatu – but more than that, we have witnessed a miracle, a social transformation that would drive us more together towards an unrelenting pursuit. The following weeks were busy but exciting days for Shaun and our NGO partners.


In the days following that moment of triumph Shaun and I decided to go to Espiritu Santo, another island in the north, to select another pilot community for the project. As Shaun was still neck-deep in his non-technical concerns I decided to go alone. It was another chance for educational adventure, I presumed. Santo, together with Tanna, Pentecost and of course Efate, composes the most interesting islands of Vanuatu. Tanna with its live volcano craters, Pentecost with its native high platform jumping spectacle to commemorate good harvest seasons which is reputedly the origin of the present bungee jumping sport, and Santo’s World War II American relics buried only a few meters deep in the ocean floor to become one of the most spectacular diving sites for snorkeling and diving enthusiasts in the Pacific islands. The less than an hour flight from Vila was an enchanting experience. Although flights over small islands are the same and no longer new to me yet the thought that I was flying over the enthralling South Pacific Ocean was already enough to satisfy my ego – although it didn’t calm my nerves.

Roger Napuat, a handsome gentleman who could be easily an action star in movies in Manila, is really an action man. His enthusiasm in his job is simply contaminating, to say the least. He is the Chief Executive Officer of the Vanuatu Agriculture College in Luganville, the urban center of the island of Espiritu Santo. He was also one of the participants of the one-day orientation meeting in Vila and so promised to meet me at the airport if I come. But unfortunately our plane arrived earlier and there was a little drizzle, so maybe he was late, or because he is a very busy man, and it was raining, I thought that he had no time to fetch me. There was no way to call him by phone since the signal was out. So, sensing that nobody was around to meet me, I boarded a taxi and asked the driver to bring me to a nice beach house where I could stay. The driver, in his middle age and cheerful disposition obliged and while on the way tried to convince me of the beauty of Santo, the SS President Coolidge sunken by friendly mines during the second world war, old military airport, the Chinese traders, and other tales that I could no longer remember since it was becoming dark and my mind was on Roger, how we can contact each other without a pone signal.

Beach House happened to be a name of a high end resort at the edge of Luganville, the town center. The taxi driver took my word literally. He might have considered me as somebody who frequents the place when I told him to take me to a beach house, so he took me right there. The place was nice – with self-appointed and well equipped cottages. I could cook, I could have a hot shower, I could take my meals and coffee inside or at the veranda, and I could enjoy a life of pleasure if only it was not too expensive. 6,500 Vatu for a night was a fortune for me – hence, after taking out my laptop and bag of toiletries from my backpack I immediately planned of looking for a modest place in the morning. Maybe Roger would find means to locate me the following day – that was what I was sure of.

As the head of the new Agriculture College Roger is a very popular man in Luganville. He came early the following morning while I was having my breakfast – with his signature shrilling but roaring voice he was mad at the hotel desk why they were not answering his call the night before to inquire if I did come to the resort. It was then that I knew that he went to the airport but the plane arrived earlier than expected – but that he personally searched all the hotels and motels in Luganville except Beach House which was out of the center but which he repeatedly called for information but did not respond. After my breakfast, Roger took me to a smaller hotel in town called Unity. I took a room upstairs for half the price of Beach House, with a beautiful view of the plaza, the road and the harbour, and near places to eat, visit shops, and walk around to explore the place and do environmental scanning and arrive at project decisions.

That mission was not the first and last time that I had to visit Santo. I had to go back with Shaun since after that short exploratory visit I decided to recommend a remote village in the island as a pilot area for testing the TREE Methodology. The name of the village was Hog Harbour. But during that first stay when I went with Roger and his wife Ketty, who was also the head of the University of South Pacific in Santo, and when they first mentioned to me the name “Hog Harbour” in their own way of elocution, I instantly associated the word to its ethnic background, and I thought they said “Okaba”. So that native sounding work stuck in my mind until Shaun and me returned.

Hog Harbour, or Okaba to me, is a peaceful village of 16 family clans 50 kilometers north of Luganville. The village center lies in a wide plain plaza where a nakamal (now a village meeting place not just a place to drink kava) is located together with an elevated platform or stage where community affairs are celebrated with speeches and prayers from village leaders and visitors.

The village is straddled along the coastline of two enthralling famous resorts; Lonnoc and Champaign Beach. Lonnoc was studied with small tourist “bungalows”, but Champaign beach, hidden by trees at the far end of Lonnoc resort, was a mysterious place of magnificence and serenity. It had immaculate white and powdery sands that fly out of your fingers as you scoop them up for a fascinating curiosity. But with all its grandeur and natural beauty, Champaign beach has no place to stay or sleep. The beach is secluded in a cove of constantly blue water and unruffled ocean waves made safer by two identically shaped islands a couple of nautical miles out to the sea that blocks strong waves or possible sea storms from the Pacific.

Champaign beach, once and a while, is visited by cruise ships of tourists – so we were told by Wendy, the manager of Lonnoc. Some of them are huge that easily dwarfs the many small canoes that the natives use to meet them and to sell their native wares, foods, fruits, and various kinds of souvenir items - one of the major sources of incomes of the Okabans. Then the tourists would sail towards the shores of Champaign beach through small lifeboats like modern conquistadors not to conquer but to worship the warmth and softness of the white powdery sands.

Hog Harbour and Champaign Beach had their own share of history, but we did not learn about it during those two visits as neither the young nor the old, and even Roger, would expound on it like a guarded or sentimental date of a Nation’s diary. Anyway, we would repeatedly visit Hog Harbour in the following months as pilot projects would be implemented adapting tools of the TREE Methodology.

Hog Harbour Pork

We spent our night in Lonnoc having no other place to stay or camp during our two days mission. That second mission to Hog Harbour was, as usual, to facilitate community planning with the villagers. Before we spent the night we met with Austin, the leader of the youth group in the village. Austin was a tall amiable young hunk of a Ni-Van. We had an informal talk with him to mobilize his members for the following day’s meeting. A day before that, we coordinated with VAC and, being also extremely interested to conduct their extension programme in the village, they promised to come and be with us during that community planning meeting.

And so it happened that the following day we were exposed to another surprising event. When we arrived in the nakamal we almost thought that the whole village was there to attend, instead of only the youth. It was a complete contrast with our first meeting experience in Ohlen. More than 70 people were slowly gathering on the grounds and waiting for us to enter the nakamal. When I started to facilitate the meeting, at the same time demonstrating the tools and technique that we were teaching to the VAC staff that came earlier, the atmosphere was that of people excited to accept external intervention. In fact they were actively open, watching and learning what we were trying to do. Using the same guide material that we used in Ohlen the villagers, with youths, parents and some Chiefs of family clans, were also able to identify more than 20 enterprise project ideas and came up with three priority ones. Together with sewing of garments and nursery projects hog raising for meat processing was on top of the priorities of the youth in Hog Harbour. Was there any connection between the name of the place and the choice of pigs as a project? Was the place, in one moment of time, known to be a hog raising area that is why it was called Hog Harbour?

The result of the meeting was to be discussed by us, together with VAC officials and their partners in Luganville the following day. Then we would have to return to Hog Harbour to relay our decisions, and/or to ascertain whether they did not change their minds on their proposals. It was then a start of progressive steps towards the preparation of the project proposals, getting the funds to the ground and implementing the projects. Shaun was to work with VAC on the days that followed.


“Am I calling you at a bad time?” This is the most endearing phrase that I cannot forget about Shaun Kennedy. In every person’s life there are friends and there are acquaintances. Even as I pursue my job in foreign lands I cannot also forget close friends, boyhood friends, and people with whom, and like any other person, I have also shared some of my most intimate and personal secrets. There is the first round of gang-mates from my elementary school days, my buddies during high school, fraternity brothers in college, classmates in post-graduate course, colleagues in my previous office and associates in the various development projects that I handled; Gil, Lino, Jim, Tony M, Tony P, Bannie, Ano’, Emil, Ernie, Shulan, Nick, Boy, Obet, Bisan, Raul, Bal, Orly, Suk, Kali, Camar, Ishiak, Siva, Krouson, and many other fellows who decorated the summers and springs of my life – and now comes Shaun.

When we first met at the airport in Port Vila on that dark and rainy night I had already thought of a man who will get out of his way to perform a promise – for he had promised me in our exchange of emails earlier that he would meet me upon my arrival, even if I am not really an ILO official. But I would not have known the man until we were together in Luganville on our joint mission. Our openness would start immediately upon our arrival at the Unity Hotel. We bought fresh papayas and bananas as if we had not seen such fruits for years. Immediately after consuming the fruits we hunted again for a place to have our dinner and, finding a wonderful restaurant a few meters away from our hotel, we ate our respective choices as if we had not eaten for weeks. We laugh at our sudden gluttony brought about by the relatively cheap price of the foods than those in Port Vila. At the time when the world was politically agog with food crises, we were witnesses to the fact that there was no food crisis in Vanuatu!

Shaun, an Irish, was incidentally married to a Filipina, in fact a fellow Bicolano from Iriga City, Camarines Sur in central Philippines. When he first told me this fact in one of his emails I thought what a happy and incredible coincidence. Later I would know that he had been to Bicol, our home region with his wife Welma, several times because their lively and lovely daughter Keira was born there. Shaun met his wife while both of them were working in Africa where Welma was an HIV specialist and he working in a micro-credit programme in Tanzania. But that is not what amazed me. It was his own life story that I could not helped but earnestly relate with – for his was more colorful compared with mine.

While having a breakfast of steak – for me, and omelet – for him, in one of the small eateries of Mommas adjacent to the town market that we discovered the morning after that hearty dinner, Shaun, maybe driven by bewilderment of our newly found cheap but bountiful food havens, (for the whole week we would alternately take our meals in that restaurant and these eateries) or maybe after hearing my job-related ventures, also shared a little chapter of his life.

Chapter one was about his former job in a bank in his hometown where, after being exposed for a couple of years to a boring daily routine of paper works he decided to take a break to see the world and to look for more meanings in his young life. He spent all of his modest savings to buy world tour ticket that would bring him to places that some of his office-mates would never, maybe, reach. He did, and after a year of traveling – he returned to his job hoping that he had gained new strength to continue.

Chapter two was about his second and final exit from his job following a repeated experience when some of his clients in the bank would not be able to benefit from financial services just because of policies that run counter to his personal belief of service to people. Tired of these repulsive experiences he finally decided to leave his job and the comfort of his bachelor’s apartment and went backpacking; doing odd jobs in many countries including Israel, Australia, Asia and Africa – where he was to met Welma and with whom he finally was brought by fate to Vanuatu. The details of his story was a poignant drama that people who have experienced, or have dream of traveling alone and surviving life’s challenges as they unfold, can truly appreciate. I did, but my experience paled in comparison with his – my travels had something to do with pre-determined jobs while his was a real human experience.

A poster that Siva, my colleague in my project in Sri Lanka, brought from Singapore never left my memory – “In this world there are no strangers, only friends that are yet to be met.” My friendship with Shaun would be cemented further especially when we would fight together for project related issues and winning some. Our battle in Vanuatu is not yet finished. We, I and a newly found buddy, Shaun, promised to finish and win it.

A bout with Diarrhea

Perhaps there is no other time in the life of a traveler that he feels destitute and suicidal than when he gets sick, alone, in a foreign land. It is a period of inexplicable tears and recollections of life, your youth, the mistakes that you have made and the little triumphs that you thought you have won. In the middle of September I was downed with diarrhea.

For two days and two nights I battled with the must unpleasant ailment ever experienced by man. I lost weight swiftly and grew unparalleled weakness that I never expected. I had consumed the whole supply of medicine that Fat had packed for me on this mission. I felt that I already saw a picture of myself in the mirror ten years from now – and my ailment went worse with it. During the second night of my attack I wanted to call Roger for help but I was consumed with shame and trepidation that I might be causing problem to my landlord. Shaun called to offer to bring me to the hospital, but my usual stubbornness prevailed – I am not to be a weakling to resort to hospitalization every time that I have an ailment. For in my age I can only recall two times when I was really hospitalized; when I developed floreci – had water in my lungs, so the doctors said, and when I underwent laparoscopy to remove my gall bladder due to gallstone. Other than that I always refused to be remanded to a hospital relying only on my faith on mind over matter and the kind care of Divine Providence which I always mischievously implore as a fitting reward for a good boy who is presumably doing good things for other people and His creatures.

But this time I was growing incredibly desperate as I started to vomit and developed chills. Edgar, my Filipino neighbor became an angel in my distress. I called him on his phone and asked whether he had medicines for diarrhea since mine was already consumed – for which he came immediately bringing a pack of Lomotil tablets. I, perhaps psychologically, gained some strength knowing that a friend, in person, was there close to help. After I took two tablets I felt the immediate effect. When I took a cup of tea my system accepted it without repulsion. It was then that I started to feel better. The following day, Shaun insisted to bring me to a clinic where he knew the doctor. The diagnosis was reassuring – thanks God, I was on my way to recovery. I must eat fresh fruits and take a rest.

My ailment would affect Edgar – he who had a strong stomach for kava that he would usually tempt me to drink in the nakamal near our place. A couple of days after my attack I also have to play the nurse to Edgar as I shared with him a new pack of Lomotil and a box of instant tea that I bought from the drugstore immediately after I started to regain my strength. How fulfilling it was to rescue a friend, perhaps the same feeling that Edgar and Shaun had when they helped me during my illness. Later we would know that our ailment was common during those periods because of a certain virus that hit Vila. But for me, I promised not to drink kava anymore, and I heard Edgar saying, tentatively, that he will not do so also - at least for the time being.

Battle with bureaucracy

The battle that Shaun and I wanted to finish and to win was regarding the pilot TREE projects that we started in Ohlen and the one that we planned for Hog Harbour. With committed allies from the NGO friends, VAC, and driven by the enthusiasm of the youth and the villagers, we thought that we should not fail. And so it was that Shaun started to work on the system while I was preparing to leave for Samoa for the second leg of my mission.

The challenge about his task is daunting. Implementing training projects through a methodology is easy, it is the accessing of fund to finance the projects that normally makes it difficult - for ILO is still a bureaucratic agency with its centralized financial management system that usually hinder prompt delivery of services to target beneficiaries in remote areas. I had experienced this several times as a national project coordinator and as a CTA. I have to spend my own money to finance critical expenses so that the project will move and so that ILO will not lost its face and credibility with its partners and suppliers. In Mindanao, during the second phase of my project for the MNLF, I have to tell my programme officer in Geneva that never will I spend again my own money to help finance project implementation unless we change the name of the project and add my name in it as a co-sponsor.

This is how rigid the agency is – inspite of its avowed mission of social justice and equity, a personal frustration that I have to endure during my long years of association with the UN Agency. I always hoped, with deep prayers, that Management 101 principles that I learned in college about responsibility being coupled with corresponding authority will be adapted by ILO. It has not been working in reality!

More upsetting episodes in the mobilization of people and ILO resources had to follow to the consternation of Shaun and our partners. It was never like implementing a development project but more of operating an extension office of the agency’s bureaucracy. I wouldn’t be surprised also when evaluation time comes and when “experts” will be dictating their own formula and concepts of the traditional pattern of growth-oriented projects that has already caused the devastating collapse of the free enterprise economy.

These self-appointed training, entrepreneurship and micro-finance messiahs continue to pursue, with forced habit, their own colonial concepts of development in their ambition to protect the comfort and tenure of their employment; that is forcing the poor to mass produce cheap goods and compete with industrial products – which they cannot do; to access formal credit services of banking institutions – which they are not qualified; to become expert entrepreneurs overnight – for which they are not prepared; and forget the meaning of empowering the poor to dictate their own pace of development in accordance with their capacities, culture, and socio-economic status.

To these experts the philosophy of community empowerment is when the poor follows their standard formula. But deep inside these people they know what the problem is but would not like to work on the answers, otherwise they thought they might become irrelevant – so somebody must do it if they like to, but not them who wish to sustain their jobs rather than sustain the results of their interventions. In my first book “Developmental Warfare” I expounded about the invisible system of a virtual establishment that dictates what course of actions to take, who would do it, and how should it be done in organizations, including some UN agencies, that destroys the dedication, commitment, and competence of their workers.

But of course, there are peripheral battles that committed development warriors come to conquer on their own efforts which gave them the strength to continue with non-conformist methods of interventions. Sometimes these are unintended outputs and outcomes that are produced because of luck and sheer nosiness.

In the case of Vanuatu, we were able to work on an extra task – to provide an answer, which, however, is not yet proven and implemented, to the Labour Commissioner’s passion to help ensure a better life for workers going to New Zealand under the Recognized Seasonal Employer scheme, or RSE. We adapted the Transition Enterprise Project or TEP component of the TREE methodology as an Enterprise Re-Entry Plan or EREP for Ni-Van workers in which they would be provided with a pre-departure seminar on how to identify and plan an enterprise project while they are abroad so that their savings, or so that they would save, for income-generating projects when they return home to Vanuatu. This extra accomplishment would provide a fresh air to an otherwise gloomy work atmosphere for Shaun and me. We promised to look for more small related battles to conquer.

Leaving Vanuatu

To leave Vanuatu is to remember, with vivid memories, a life experience. It was a consolation that I would still return to the Island after a lapse of six weeks in Samoa and Papua New Guinea. So while packing my old suitcase and backpack, I would stop temporarily to glance to the mirror of my dresser and see, once more, images of Vanuatu, places, people, events, plans, and statements attributed to wonderful people with whom I already developed fondness – even if they do not know it yet. Terry and Sylvie and the rest of the staff of the employment section of the Labour Ministry, Julius, my Ugandan neighbor and the other VSO guys who would come together with Edgar to kava joints, Jackie the Filipina VSO in Santo with her constant complaints on her extra assignments, Jimmy whom I asked to repair my hair which I accidentally cut short while trimming it, the laundry women in the Laundromat shop who would always place my clothes ahead of the rest because of my association with Piolo Pascual, Ben Tabi, the irrepressible head of REDI, Kalpeo and Jack of VIT, and many other friends and acquaintances which I hoped to see again on my return.

They would become the new additions to my long list of friends, brothers and sisters that I have met along the way. They would become part of my family, with the thousands of people whose lives, I would like to believe, I might have touched in the course of my job, in far flung villages, forgotten or left destitute by the workings of this democratic but elitist capitalist economic order.

And so, with these misgivings did I proceed with the second leg of my mission to

Western Samoa.

To be continued....

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