“DPD again in 2000, under Siwatibau, but lasted only a week”
DPD again, under Siwatibau, for only a week
In 1999, following my three years in the Fiji Parliament and failure to be re-elected (I leave that longer story for another day), I went back to teaching in the Economics Department as Associate Professor of Monetary Economics. Rajesh Chandra was then the Acting Vice Chancellor.
The post of Director of Development and Planning was advertised. I applied, and was placed on top of the Short List (according to one of the members of the Screening Committee). The Acting Vice Chancellor delayed in making the appointment.
The post of Vice Chancellor was advertised and Rajesh Chandra (then Acting Vice Chancellor) had applied. But unfortunately for him, the Chairman of Council, Savenaca Siwatibau (former Governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji and Head of ESCAP in the Pacific) also applied. I suggested to Rajesh that he withdraw his application as I thought that Siwatibau would be appointed given that his reputation was extremely strong in the region and with the USP Council.
Rajesh refused, believing that his academic experience would hold sway with Councils’s Appointment Committee which, with Australian and NZ academics in it, did indeed have him at the top of the list. But USP Council appointed Savenaca Siwatibau, to Rajesh’s understandable unhappiness and bitterness. We all wondered then, whether Rajesh, given his experience and qualifications, would have been appointed had he been an indigenous Fijian or any other Pacific Islander. But that was the first of Rajesh’s big disappointments for his tilt to be the Head Honcho of USP.
Simultaneously, the 2000 coup deposed Mahendra Chaudhry as Prime Minister, and Siwatibau was asked by the coup leaders to lead an Interim Government. He refused and condemned the coup.
A week after being appointed VC, Siwatibau appointed me to the post of Director of Development and Planning, and I again went to USP HQ, like a lamb to slaughter.
Conflict over a $30 million USP Satellite System
Within a week, I was in conflict with Deputy Vice Chancellor Rajesh Chandra who was the driver of a massive Japanese funded $30 million satellite communication project linking all the USP Member countries, effectively bypassing the commercial communication links in the Pacific through FINTEL.
On paper, and at international conferences where the project was often displayed on a map by its initiator, the project looked magnificent. Here was a communications system criss-crossing a South Pacific the size of Europe, linking all the USP Centres together. It was supposed to bring poor Pacific Island distance education students from backward communities into the modern digital computerized age, in touch with their lecturers in Suva and beyond. It was capable of continuous two-way data transfer. It did indeed work that way, for some students and some staff, and between some centres and the USP Laucala Campus. But I felt that there were too many weaknesses for such a costly project.
Most distance education students in the other Pacific countries did not have easy access to the USP Centres which were usually in the capitals not easily reached from the outer islands or rural areas where the students lived. The satellite system was often down in some countries, because all USP Centres suffered the depredation of salty atmospheres which corroded everything and there was the perennial Pacific problem of the lack of appropriately qualified technical people to maintain the complex system. The supposed benefit of the “two-way data” transfer in real time between USP staff in the centres and Laucala Bay was used infrequently and hardly worth the huge cost, given that there were much cheaper alternatives, where time was not a factor.
Most important of all, I suggested that our Distance Education students would be far better served if they were each given comprehensive hard copy learning materials when they enrolled, enough to last them throughout the course. In my opinion, that would have been the far more cost-effective and better aid to learning than the $30 million satellite system. We would have $29 million left over for other projects.
In our management meetings, the Deputy Vice Chancellor was incensed that I was questioning the project and curtly told me “Just get on board, Wadan”. Privately, Siwatibau agreed with me, but in meetings would not back me against Rajesh, I suspect because he still felt uneasy at having been appointed VC over his Deputy. It was clear that I was becoming “the meat in the sandwich”. My stress levels rose.
Within two weeks of being appointed DPD, after retaining a
bit of “Dutch Courage” after a night out with friends, I apologetically resigned as DPD and requested Siwa that I be returned to my old post in the Economics Department (a demotion, of course, from the more senior post of DPD) (see attached). Siwatibau
was very understanding and agreed (see attached).
Lesson 1: a good research project?
That incredibly costly satellite system ($30 millions?), which the Japanese Government very willingly funded, should be an extremely interesting PhD research project, with many aspects which crop up in aid projects all over the Pacific: a massive amount of money freely given, compared to the typical small capital projects in PICs; the technical capacity of the recipient to manage the project (such technically qualified people usually emigrate fairly quickly): the high maintenance costs which must be paid for out of the small and restricted recurrent budgets of PICs; the impact of the salty atmosphere on physical parts; and the strategic priorities of the donor government (what did Japan learn from that project?).
An aid project with similar issues is the massive hospital donated by Japan to Kiribat, where the Kiribati Government Health Budget simply could not pay for the high maintenance costs of the hospital and equipment (air conditioners rusting in no time).
Lesson 2: “A lesson too late for the learning”
These words are part of a Tom Paxton song I like “Last thing on my mind”.
It struck a chord with many popular artists including Joan Baez, John Denver, Neil Diamond, the Seekers, and a wonderful trio forgotten today, Peter Paul and Mary. I was clearly not suited for the “cut and thrust” of senior management where one had to be tough against the ambitious people who usually inhabit that stratosphere. I should have stuck to my teaching and research. But I did not learn my lesson, as my reluctant slide into the ELMS project illustrated.
But is there a bigger lesson here, that Fiji’s coup leaders are also teaching the younger generation: that to “get things done” you need to be tough against all opponents, break the rules, negate all principles of fair play and natural justice, and even break the law. It is simply the “survival of the fittest” in the Darwinian jungle? Whether what you are doing is “good” or “bad” is rarely debated by the average person, only that someone is allegedly a “doer” not a “talker”.