Looking back on the Pacific Connect Ideas Exchange

The Pacific Connect “Ideas Exchange” for the year 2021 was held on 7 October. The Ideas Exchange is akin to an annual “catch-up” for the Pacific Connect Community – a day lined up with learned and distinguished speakers. Participants also get an overview of the various community engagements/partnerships and projects that Pacific Connect has done throughout the year with its various Australia-Pacific programs that run in the six partner countries (Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Tonga). But perhaps the most rewarding and engaging experience of the Ideas Exchange is being able to meet other members of the Pacific Connect Community (PCC) plus the interactions that follow. The unique feature of Pacific Connect’s programs is the dedication to informing and facilitating collaborations to give life to new projects, revive and revamp existing ones, and look back at older projects – and the Ideas Exchange delivered exceptionally well on this, this year.

This was the second time I attended the Ideas Exchange. Ideally, it is an event that is organised with participants gathering face-to-face. However, due to the global pandemic and restricted travel, this year’s program was held virtually. However, some PCC members were able to meet face-to-face in their respective hubs – having to tune in online for the event. Possibly, the true spirit of the PCC showed in the number of people who attended despite it being a virtual event – more than 80 participants who were ready for the day!

The event started with Pacific Connect’s CEO, Simone Pensko welcoming all participants. The respective hub coordinators introduced their individual hubs, giving a brief introduction of the activities that took place in their countries in the past year. We got to hear about exciting and innovative projects, workshops and dialogues that took place throughout the year. After getting a wonderful overview from both the CEO and the hub coordinators, the participants heard from the keynote speakers, the Samoan Prime Minister, Honorable Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa and current ICDP Director and former Australian Minister of Defence, Honourable Christopher Pyne.

A trailblazer in the field of politics in Samoa and within the Pacific, Hon Fiame Mata’afa spoke about the importance of having Pacific representation in all geopolitical spaces where decisions are made about various issues, such as health and the environment. Hon Mata’afa also commended the Pacific Connect program for recognising the “…skills, giftedness and innovation of the Pacific people across all fields…”. The PM’s address about the Pacific reminded me of how proud I am to be able to call the Pacific my home and have such strong, fearless and exemplary female leaders in the region.

The Honuorable Christopher Pyne, who has actively played a part in strengthening Australia’s role in the Pacific and has held various portfolios under different Prime Ministers, also weighed into the discussion by having a discourse about the COVID pandemic and the South Pacific. He spoke highly of the South Pacific countries’ response to the pandemic and the possibility of resuming travel between Australia and the South Pacific after thorough vaccination of our respective populations. Issues like public health post-COVID were also highlighted.

We need champions of the Pacific like Hon Pyne who are deeply involved in the welfare of the Pacific islands. It gives our Pacific voices a much-needed platform and also encourages us to know that there are individuals who recognise the Pacific for its complex, intricate and innovative nations.

The final speaker for the Ideas Exchange was ICDP’s Chair, Dr. Ian Watt, who has had a prolific career in the Australian public sector and has been elected secretary of various Australian government ministries over the years. Dr Ian talked about the International Centre for Democratic Partnerships’ year in review – from the successful projects that have happened in the last year to how ICDP pivoted into a “virtual organisation” after the initial COVID pandemic restricted travel in 2020. Dr Watts mentioned the importance of dialogues where connection is as important (if not more) as listening”… as important as listening to each other is, forming a connection is even more important, and Pacific Connect is here to form connections…”.

Dr. Watts said that the participants were able to pick up a useful skill in virtual delivery/presentations during the pandemic. He mentioned that while there is merit in continuing with virtual sessions, there are plans to resume face-to-face meetings once travel restrictions cease. Dr. Watts closed off his speech by acknowledging everyone who had helped make the Pacific Connect program a successful one this past year.

This year’s Ideas Exchange was truly a platform for sharing ideas and making connections. The project discussions, keynote speakers, and review of the year, along with the hub coordinators’ review of the past year, shone light on how impactful the Pacific Connect program is for its partner countries. The review of the wonderful and long-lasting connections, the fruitful projects, and the meaningful discussions which led to actions made me appreciate being a small part of the Pacific Connect community. Now for the next year – bring it on 2022! Vinaka Vakalevu and dhanyawaad (thank you) Pacific Connect!