Palm Project

Uluveu Builders Workshop secures international contract

Vanuatu Daily Post article on their website www.dailypost.vu - 1 Feb 2016

By Len Garae

The Uluveu Builders Workshop (UBW), South East Malakula, has been awarded the contract for a water project at Mbonvor, South Malakula. Aveda Cosmetics and Green Global Fund awarded the contract locally rather than using offshore contractors once they had seen the quality of the previous UBW construction work at the Uluveu Water Pavilion and Uluveu Soap Factory.

If we are serious about raising the standard of living of our remotest communities, then we need to have faith in the skills, abilities and knowledge of the local people. Sustainable development means authentically co-creating initiatives and projects with them and ensuring that they are the decision-makers and project managers. Local communities need to be given the opportunity to take ownership of their own destiny. This concept is not new, but it takes a level of faith in our people that is so often missing in community development work across Vanuatu.

One way non-governmental agencies can add value is in partnering with locals to develop the entrepreneurial capacity necessary to make local businesses a success both locally and beyond. Palm Project, on the island of Uluveu, is an exemplar of this way of working. It is an enterprise consisting of three successful businesses all of which are owned and operated by the local community. Its success is unprecedented and can be seen in some of its most outstanding achievements.

In 2015, soap manufactured at the Palm Project Soap Factory began to be distributed by Trade Aid New Zealand across its 32 outlets. In addition, the Uluveu Nuwai Pavilion, a 6kw solar power station that combines advanced technology and solar power, converts salt water into safe drinking water. The Pavilion also houses an ice-making machine and freezer that enables local fishermen to keep their catch fresher for longer. This project has not only provided the community of Uluveu with a surplus of safe, clean drinking water but has also produced excess electricity which is now being used to make block ice and create income.

What is most striking about these local businesses is that New Zealand Children’s Health and Education Trust (NZCHET), the agency involved in establishing Palm Project, used a philosophy of co-creation and partnership from the outset. They see themselves as one of the stakeholders in the project, but one that is always led by the community. They have no control over these businesses and their only involvement is when assistance or advice is requested by key community stakeholders in the businesses.

Liane Farry from NZCHET explains, “The true success of Palm Project has come from having faith in the local people. Yes, we co-create these projects in partnership with the community, but we also know our place in this process which is ensuring that the local people are leading all aspects of the work.”

Also under the Palm Project umbrella, the Uluveu Builders Workshop (UBW), established in 2010, is a collective workspace for local trades men and women who also built and installed the Soap Factory, the Manager’s Hut and the Pavilion. Recently UBW was approached by Aveda Cosmetics, a U.S. based corporation, to design and install a water project in the village of Mbonvor, South Malakula. In the past, this project could have ended up in the hands of a non-governmental agency, but instead it is being designed, executed and projected managed by Ni-Vanuatu for Ni-Vanuatu.

John Akurkur, manager of UBW, explains: “I am proud of what we are achieving but the best part of this project is that we make all the decisions, we negotiated with the

Mbonvor community, we employed our own tradesmen, order supplies and organised freight. We are in control of all aspects of the project.”

Unfortunately, these initiatives are far too rare. Farry, who provided support and advice for this project, said: “As a project coordinator, I have learnt that the only viable community development model is when the people who you are supposedly there to help are making all the critical decisions and manage the project.”

Kalo Daniel, Chief Builder UBW, explains their relationship, “We know NZCHET believe in us and we know they have our best interests at heart. We go to them as our partner when we feel they may be able to help with our work.”

At the centre of NZCHET’s work is faith in the ability of the indigenous people to determine their own destiny. Farry explains: “Real faith is a complete handover of the project to the local people. That doesn’t mean walking away from the project, but instead being directed by the appropriate local governing body. We provide advice and support when requested, but we constantly need to be aware of our own limitations of understanding. We are constantly checking ourselves and our assumptions, so that we don’t fall into a paternalistic relationship in which we position our ways of knowing and as being superior.”

Self-sufficiency can no longer just be a catchphrase, but must be the ultimate goal if development is going to be effective and sustainable. What we mean by self-sufficiency is an authentic process of co-creation between non-governmental agencies, and locals—a partnership in the truest sense. One which is initiated and governed on the terms and conditions of the indigenous people.

A major barrier to this has been the way non-governmental agencies approach and carry out so-called community development. Again this is not new and many of us are aware of the colonial paternalism that underpins much of this work. But we need to start doing things differently. Sustainable community development will only happen when the myriad of agencies that currently operate in the fields of development and foreign aid figure out what authentic co-creation and partnership look like. In many cases, this means solving themselves first and having faith in the local people, their skills, expertise and talent. No doubt this way of working takes longer and is fraught with challenges, not least of which is the history of colonialism, but it is the only viable way forward.

What would this look like? The locals would genuinely make all the key decisions, negotiate, acquire resources and project manage the co-created enterprise or project. This requires agencies to rethink how they operate. For example, the idea that the community and the people in it are the problem that needs to be solved by an outside “other” needs to be flipped on its head. It is this kind of deficit thinking that leads to much of the required work being carried out by foreign consultants. This type of thinking needs to be challenged. Many agencies are operating under the pretence that their goal is self-sufficiency but, if one takes a closer look, they remain paternalistic in their approach. Outside consultants and agencies need to work for the communities they are serving and that means being led by those communities. It means giving advice and assistance where and when required, but leaving the final decision making up to the community even when it runs counter to their own culturally specific understandings of best practice. This is where the real challenge comes into play, as taken-for-granted assumptions and worldviews become the real power struggle.