EPLD Report 1: a brief overview and some thoughts on identity

This is an article that I have written for the Pacific Business Review, which should be out next week.  

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By Emmanuel Narokobi

On the 8th of March this year, which coincidently was my birthday, I set foot on an airplane for the once in a lifetime opportunity to join the Emerging Pacific Leaders Dialogue (EPLD) 2010. My flight took me initially to Brisbane, to Auckland and then to my first stop in Samoa. Interestingly enough I landed in Samoa on my Birthday again, which was a novelty first for me to have celebrated my birthday twice in one year.

Before I continue, let me explain what EPLD is. EPLD is an event started in 2006 by the Commonwealth Secretariat and which is planned to be held every four years. EPLD aims at bringing together 130 participants from all across the Pacific for a 15 day event of conferences, study tours, networking and leadership programmes. The ultimate aim of this exercise is to strengthen the capacity of the future leaders of the region to manage challenges collaboratively, positively and creatively.

The first of these kinds of events was initiated by the Duke of Edinburgh (Royal Consort to Queen Elizabeth II) in the 1950’s at Oxford. Over the years it has become a great tool in fostering better relations and decision making among leaders and many of the alumni now hold very high positions in society which has enabled the programme to continue over the years and for the decision finally to be made for a Pacific version to be created to foster the same ties and values.

While in Samoa for the first leg of the trip and in the midst of celebrating my double birthday I received the sad news of the passing of my Uncle Bernard. It suddenly hit me, while sitting near a beachside restaurant staring into the evening sea, that a large part of my own identity had suddenly been torn from me.

It took me a whole day and night of soul searching and discussions with my wonderfully supportive partner Callista to come to the realisation that perhaps what I was doing here and the fact that I had managed to somehow make it through the selections from 2,000 applicants across the Pacific, that perhaps this would be something that Uncle Bernard (if he were alive), would have approved of. The decision my partner and I made was later confirmed when I met the Samoan Head of State, His Highness Tupuola Efi, who told me he knew Uncle Bernard very well and that when he was in Samoa he would stay at his house. (His highness I believe was also present at Uncle Bernard’s funeral). I thought to myself that this was evidence that some part of me had a duty to honour Uncle Bernard’s name beyond just PNG. Of course the final blessings came from my father Camillus, who even before I could begin explaining my thoughts told me that I should continue with what I had come to do.

Ruth Pune, Sir Arnold Amet, His Highness Tupuola Efi of Samoa, Myself, Sir Puka Temu

The EPLD programme consisted of 2 days of plenary sessions in Samoa with very senior speakers from around the region. This included our own Deputy Prime Minsiter Sir Puka Temu and Sir Arnold Amet. I must add here that Sir Puka’s talk on health systems and where it should be now in this day and age was received by a standing ovation with much commendation from the participants. I couldn’t help but feel proud of that moment, but I knew inside that much more is yet, to be achieved.

After the Plenary Sessions the 130 of us were then broken up into country study tour groups of about 13 each to be sent off to our respective countries for 10 days. I was chosen to be a part of the New Caledonia Study Tour. So after a wonderful dinner at the great author Robert Louis Stevenson’s house in Apia we were on a plane again that night at 10pm. Our flight flew us back to Auckland then onwards to Noumea.

We spent 10 days in New Caledonia with so many experiences and lessons learned but unfortunately I will not have enough space here to go through it all, although I will make an attempt to do so in parts later on this blog. But to summarise what I thought of New Caledonia, I think I could say that because they were Melanesians it was an experience of what PNG should or could be like. What I also learned quite early on as well was that New Caledonia is in fact a developed nation with an almost 50/50 make up of Kanaks (Melanesians) and non-kanaks of French descent who have been there for the last 200 years. Another surprising discovery was that their major contributor to their GDP was not tourism or fishing like other Pacific nations, in fact they are a mining country with a virtually sole dependence on Nickel.

The visit to New Caledonia involved trips to their 3 provinces, (Northern, Southern and Loyalty Islands) and discussions with all levels of government and public service. This was complemented by cocktail parties with the New Zealand, Australian and French High Commissioners who assisted in giving an outsiders point of view of the country. We were then tasked with writing a report and doing a presentation of our report to HRH Princess Anne (the Duke of Edinburgh’s daughter).

The presentations were to be held at the closing session in Nuku’alofa, so we hopped again on a plane and after passing through Wallis-Futuna and Fiji we arrived at the Kingdom of Tonga to be regrouped again with all the other participants. Over 3 frantic and stressful days we set down to completing our reports and presentations to HRH Princess Anne and HRH Princess Salote Tuita of Tonga.

So what have I learned from this trip?

Some people say that it is only when you step away from the details up close, that you are able to get a clearer idea of the whole picture. The passing of my Uncle Bernard only helped to refine my observations and to a larger degree helped me to take a deeper look at who I was. Not so much what I do from day to day in my life, but I was forced to really ask myself what my identity was in this vast country of PNG, (let alone the Pacific).

For example who were these Arapesh Tribe ancestors of mine that fought against tribes and encountered missionaries and so on to be able to produce the people of Wautogik village. What were the circumstances for Wautogik to produce among many leaders, two sons who would be lawyers and who would shape the person I am today. And what do I take from that into tomorrow?

Once upon a time when a country was being born, Uncle Bernard dreamed that the idea of a nation could harness the best of the old and the new in a wide and complex land. He wished it so deeply with his words and entire being that his convictions alone cut into our lives and etched a promise that had to be kept. Has this promise of a Melanesian identity truly reconciled with the new been realised?

I say partly yes. Within out hearts and minds we have always known what we had to do. But unfortunately although there are many right ways there can only be one honest way. And so I can also partly say No, in that many of our actions have never confirmed or ever realised what we were supposed to have achieved. We have been so blinded by the empty promise of financial capital that any sort of cultural capital has seeped away into oblivion and since been lost.

Out there, where the rest of the Pacific lies and where other cultures are not too dissimilar to our own in PNG, I have seen cultures hardened and wielded with pride as new frontiers in these peoples’ lives are being conquered. And all of this done without billion kina budgets, but simply a faith in God and a practical approach to real issues. Yes perhaps Australia did leave us too early, yes perhaps we did not have the capacity? But if we always knew the truth of our cultural norms of sharing and consensus building, why did we falter?

The great Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou once said that “…our struggle now is to build as much of our past and culture into the future…our identity lies ahead of us…” If we cannot learn the true meaning of that struggle, which is to sacrifice for the good of the past to be integrated with the good of tomorrow, then we risk perpetuating a national culture that continuously believes that all the Gas and Nickel money in PNG will buy us an identity forged in dignity.