Talanoa Consulting

Claiming the space as Pacific experts

Reflections on the localisation agenda

Photo of Nicollette Goulding

By Nicollette Goulding

This article was first published in April 2020 as Fiji closed its borders in response to the pandemic and uncertainty inspired reflection. Staff from many international development programmes left Fiji. Many returned later in 2020, only to depart again in May 2021 as it became clear that we could no longer contain COVID at the border. In the context of the Australia Pacific Climate Alumni Network’s current localisation webinar series, Niki’s reflections feel particularly relevant.

The current situation presents an opportunity for the development machinery to relook at the mode of implementing work in the region and the way the system defines who the experts are that can support the implementation of development assistance.

Growing up in Fiji, I was exposed to the development world from a young age through my Mum’s work and I often heard the term expatriate. For some time I automatically associated it with the term expert. It didn’t take too long into my first job in development to realise, with much frustration, that my initial perceptions were not entirely accurate.

As a local, working in the development and humanitarian space has often left me and many of my fellow national staff and Pacific island colleagues with the feeling of being considered second rate in terms of expertise to external consultants, interns or fellow staff members in the same field. Yet we are often asked to support and advise such ‘experts’ on how things work in our context. Is a deep understanding of the culture and the context and the way that affects the approaches that should be used not ‘expertise’?

Now, as a consultant bidding for contracts, I often see the criteria of experience in the Pacific region or a specified country being included in the selection criteria as ‘desirable’. This is yet another indication that though the phrase ”context specific” is often thrown around in many development workshops or conferences, knowledge of context is still not recognised as valuable and a prerequisite for doing a good job. 

The current model of development in the region is one that still remains heavily reliant on expatriates and external consultants being contracted to carry out the work. I also recognise the irony that I have carried out and am continuing to work in other Pacific island countries that are not my home and recognise that even though I am from the region I am not an expert in their context. 

I recognise that I am privileged to have been provided the support to make the switch to the more flexible life of being a consultant, a leap of faith that not many are able to make as easily.  Part of this process is knowing how much your expertise is worth. Having managed consultants before, I have been exposed to the rates of external and national consultants, the former in most cases earning double or triple that of national consultants who I felt significantly undervalued their own expertise. If left to my own devices I probably would have followed suit. Thankfully I had support and encouragement that I should recognise the value of my own ‘local’ expertise (a mentality that is still difficult to shake).

Over the last few weeks, as long-term contractors left, going back to the safety of their own home countries, despite the challenges of the current situation, discussions with colleagues and friends are hopeful. That local expertise will be recognised and appreciated in the same way as external expertise. Hopeful, that positions that may not be filled by external experts aren’t downgraded to accommodate locals (having the same expectations for significantly less), that more local consultants will be contracted and those who have been waiting to make the leap to consultancy are better supported to do so and that perhaps finally (given the significant drop in travel) more organisations will invest in developing and mentoring other Pacific Islanders to fill in the gaps that are now vacant.