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Size is not the issue. Impact is.

Stuart Middleton


26 November 2018

The nations of the Pacific are getting more and different attention at the moment. Phrases such as “spheres of interest” and the “battles of the trade wars” and “military activity” are associated with the Pacific more often than they used to be.

Part of this might simply be a transfer of the old rhetoric into a new region. Part of it is the impact of an interest from a huge economy that has new interest in waters closer to us. Part of it is the belief that New Zealand should be playing a big hitting game. But it is usually about the role of those heavy hitters and we are not part of that group, nor perhaps should we aspire to be.

Many who have not had contact in a meaningful way with the Pacific (i.e. outside the resorts) are a little off the mark in their concern. New Zealand has worked very closely over a long period of time to address issues such as solar energy, the contribution of agriculture and primary industries to the economy, the role of women in the domestic economy, and more recently, education at the sharp end.

Since 2013 Manukau Institute of Technology has worked with the education systems of the Kingdom of Tonga to strengthen options and pathways for students in the secondary system at Years 11 and 12.

The key vehicle for this is a Certificate in Vocational and Technical Skills. This two-year programme introduces Tongan students into four trades areas from a set of seven options. The results have been astounding.

First some background. Being an “early school leaver”, the Pacific term for disengagement and absence, is as serious an issue in Tonga as it is in New Zealand. This initiative is aimed at retaining students in education and training; putting them on pathways to further education and training; and should they return to the village at a younger age, they would return with a set of useful basic skills.

This programme has been delivered under the NZMFAT Partnership Programme through two projects which in international terms involved relatively small amounts of money. It did require large amounts of human skill and willingness both available in abundance here at MIT and in Tonga among the educators, the politicians, and increasingly industry, business and commerce. This latter group is a key focus for the second phase of the project.

This is not a case of New Zealand imposing a New Zealand qualification in a New Zealand way. The qualification has been accredited by the Tonga National Qualifications and Assessment Board and registered on the local Tongan Qualifications Framework at Level 2 and has equivalence with a New Zealand Level 2.

The uptake has been fast and impressive. In 2018 there were approximately 700 total students in 11 schools on three islands and of the students completing the second year 320 graduated. In 2019 there will be 13 schools on four islands. The programme is monitored rigorously to high standards by technical educators of the highest professional standards that would be welcomed into any education system. The qualification is “owned” by the Tonga Institute of Science and Technology, the tertiary trades and skills provider in Tonga which has doubled their student intake since the introduction of the programme.

The retention rate in the programme is 94.6% – a level that New Zealand and Australian institutions would envy.

After Cyclone Gita hit in February there were many badly damaged houses. One such house was the home of a 16 year old girl and her grandparents. They had no way of getting their house restored, skilled people were in much demand. But the granddaughter, a 16 year old graduate of the Certificate in Vocational and Technical Skills, gathered a group of her friends together and they rebuilt the roof again, restored the walls and fixed up the plumbing and electricity.

We do not need to be Australian, American or Chinese to make a difference. New Zealand’s impact will continue to be our people helping people to achieve things that make a difference, in ways that increase the capabilities of the citizens of the small nations of the South Pacific and leaves them with genuine ownership of whatever is developed, rather than increased liabilities.

New Zealand’s effort is strongly supported by MFAT here in New Zealand and by strong representatives in our High Commissions.

There is an old saying across the Pacific:  “Aid, aids who?” “Aids Large Donours!.”

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