From Academia to the Asia-Pacific

Peter Mason/Cufa
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(VOVWORLD) - As COVID-19 keeps on devastating all countries around the globe, its impact can be felt in all economic sectors including education. Peter Mason, CEO of Cufa, an independent, secular, not-for-profit Australian development organisation, speaks with Dr. Michael Spann, lecturer at the University of Queensland and founding director of Square Circle about the impacts of COVID-19 in universities, as well as the abrupt political and economic changes occurring in Asia-Pacific.

Michael S: In some cultures, the women are incredibly powerful, but sometimes that's just not recognised, again by donors or outsiders because they've got a very fixed idea of what it should be. It's an ongoing issue overseas just as it is here.

Peter M: Actually, they've got all these capacities that we don't have, and they bring to the table. So, are we building their capacity? Or are they actually building ours and all we're doing is bringing money to the table.

Michael S: Now there's even more tension in obviously in Solomon Islands because the province of Malaita. They have been getting COVID-19 supplies from Taiwan, which has angered Beijing.

From Academia to the Asia-Pacific  - ảnh 1Michael Spann

Dr. Michael Spann is a Founding Director of Square Circle which is a global development consulting company headquartered in Brisbane, Australia. Working at the intersection of theory and practice, Square Circle offers services in leadership and policy; governance; institutional strengthening; program design and management; digital storytelling; research; monitoring and evaluation; and conflict, peace and development. Square Circle works with a diverse range of clients and stakeholders throughout the Indo-Pacific and puts an emphasis on sustainable and inclusive development. Dr Spann also lectures in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland on global development, political economy and Indo-Pacific security.

Peter M: Welcome to the third season of conversations in development, a podcast about challenges, life stories and experiences in the development sector. I'm Peter Mason, your host and CEO of Cufa, an international development agency working across the Asia Pacific region. In this episode, we welcome Dr. Michael Spann, founding director of square circle, researcher and lecturer at the University of Queensland with over 10 years’ experience in development programmes and capacity building. Well, Michael, tell us what the current environment at universities is like, given that international students are unable to return. Can you give us a bit of a picture of what things are looking like at the moment?

Michael S: Yeah, it's a really great question because it's so flawed at the moment. So up in the air, you know, to be honest, there's a lot of uncertainty in the university sector, just generally, a lot of the international students, the ones that I teach, and the ones that I have dealings with, they've sort of coped with it pretty well. And it just shows how resilient a lot of the international students are, especially at that, you know, especially that post grad level as well. There's been some disruptions, you know, some of the people can't do their practical work or, you know, some of the students can't do their field work. But, you know, we're lucky enough to work with some of the Australia award scholars. And there are people out here on a very prestigious scholarship funded by DFAT, mostly doing masters or PhDs and from Africa and PNG and their experience has been pretty remarkable to hear, to be absolutely honest. How they've been able to cope, how they've been able to do their work, but also deal with the uncertainty about even going back home, when they finish and all that sort of stuff and also trying to put in place their project when they get back home. They, you know, things on development leadership.

Peter M: So, was that an online programme or you did that face to face?

Michael S: We've managed to sort of pivot online some of these programmes with Australia Awards using some pretty interesting interactive technology, which has been a bit of a learning curve as well to try to put some of these things online, but it allows us to be able to do it firstly and just two weeks ago, we had a really interesting one with scholars who have returned actually to PNG. So, we had all these PNG scholars and obviously in Port Moresby, but they were also in the provinces as well. So, we managed to run this two-day workshop using these interactive technologies. And it was actually pretty amazing to see how it could be done as well. So not just using zoom. zoom's for example, a part of it, but actually having interactive programmes where people can, you know, put work on because we were dealing with some frameworks like pestel analysis and PDIA and things like that, you know, these real takeaways, and then I can use as well.

Peter M: Right, so let's talk a little bit about square circle. What was the purpose of founding this organisation Michael?

Michael S: Yeah, well, we're a development consultancy and it was basically our colleague and myself. Dr. Kamil Shah. We've been working together for years and then I started to work with Dr. Tim Grice who does a lot of work around governance. In the extractive industries, especially in the Pacific, but he's also worked in Africa as well. And suppose we bit the bullet and made it a proper development consultancy in 2019. It's a bit of a steep learning curve, like most things are because we're really trying to marry theory and practice together, academic backgrounds and still teach at universities. So, trying to put those two things together and actually get some better development outcomes for the people and with the programmes that we work with. We have a pretty genuine belief that you can't really have the theory without the practice and the practice without the theory. So actually, trying to work those two things together in a nice cohesive programme is challenging but also it's pretty fun at the same time.

Peter M: So, is this part of the university sectors approach to commercialising and commoditizing I guess, research or?

Michael S: We still do a lot of work, obviously with universities, as I said, we still teach at University at the University of Queensland. A lot of universities also have their international development programmes as well. We do a lot of work through those organisations as well. So, yeah, it's a pretty interesting one, I guess in terms of identity, we sort of flipped around between these different things. But you know, we still do, we still do our teaching. And we still do our research at universities, writing papers, as well. So again, that putting together that theory and practice is quite important, because then what we've found in our short history, so far as a substantive aspect of the work is something that's actually really valued by people.

Peter M: Right, I noticed a lot of your work focuses around the Pacific and in particular, I saw on your website a whole lot of work around PNG, and you focus on governance, institutional strengthening, conflict, peace development, and we'll get back to that in a moment. But I'm particularly interested in the work you're doing around digital storytelling, which seems to be threaded through all your research and advisory work as well as your monitoring and evaluation. Why did you decide to take that approach?

Michael S: It's a really good question. Dr. Tim Grice, this is really one of his babies, and he's really managed to thread it through a lot of our work and teach us a lot about it as well. It really helps with the sense making process, what we've found in a lot of our programmes, so from the participants aspect, when they're actually trying to make sense of some of these new things or explain things like that, you introduce a new medium for them. And it actually makes them think in a bit of a different way, and how to articulate that idea in a different way. And what we've found is that we've got some really, really great insights from that through the programmes and it just actually adds a bit more to the research rather than just a normal qualitative or quantitative aspect of it. It's not just an add on. It's actually part of the research that is some of these programmes.

Peter M: Yeah, I thought it was an incredibly innovative approach given that certainly in the Pacific, they are oral cultures. So, it does actually fit in with the way of communicating information.

Michael S: You know, as you know, for example, in the Pacific, it's a very oral culture as well. So sometimes people can bring out more things through that particular medium, then other mediums, and it becomes you get some really rich narratives, to be honest, and some really inspiring ones too.

Peter M: As I'm sure you'll agree strengthening governance practices is central to long term impact and especially in Pacific context. Tell our audience a little bit about the work you've done in this space, particularly in context to the adaptations and accommodations within the existing cultural systems.

Michael S: It's one of the big development challenges, isn't it, especially for outsiders going in and doing things. Luckily, luckily enough, we've all got a lot of experience in various parts of the world to be able to adapt. That's not saying that you ever know everything you're always having to learn, which is, of course, part of the fun too. But I think it's actually being able to recognise different systems, being able to do a lot of participant observation as well, knowing when people are not comfortable with things.

Peter M: You just reminded me of a story. When we were working on Malaita in Auki, and this is back in 2005-2006 I think it was. ANZ actually opened up a branch Finally, and they put an ATM in the wall, but they couldn't get anyone to use the ATM. And we found out that in fact, the local pastors and the local leaders had said that this ATM was the devil's work, and no one should go near this ATM. And, you know, ANZ then had to go out into the field and actually educate people about what this machine that spat out money was actually doing. And I just thought it was a really interesting exercise where commercially, this bank thought they were doing the right thing. And that, you know, this would be a boom to people being able to get cash, you know, anytime of the day or night, and yet people just stayed away and wouldn't touch it, because they believed there was some evil behind the wall of this machine. So, it was a really interesting exercise in in actually thinking he knew what the answer was, but in actual fact, hadn't even talked to the community about it.

From Academia to the Asia-Pacific  - ảnh 2Peter Mason 

Peter Mason has been the CEO of international development agency Cufa for the last twelve years. Cufa’s programs focus on economic development of underserved and disadvantaged communities across the Asia Pacific region. Cufa works through multiple approaches including education, employment, enterprise, and financial institution development. This work is carried out by local Cufa offices and country staff who work with local communities, institutions, and governments.Peter has worked in Cambodia, Timor Leste, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the Federated States of Micronesia. His research interests include examining the way in which social and the economic interact within the development environment and he has recently published a chapter, Credit Unions in Routledge’s Alternative Organisations.

Michael S: Trying to accommodate those things is of course, a challenge and also recognising that sometimes those local systems, to be honest, are actually a lot more powerful than the introduced systems as well. Even if for example, you know, don't and other governments don't recognise them as such, they actually carry more weight than the introduced systems.

Peter M: The other tension is, I guess, in that space is timeframes often, you know, funding is based on getting deliverables within a certain time frame. How do you accommodate that in your programmes? Certainly, when you're focusing on governance practices, which are incremental in real terms.

Michael S: It's a great question. I mean it's one of those things that you're dealing with people with timeframes, you're dealing with people with indicators, and you've only got a set amount of time to do so, you know, to do the jobs as you very well know, in your organisation. So, one of the things is actually, in a sense trying to communicate to the donors and teach the donors.

Peter M: It's an incredibly good point they bring up you know, we often assume focused on the beneficiaries, we often do forget that it is an educational process back towards our donors as well. And I mean, where our organisation is certainly guilty of that, where we're so focused on getting our outcomes in our projects, we write our reports and do all of that. But we actually don't do enough work educating our funders and our donors about the context in which we work.

Michael S: It comes back to your previous question too, about these sometimes the local systems and the local cultural systems as well. They might not be based on time frames, which are in a sense, quote, unquote, Western timeframes as well, they might take more time to actually work through these things to get better results. So that conversation with donors as well is a pretty important one. But what we've been finding is, if you do a lot of really good foundational programmes as well build a really strong foundation, then it gives you the opportunity and a bit more, I guess a bit more heft to actually talk to them. donors and explain some of these things. The donors a lot of the time want to get a better result than what they're getting as well. But yeah, it's a massive challenge with the timeframes to be absolutely honest. But yeah, it's something that I think everybody, everybody in the industry works through, but you can't let that become the key thing as well. The substantive work is still the core aspect of it.

Peter M: and I guess also again, as you say, governments and funders, they have a very short-term view of what they need to achieve, and it's very rare you get that longitudinal focus. So, it does make things difficult when you're certainly trying to measure the long-term impacts. So, I can sympathise with you there. So, another area that Square Circle focuses on is leadership, and that's another contested space, especially in light of Western notions of equality. transparency, gender parity, how does your work leverage off those traditional forms of leadership, especially in the Pacific?

Michael S: Someone can be like a leader in this national space, but when they go down to the village level, they don't have that much power. And recognising those things is really important because one of the issues that we find is that there's these big gaps between the national level and then the sub national levels, trying to link those things up is extremely important to get better results to get better advocacy. But one of the things to link them up is to actually recognise these different levels of leadership in these different spaces, and actually how they can talk to each other. For example, we sometimes especially outsiders get pretty freaked out or worried about silence, whereas in some cultures silence is a part of the thinking process. It's not a bad thing. They're not people sitting there and thinking Oh, God, now what's going on here, anything like that. So, the recognition is really important, but not having innocence not being arrogant enough to know that you know everything. Because in my experience there's people with, they might only have had three years education, but they're a lot clever than you are on certain things within with all of the education that you might have. So, it can be quite confronting for people as well.

Peter M: It's an interesting phrase that we often talk about building the capacity of people, but actually I like to turn that on its head and say. Well, actually they've got all these capacities that we don't have, and they bring to the table. So, are we building their capacity or are they actually building ours and all we're doing is bringing money to the table? I often like to think about it in those terms rather than us, you know, the great white Saviour that was easterly that used to talk about that.

Michael S: I guess the thing culturally is, you know, on some of our oldest prime ministers have done it as well. They go up and sit down with indigenous communities and things like that. But again, they try to fill in all of the spaces when you're doing that, you're actually not having a conversation.

Peter M: So, I want to circle back to gender and certainly in the Pacific space in many locations, that's a particular issue. Certainly, in PNG, as well, you just need to look at Parliament, of course, and you see a lack of gender equity there. And you know, I have some dealings in the commercial space in in PNG, and, again the board tables I sit around rarely sees a female. How do you approach that in your work?

Michael S: Yeah, it's a really great question. We try to mainstream gender through all of our programmes. We're lucky enough to have a really good network of people in all of the places that we work and part of that network is having some pretty great women to come in and do programmes, and obviously to teach us as well, at that institutional level, it is an issue just as it is in Australia. A lot of the females that we see coming through programmes here, for example, through Australia Awards are, they're just top notch. If they get the opportunity back in PNG, which is obviously one of the questions or anywhere else they can, they can really, really do some great things. It's also recognising some of the power that women actually have, again, in these spaces as well. So, at a cultural level, in some cultures, the women are incredibly powerful, but sometimes that's just not recognised again by donors or outsiders, because they've got a very fixed idea of what it should be. It's an ongoing issue overseas, just as it is here. I think that's one of the things that I know that Australian donors are now starting to recognise that it's also a big issue here as well. So, you can't just think it's an issue over there and not actually be doing things in Australia, to

Peter M: Which Islands so you're talking about those In the Solomons?

Michael S: I mainly work on Malaita. So I've got a pretty long standing research interest in Malaita as well, but we also do stuff especially around extractives and governance with Team Isabel choice or Rennell as well, Guadalcanal, because the extractives mining is actually now part of the development strategy for Solomon Islands, rightly or wrongly. That's a pretty big question, but so some of the work that we've been doing around that is actually through the Solomon Islands minerals advisory centre, which is an independent centre to actually give information to the managers of customary land and try to help them a little bit in these changes that occur with extractives as well. Unfortunately, throughout the Pacific, some of the experiences with extractives hasn't been positive if we can put it politely and you can't just deny that it's not part of the develop landscape because it is part of the development landscape and Solomon Islands is extremely concerned. So, the logging industry in Solomon Islands was pretty cowboyish, to be absolutely honest. And unfortunately, some of those cowboy logging companies have now flipped over into mining, which has already led to some pretty negative environmental and social effects.

Peter M: Absolutely. So, I noticed square circle is also worked in Bougainville, which has seen its share of conflict, and is now emerging from these tensions. Although the tensions caused by the ownership of resources is still simmering under the surface, how do you seek to understand the causes of insecurity and influence that peace building?

Michael S: It's a really intricate and complex issue. We always try to work from this is relational methodology. So, when you look at conflict, you can't just look at one aspect, like the economic, the social, the political, they're all tied up together. And you really have to do a lot of mapping to get to any progress or any outcomes when it comes to the peace building process or the conflict resolution as well, because some of these things can go back to places that you don't recognise and I can go back generations as well where justice hasn't perceived to be done and things like that. So, in a in a situation like Bougainville people can spend their whole lives there trying to work through some of these processes. The thing about Bougainville, which is so interesting, as you rightfully mentioned, is that it's actually part of this wider geopolitical game as well like breaking off from PNG isn't just about PNG. It also brings into brings into the picture Solomon Islands as well because culturally Bougainville and Western problems in Solomon Islands, essentially one of the signs So there's always been talk about the Western problems in Solomon Islands seceding from Solomon Islands as well. So, there's that aspect to it as well. Of course, Solomon Islands signed on to China and flipped from Taiwan as well. Now, there's even more tension in obviously in Solomon Islands, because the province of Malaita, they have been getting COVID-19 supplies from Taiwan, which has angered Beijing. So all of these things when we talk about this relational methodology, it's not just mapping and saying, Oh, that's an interesting connection and stuff like that is actually saying all these connections can have, you know, this scenario can actually come out of this particular thing. That's one of the things to go back to your question about timeframes. This is one of the issues like if you've got this time frame, and that's it, you go, well, the job's done. A lot of the time that job isn't done because the situation actually continues and is ongoing. So part of that conversation with donors is actually explaining that so yeah, this is a files, you know, we will have to come back to this and build on this otherwise, as you know from your organisation so many times someone leaves an organisation or a project ends and then the next project just basically starts up and does the same thing again, you know, just start over from scratch, and it's actually crazy, that how much that actually happens.

Peter M: Where do you see the independence heading from here? Obviously, it's now with PNG parliament. What's your hope for the future? And what do you actually see happening?

Michael S: It's really weird, like when you talk to people, so if I talk to my colleagues and friends, for example, that are based in Moresby, who are non Bougainvilleans, you get this really wide range of answers about it. You know, obviously, they want to keep Bougainville because that's, that's the idea of the nation as I know, PNG independent, but other people, so now let them go if they don't want to be part of PNG, let them go. We've already spent all this money on them and all this sort of stuff. So, the range of views is really diverse as you would expect in such a diverse country as PNG. Of course, it's really interesting with the Pacific now that the pivot back to the Pacific in terms of geopolitics, too, and how that plays out as well, because, you know, as we know, PNGs are pretty important part of the Pacific strategy of Australia, the USA, China, as well. So, the Pacific is certainly a hit parade in terms of security. I know the Australian Government has put in place advisors now and a lot of a lot of the countries to deal with the South China Seas issue too, because that since COVID-19, there's been a hell of a lot more activity, so to speak in the South China Sea with the various players there. And of course, even just last week in Australia, when Australia came out and actually made a very strong statement yet they've actually made on the South China Sea too. That freedom of navigation and things like this. So, yeah, there's a lot happening that the Pacific is a part of Very much so. And of course, it has an effect on ODA, and it has an effect on the work that gets done as well, and all that sort of stuff. So, Bougainville, you know, because the Panguna mine, it's just an incredible amount of money to get that up again, and obviously Bougainville. People look at Bougainville, and it is a very diverse place as well with a lot of different views as well. So yeah, it's again, it's something that doesn't have a really easy answer.

Peter M: It's an interesting proposition. I mean, the Panguna mine, I don't think is a long-term solution for the sustainability of the economy there. From memory I think the Autonomous Region at the moment, has around about 300,000 I think in terms of population, and when you look at all of the failed Pacific nations there are you just wonder whether or not this is just setting them up for failure yet again. But I mean, it's their decision but at the same time you look down the track and you think it's not looking good. So what projects are on the horizon first square circle once were over the COVID-19 hump, if you like?

Michael S: We'll continue to do work with the Vanuatu law and justice sector. We've got a nice ongoing project there. We've got a good ongoing project still in PNG, a tracer project to learn about leadership and institutional strengthening as well which was really fascinating project and that's led by Dr. Kamil Shah. and looks like we've got a good little project in Cambodia as well, which we just heard about in the last couple of weeks as well. So that'll be a really interesting experience. I know your organisation does a lot in Cambodia. That's something that's very exciting for us because it's a space that we can learn a lot in this world as well, and we Still have projects in Vietnam to with the Vietnamese government as well, which is one of my favourite things because it's such a different system. It's just such an interesting experience as well.

Peter M: On that note, I think we'll wind up. Thank you Michael for taking the time to speak with us today.