Students in class at a primary school on Malekula Island, Vanuatu. Photo by: Connor Ashleigh / AusAID / CC BY

CANBERRA — Utilizing the Indigenous to Indigenous approach to development, a program in Vanuatu is hoping to show new ways to support better engagement in education by combining local culture with Western education.

The second phase of the Vanuatu Education Support Program, or VESP, funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, aims to strengthen education systems through a focus on community engagement, communications, social inclusion, and localization.

To reach new communities in this second phase, VESP is partnering with Australian Indigenous development experts i2i Development Global, which has historic connections with the local population, and Coffey International.

“It’s been an exhilarating time full of learning,” Tony Martens, director of i2i, told Devex.

“When we are dealing with Indigenous to Indigenous, barriers are removed very quickly, and engagement and relationships happen quickly.”

— Tony Martens, director, i2i

Building cultural connections

In July, i2i visited remote schools and communities in the Tanna Province of Vanuatu — including some that had not previously been engaged in development programs. And despite the program being in the early stages, Martens said the engagement of Australian Indigenous educators is already building strong connections that he hopes will build a sustainable education program in remote areas of Vanuatu.

Martens added that the makeup of the team is a mix of very experienced educators from a range of disciplines — including a technical college, universities, experienced principals, and classroom teachers. “But the unique thing we have brought to the partnership is that the majority of our team has Australian Indigenous heritage coupled with the Australian South-Sea Islander background.”

In the 1800s, the “blackbirding” trade saw thousands of workers come from the Pacific Islands to Australia’s sugarcane fields — some willingly, but most through force and deception, and working for limited pay, where deaths were common.

Vanuatu was the most prominent country in this trade, and i2i staff have links back to Vanuatu through this forced removal of ancestors from their homeland.

“As part of our cultural approach, we spent a lot of time explaining who our people are and asking the communities about their background,” Martens said. “It was emotional for them to see people from Australian connecting with them through their heritage, and also coming back to support them.”

The education challenge for remote communities

“When we are dealing with Indigenous to Indigenous, barriers are removed very quickly, and engagement and relationships happen quickly,” Martens said.

Through the connection already built, Martens said they are understanding more about the challenges for education in remote communities.

“The main thing that has come out from our visits and engagement with schools and particular communities is the strong focus on combining “kastom” tradition with Western education,” he said. Kastom is a local term defining culture, including religion, economics, art, and magic.

“Some of the comments we heard was that areas may be lagging behind in education because some communities fear that if they ramp up in sending their kids to school, they run the fear of losing their tradition,” explained Martens.

With some children in remote areas of Vanuatu walking three to four hours each way to attend school, Martens said having families, communities, and schools on board to help children would show their commitment.

“Some cynics would say it’s one or the other, but it’s not — you can maintain your integrity and dignity as an Indigenous person and be educated and compete in the modern world.”

— Paul Tippett, senior development specialist with Coffey International

A partnership to support VESP

Paul Tippett, senior development specialist with Coffey International, began his stint on the first phase of VESP in April 2018 as the project was wrapping up. He planned to work on the project temporarily for nine months — but an introduction to i2i to discuss opportunities for them to engage in education changed that.

“It was not my plan to be the team leader because I am an old guy,” he told Devex. “But I got a call from the Australian High Commission and had an initial meeting with them. I have done a lot of design and management work, and I wouldn’t say I am cynical, but I am realistic about what can be done — and I had a feeling we could really do something.”

To partner with i2i, Tippett wanted to ensure that working together would not be about tokenism to be perceived as engaging an Indigenous business to win the second phase contract.

“I’ve asked a couple of times what can they do that I can’t do — I’ve got a lot of good people here in planning, curriculum, and future training, so what is it that i2i can do that I can’t do? It’s important to understand the value add and the niche that makes a difference,” said Tippett.

The focus came down to community engagement and a focus on kastom.

“How do you balance kastom, culture, and education?” Tippett asked. “That was a question i2i could help answer. Some cynics would say it’s one or the other, but it’s not — you can maintain your integrity and dignity as an Indigenous person and be educated and compete in the modern world.”

People like Tony and his team, Tippett said, were role models for how the two Indigenous culture could work with education and modern economies to help children and communities in Vanuatu follow. And Tippett said i2i could also have conversations with communities and discuss issues he could not, enabling them to bring even more to the partnership.

Building an evidence base

In order to understand the impact of the Indigenous to Indigenous approach, the program builds in monitoring and evaluation from the beginning.

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“We want a robust process in place,” Martens said. “By having good data at the start, we can capture data and assess how the KPIs are improving.”

Increased student attendance and more community engagement in education activities are among the KPIs — or key performance indicators — that may be targeted once programs are endorsement from the Vanuatu Ministry of Education and Training.

The ministry also wants a focus on knowledge transfer and leadership that can build sustainability into the program.

The coming months will see the finalization of the initial plan of work that will be conducted by i2i within VESP, with pilot programs likely to be conducted prior to implementing national roll-out strategies — and a number of stakeholders are excited for potential it can deliver.

“A frequent comment that is coming back to us was people saying they wanted to do the cultural approach for a long time, but they just didn’t have the right people with them,” Martens said. “We hope working with i2i will help fill this.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.