The small voices matter. Ia seu le manu ae taga’i i le galu.

By Mata'afa Keni Lesa 21 June 2016, 12:00AM

I want to say thank you very much to the Center for Pacific Island Countries Studies, Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, China, for inviting me to speak here. I’m excited about the theme of the conference, The Pacific Islands in Transition: Opportunities and Challenges.” 

As Pacific Islanders struggling to keep up with the ever-changing world, we see and experience this on many fronts. We face economic, social, spiritual and environmental challenges on a daily basis.

But with those challenges come many opportunities - one of which is the chance for Pacific countries to engage and cooperate with the outside world – especially our friends, development and donor partners.

So I am deeply honoured to be here today and I bring warm and friendly greetings from the islands of Samoa. Talofa lava! This afternoon, I’ve been asked to say a few words about “The role of the media in the cooperation between the Pacific Islands and the World.”

My remarks will be guided by a couple of old Samoan proverbs. The first is “Seu le manu ae taga’i i le galu.”  The second proverb I want to use is “Aua le naunau i le i’a ae ia manumanu i le upega.” 

Both sayings relate to fishing, which is a source of livelihood on a daily basis for our people. Whereas the first proverb tells a tautai (fisherman) to be cautious about the waves when he sets out on the reef to catch a type of seagull used for baiting, the second warns him not to become so hung up on his catch that he forgets the importance of keeping the net safe and secured for another day. 

In connection to this meeting today, the proverbs are a timely reminder that our leaders must think very carefully about the consequences of the cooperation with the outside world on future generations.

It’s undeniable that small Pacific countries don’t have much by way of natural resources and financial wealth. What we do have are in abundance are our families, religious beliefs and our culture, which are the pillars that make us unique.

It’s not wrong to want a fish that a fisherman takes the risk in catching it, but the ultimate question is knowing when to take the risk and when to protect the net for another day.

Indeed, it is the role of Pacific governments and the agencies responsible to foster the cooperation between our small countries and the world. They are being paid by public taxes and donor money, to run and manage our countries so that the decisions they make are sustainable and beneficial to all.

Our role in the media is to keep them accountable, transparent and to ensure that they are doing what they are supposed to do without greed, abuse and corruption creeping into the equation. 

The media at large has many roles. The media exists to educate, inform, entertain and most importantly, in its role as the “Fourth Estate,” it is supposed to be a watchdog of Parliament, the government and of course the Judiciary.

We are here to ask the questions, demand answers and hold these pillars of our democracy to account. 

When it comes to development, it is no secret that the Pacific countries – including Samoa - needs to cooperate with global partners and donor countries to keep up with the lifestyle changes in this fast paced world.

The reality is that we come from countries with economies that are small, fragile and extremely vulnerable to external shocks and natural disasters. That is why we need cooperation with global partners – such as China and many other donor countries – to help us move along, ensuring the survival of our people.

For this relationship to be strong and sustainable, the media plays a key role as a bridge to enhance understanding and friendship among the partners.

The undeniable reality is that there are barriers and misconceptions about cultures, religions and intentions that are a threat to this relationship. The good news is that these barriers can easily be overcome with the help of an effective media. 

How? The media exists to shine the light on both sides and how they can help each other. Information leads to knowledge and knowledge as we all know is power. When all parties are well informed, it fosters a cordial atmosphere for reciprocal interaction, which in the end can only benefit both parties. 

But the media shouldn’t just report on what the world is doing in relation to the Pacific region, we should also remain as vigilant as ever to monitor and report on the impact – positive or negative – these projects are having on our communities.

We are guardians of our oceans, forests, land and our families. We exist as ears and eyes of members of the public to report objectively and accurately, ask the hard questions and not be intimidated in an effort to determine the impact of such developments.

We also have a role to hold our leaders to their promises to donor and development partners to be transparent, accountable and utilise aid accordingly. In other words, the media plays a critical role in promoting good governance and controlling corruption that threatens this cooperation. 

When we talk about accountability, as the media we need to hold our leaders to account over what they promise. If they promise good governance, lets not give up on questioning their decision-making until they keep to their words.

Transparency is not presenting feel good numbers to tick the boxes while hiding the grim reality of life. We believe transparency is when leaders are brave enough to tell the truth, confront the reality – even if it hurts and reflects badly on them. 

Media stories, commentaries and analysis that address the truth about such cooperation not only raise public awareness about the pros and cons of the cooperation, it puts officials on notice that they are being watched.

As the media, we exist to ask questions about how such funding is being used. And in the case that they are not, where has it gone and why has it not being used appropriately? Are officials misusing them being held accountable and so forth?

I put it to you that the biggest challenge of today is finding leaders who mean what they say. We believe that a great leader is a person who walks the talk; it’s someone who is serious about implementing the many wonderful plans and intentions we have.

He/she is a person who is serious about monitoring, enforcing the laws and policies that are in place so the people who are intended to benefit reap the rewards. 

There is little doubt that we live in a very challenging time, one that is defined by climate uncertainty, hardship, lack of opportunities, fear, poverty, terror, violence and threats of all kinds. For the Pacific to address all these challenges, we rely on funding and support from our international partners. 

Keep in mind that it is also media’s job is to inform and educate. We have a responsibility not only to tell our readers and audiences about the projects that are being implemented but also how it would impact on them.

In this regard, one of the most important roles that we exist to play is to break down the stories so that people can understand. With due respect to a number of global development agencies, their language is super technical - I’m sure even they struggle to understand what they are talking about at times.

Imagine then being in the media, trying to break down those technical terms and the countless acronyms so that we could explain it to the average person on Beach Road in Apia? 

This is not an easy job but it is a job that must be done. It’s a simple fact that if the storyteller does not understand the story, how can he/she expect the audience to understand?

Ladies and gentlemen, it is the media’s job to make them understand and one of the easiest ways to do this is to personalise and localise stories. Take climate change for example, the people in Samoa don’t need a report that was done in Switzerland to tell them what climate change is.

In Samoa, we live, breathe and see climate change every day. Why don’t we talk to our own people? Ask the elderly men and women in the villages and then we tell their stories from their perspectives?

There is so much wisdom among our people that we could tap into to make our stories much more interesting than a bunch of stories about the latest round of funding given to whoever, wherever and whatever. 

Effective stories and coverage about real people can only enhance the cooperation between the Pacific and the world. You see, once people understand, they will begin to appreciate and take ownership of the developments being implemented. 

In many cases, people don’t understand what their governments are doing. And because they don’t understand, they oppose and react angrily and the thought of developments because the communication from the top to the grassroots level is absolutely poor.

The governments – with the help of countries like China and a number of development partners - are rolling out a number of wonderful projects that benefit people. I don’t have the luxury of time or space on this occasion to detail all the developments that have been achieved.

But what I do want to say is that both parties need to tell people about it. Tell it in simple terms, educate them so they would understand, accept, appreciate and in the end take ownership of the developments that are meant to benefit them.

Speaking of education, the Media also needs to educate itself. We’re not experts in everything. We might know a couple of things but we don’t know everything.

As I’ve said before, if we don’t understand our message, nobody else will. 

We’ve got to accept that a lot of issues being discussed in this relationship between the Pacific and the world, which we are expected to report about, are specialist areas. Experts have dedicated their entire lives to study these issues.

The media needs to be educated as well about these issues. This is why exchanges and familiarization excursions offered by donor partners and countries are a wonderful way to build capacity and enhance knowledge. 

In conclusion, I want to thank the Center for Pacific Island Countries Studies, Guangdong University of Foreign Studies once again for inviting me to address you today. There is no doubt that the cooperation with the outside world is absolutely critical to the survival of the Pacific Islands. 

But I caution our leaders to remember the Samoan saying “Ia seu le manu ae tagai i le galu.” Sometimes it is better to forego a seagull and await the next one than to take the risk and be swept away by the waves. Equally, in the spirit of the saying “Aua le naunau i le i’a ae ia manumanu i le upega” it is wiser to be mindful of the weight and impact of a catch than to break the net and lose all hope. Soifua and God bless!

By Mata'afa Keni Lesa 21 June 2016, 12:00AM

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