Project management in a Pacific context

John Walker
February 24, 2011

Donors fund most projects in the Pacific as part of an aid program. Donors are not overly interested in methodology; they simply want the project carried out and the desired results achieved. Budget, in particular, is very important.
Project governance varies from donor to donor.

Depending on the proximity of the donor, governance may mean a six-monthly visit from a team to ensure that the project is being properly managed and meeting its goals. I formed a steering committee of senior government public servants and a representative from Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands. However, the steering committee only wanted to meet if ‘something important’ happened or was to happen, and reporting was minimal, so project governance was not overly onerous.

Cultural challenges are many and varied. The ‘Pacific yes’ was very much in evidence. Answers to many questions appeared to be what people thought I wanted to hear. The people I worked with were friendly, looked forward to having a new system, and wanted to assist in every way, however when it came to providing information they, unconsciously, only ever gave a part of the story.

I met a journalist who had lived in the Solomons for many years. I asked her about the difficulty in getting complete answers to questions. She said when she asks about a particular event, the person often starts telling her a story not connected to her questions. When she next sees the person, he or she will continue the story until one day, probably months after the question was asked, the person answers the question. Sometimes the question is never answered.

The atmosphere in the ministry was more relaxed than a lot of Australian workplaces. There were people from different cultures and countries working as advisers, as well as people from all provinces in the Solomons. In Australia we often work in a multicultural environment and I found that there was little difference, except that the cultures and countries of origin were different from the Australian norm. People went about their tasks in a similar fashion to at home, albeit with far less stress.

Pacific time difference

Most nationals in the public service come from a village background and bring the same attitude to time as in their village: things do get done but in its own good time. When you have deadlines to meet it can get interesting. The key is, where possible, to allow enough time in the schedule. Pressure can be applied, but carefully.

Solomon Islanders have a different set of priorities from Australians. Their first priority is to family, and a close second is to their wantoks, people who speak their mother tongue. If there is a family crisis they will drop everything and attend to it. If it means returning to their village—which could take a week or more to travel to—they will go. Whatever work they were doing for you or whatever deadline depends on them does not matter. Whole ministries have been known to close down so all can attend the funeral of one of their number who has passed away. As a project manager, this can cause a significant amount of stress if you are relying on staff. You simply have to accept it and be creative in coming up with a solution.

Cultural diplomacy

It’s important to treat the people with respect. They may not be as educated as you, and required skills may not be up to scratch, but you are working in their country. It is likely they are highly skilled in tasks that are important to them for their survival.

As with any cross-cultural situation, diplomacy and a willingness to be tough and say ‘no’ when necessary are all part of the armoury of survival. The owner of the hotel that I lived in insisted that his staff call him ‘boss’. As a 21-year-old working for his uncle, he told those working for him to call him Alec. As the local population got to know him, they started to ask him for loans, which were rarely repaid, and other favours. When he told them to call him Mr Wang, things changed and they stopped asking for loans or favours. They worked harder. They recognised him as the boss and that changed the relationship.

If you get a project management role in the Pacific, the worst thing you can do is to arrive in the country, panic, and get the first plane home. Unfortunately this happens too frequently so aid agencies often place more importance on in country experience than on competence, which makes it difficult for those starting off. However, I found the two years I spent in Solomon Islands very rewarding.

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John Walker
John Walker worked for two years as an IT project manager for the Solomon Islands Government on a payroll project.
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