News Item

Fostering future Pacific leaders

News 12 Mar 2018

More than 200 students from across the Pacific Region and New Zealand attended the PISAN (Pacific Island Scholars Alumni Network) Conference in Waikanae on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast with the theme of Building Regional Leadership through shared opportunities.

As part of the Fono, they staged a number of workshops across the five rooms and auditoriums at the El Rancho venue, relating to Accessibility, Non-Communicable Diseases, Youth Employment, Climate Change and Risk Disaster Management and Fisheries.

What emerged from the sessions were significant challenges due to the limited resources in the region.

But the number of Pacific graduates who want to return to their countries of birth is growing, which provides optimism for the future.

Sponsored by AUT, University of Auckland and Waitemata DHB, attending students also came from Waikato, Massey, Victoria, Lincoln and Canterbury Universities.

As hosts of the PISAN conference, the Pacific Cooperation Foundation was honoured to have the presence of Hon. Henry Tuakeu Puna, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, as keynote speaker at the event.

An alumni of a New Zealand Government scholarship scheme for the Pacific region himself, many years ago, Prime Minister Puna shared his journey from growing up on the Cook Island of Aitutaki as the seventh in a family of 12 siblings, with him being the youngest boy.

“Being part of a big family taught me life-long principals, particularly the idea of sharing and looking after others,” he said.

In contrast to his fond memories with family (apart from receiving the hand-me-down clothing from his elder brothers), he went on to boarding school in New Plymouth and found it a cold (literally) and lonely experience. He says the food was so bland it put him off potatoes for life. He was also caned for speaking his native Cook Islands Maori tongue.

But studying law at the University of Auckland and the Australia’s National University in Canberra was a key turning point, particularly after a winning a practical court case at the Australian University in front of a real judge.

“That was the trigger for me. Things really did change, and I lost the inferiority complex that I had,” he recalls.

“Yes, I initially had struggles coming to grips with the English language, but I overcame that and became even more proud and determined to retain and speak the Cook Islands Maori language.

“That was one of the key drivers in accepting this invitation, to tell the students at this Fono to be proud of your Pacific culture and language, no matter where you are.”

With Cyclone Fehi, then Gita, hitting the western South Pacific at the start of 2018 and Hola on the horizon, attendees of the PISAN Fono were fully aware of the growing impact of climate change.

It ensured the presence of Prime Minister Puna, one of the Pacific region’s most committed leaders combating climate change, was all the more appropriate as keynote.

When he became Prime Minister of the Cook Islands in 2010, the word climate change became a buzzword. He’s pleased to see the term now entrenched in the language and discussions.

“I remember stating that we would aim to convert 50% of our energy use to renewable energy. Our critics called our ambitions stupid and unaffordable,” he says.

“Yet we achieved it with 50% converted to renewables in 2015 with the aim to have it 100% by 2020.

“Our neighbouring nations are following suit. It has brought the Pacific region together and to the fore globally.

“Our voices are finally being heard around the world.”

To provide another perspective, a talanoa session included key notes Dr Vergil Narokobi, Counsel to the Ombudsman in Papua New Guinea and Joyana Mennie Finch, a Mechatronics Engineer from the Cook Islands.

Joyana spoke of overcoming perceptions as the only Pacific and female student in her engineering class at the University of Auckland.

With a love of maths and science and a curiosity to find out how machines work, she went on to become a Mechatronic Engineer, living and working in Japan.

She’s now married, a mother, and based in Auckland, but retains the passion to promote teaching engineering in her native Cook Islands, which she calls home.

Speaking at the Fono PCF CEO Craig Strong said the region is more equipped than ever to handle climate change.

He urged the attendees from across the Pacific to maintain the path towards a cleaner and greener future.

“Cyclones in our part of the Pacific are happening more frequently and with greater intensity,” he says.

“As our young leaders of today, you have the potential to one day determine the types of strategies and policies that are put in place to ensure sustainability, business resilience and geopolitical changes needed.

“The friendships made at this Fono create opportunities for you, as leaders, to shape our region over the coming years.”

About the Pacific Island Scholars Alumni Network (PISAN)

The Pacific Cooperation Foundation runs the NZAID Scholars alumni programme that aims to facilitate scholars to be regional leaders with shared views for regional growth/prosperity and utilising the opportunities for the benefit of the region. The PISAN Fono is an annual event bringing together this diverse group of Pacific scholars from New Zealand tertiary institutions and the Fono programme sessions aim to reinforce the strong expectations of these young leaders.