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“The Woes of the USP ELMS Project: 2003-2004”


The Woes of the USP ELMS Project (2003 to 2004)

During my 1994 to 1996 term as Director of Planning and Development (DPD), an enterprising Sociology Lecturer (Dr Satendra Prasad) put through a proposal through my office, to the European Union, for the funding of an Employment and Labor Market Studies Project, which we both agreed ought to be one of the priority areas for Pacific Island countries.  Largely due to Satendra’s initiative, the EU gave a large grant to USP, which belatedly advertised the position of Director and Professor of ELMS around 2002, by which time I had returned to the Economics Department.
Satendra was offered the position of Director but not the Professorship. He refused the appointment. With the large grant in danger of reverting to the EU, Vice Chancellor Siwatibau asked me to take over the project, which I reluctantly agreed to, but was soon informed by close friends that I was undermining our mutual friend.  I advised the Vice Chancellor to advertise the position again and implored Satendra to accept the position of Director, and assured him that I would work under him and that I was confident that he would receive his professorship in due course, as he was quite a dynamic person.
Unfortunately, USP again refused to appoint him as Professor. This is one of great weaknesses of academic institutions which are stuck in traditional rules where people of ability and energy are often refused promotions and appointments simply because they do not fit the “traditional” moulds of “academic” professors. In disgust, Satendra moved on, and not long after, was rising rapidly in the World Bank.
I then reluctantly took on the directorship of the ELMS project, forgetting all the bitter lessons of the past, that I was not cut out to be an administrator. The Project had an excellent and supportive Board (including entrepreneur and garment manufacturer Mark Halabe). I tried to make appointments in the program, but there were few applicants and USP appointment wheels moved slowly (too slowly for some friends who thought that the appointments should be made as soon as they put in their applications).   There were major challenges but also personal stresses.

The Pacific Island Seasonal Labor Scheme: one ELMS scheme realized

At every opportunity, one of my ELMS activities was arguing for Australia and NZ to open up to Pacific Island labor. I gave a paper (“PICTA, PACER and EPAs: weaknesses in Pacific island countries’ trade policies and alternative integration options”) to the 39th Otago Foreign Policy School. Redefining the Pacific? Regionalism, Past, Present and the Future.  25-27 June 2004. That was published in 2006 in Pacific Futures, edited by Michael Powles. I also gave a similar conference paper in Brisbane “PIC development: Remittances and other alternatives to regional integration” in 2004. These views were published as Narsey, Wadan (2004) “PICTA, PACER and EPAs: weaknesses in Pacific island countries’ trade policies”.  Pacific Economic Bulletin, Vol. 19 No 3. 2004. But Australia would not move on the seasonal worker scheme (until just recently, and only in token numbers).
But I managed to convince Dr Manjula Luthria, a World Bank HRD expert based in Sydney, that this was a most important area with a lot of potential for employment and incomes for Pacific Islanders. She went on to coordinate a study (Home and Away) which put pressure on NZ to open up its labour market to seasonal Pacific Island Labor.
When the World Bank’s Home and Away publication was launched in NZ, NZ Foreign Affairs (Vince McBride) requested me to give one of the keynote addresses as a recognition of my role in advocating the Seasonal Worker Scheme in NZ.  I was then working on a consultancy in Tuvalu and not wanting to lose any income, I was silly enough to insensitively request a “Speaker’s Fee” for which the NZ Foreign Affairs did not have any provisions.   I then made an even sillier decision not to accept the invitation to speak at the launching and I remember that my Tuvalu consultant partner then (Dr Kim Robertson) was astonished at my lack of wisdom in not keeping the NZ Government happy.

One ELMS contribution aborted

One of my pet employment generating projects was the need to develop and facilitate the use of agricultural markets in Suva and throughout Fiji.   For Suva, I envisaged and proposed a grand $40 million project to the Suva City Council, that would have not only facilitated farmers’ sale of agricultural produce, but also transformed the Suva Harbour front, while creating a great tourism attraction.
I made co-financing proposals to donors (who were favourably inclined). Read this power-point proposal.
2004 ELMS Market-CSCI-presentation

I  facilitated an SCC Committee (chaired by Paula Sotutu) which put out tenders for design proposals to architects, and we selected 5 firm for the last stage of design work.
Unfortunately, the whole process was circumvented by one architect firm, which convinced the SCC Management, no doubt using the usual time honoured incentives) to stop our call for competitive bids from architects, and gave the job to the preferred architect, whose original design had been rejected in the first place.
I complained to Prime Minister Qarase and all the relevant authorities (see attached letter), and but no action was taken.  I even wrote an article in the Fiji Times,

Again, there was no public outcry.  It is easy in Fiji, to get away with corruption.

AusAID did eventually set up a Market Development Facility project, but which has done many positive things around Fiji.  Unfortunately, the grand project that I had suggested to SCC has still got nowhere.

But then I was afflicted by a series of personal crises.

Trouble 1

After one of my ELMS related trips to the Solomon Islands, I came down with persistent urticaria, which left me with a strange allergic reaction or rashes and hives, every day.  With no diagnostics tests available in Fiji, I had to fly to Brisbane, where no underlying cause could be found, except that I may have been bitten by some insect in the Solomon Islands.  I was prescribed a daily dose of antihistamines, which I have continued till today.

Trouble 2

In the middle of  writing a report for ELMs and waiting for my lunch to defrost in the micro-wave, I decided to burn a huge pile of garden rubbish which was lying in the corner of my yard, at the right angle of two walls.  Without thinking, I poured some diesel on the huge pile of garden refuse, not realizing that in the mid-day sun, with no wind around, the diesel would have evaporated to form a large cloud over the rubbish, which exploded when I threw a lit newspaper from ten meters away. The force of the explosion knocked me over backwards, my glasses flying, and rattled the windows of neighbouring buildings. “Whew, that was a close call”,  I thought, as I put on my glasses and wiped my face.
wadan 04Only then did I realise that the sticky stuff hanging from my hand was the burnt skin from my face and my forearm which I had put up automatically when the explosion took place.
I rushed to Dr Yee Chief’s surgery in Flagstaff, where other patients in fright moved away from me. With no burn unit at CWM, Dr Yee Chief advised me to go to Brisbane if I did not want my face to be scarred permanent. I booked to go on the next flight, the next morning.
Amit 291      My wife and I had called our old friends Hilda Lini (and her children) and Amelia Rokotuivuna home that evening for dinner, which I foolishly decided must go on.  This insensitive academic did not realize the impact my face would have on Hilda Lini’s poor children, especially when the main course was, oh dear, BBQ’d chops and chicken.
The next morning I went to Nadi airport with a long sleeves shirt to hide my burnt arm and a golf cap pulled over my face to hide the burns.  But the security guards got me to take off my cap and one of the security ladies went racing off.  “That was it”, I thought, I would not be allowed to leave. But she returned with a Fijian man from a Beqa fire walker, who placed his hands on my face, to help my burns heal, and I flew on to Brisbane for treatment.  My face did not scar, but my forearm remained blackened (was it because the Beqa firewalker had not touched my burnt arm?).

Trouble 3

Sitting on my deck one day, I realized that I was not able to see a nearby coconut frond too clearly (and neither could I clearly see the flag sticks on the golf greens). My jovial optician in town (he shall remain nameless) casually tested me and prescribed new glasses. At home, it was only when an insect flew into one eye that I realized that the vision from my other eye was completely blurred. I went back to the optician who did a more careful check and worriedly advised I go to Australia for further testing.
I did, and found that I had had a small clot at the back of my eye, which was not operable. Like many other diabetics in Fiji, I also was not looking after my diabetes at this time, all made worse by the stress involved in the ELMS project.

Taking leave of absence then stupidly resigning

By mid 2004, I was absolute exhausted.  My GP diagnosed that my fatigue and worsening diabetes was causing “hypertriglyceridaemia” which needed treatment and recommended I take leave from work for several months.  Numerous USP staff go on “sick leave” with full pay, sometimes for months, and often for expensive overseas treatments. For some reason (“stupidity” said my legal adviser) I took leave without pay, for three months, easily granted by the university.
VC appreciation      But unable to sit idle at home, I went back to work and within two months, came down again, with exhaustion.  The university again offered me leave without pay until the end of December 2004. But one member of USP management callously passed the message that I should resign if I could not work. In November 2004, in a knee-jerk reaction to unsympathetic USP management, I stupidly offered to resign.
The Acting Vice Chancellor accepted my resignation, while expressing appreciation of my long service to USP from 1973 (see attached letter).
I went away into a three year period of self-employment, hoping to make a living by consultancies and producing and selling economics text books for Fiji secondary schools.

Post-script 1: Rescuing the ELMS project

When I resigned from USP, Professor Biman Prasad (then Head of Economics) was given oversight to try and rescue the ELMS project and use up the funds before they reverted to the EU.   He quickly hired several consultants who wrote up some useful labour market studies and rescued the project, not the last time that he has helped USP to try and use donor money productively (more on that).

Post-script 2:  USP staff and medical benefits

Many a USP staff  member (both local and expatriate) have received expensive medical treatments, some even after just joining USP.  Having served USP for more than three decades, I should not have resigned but tried to get medical treatment, as have many others. My reaction was knee-jerk, emotional and silly. USP has wasted far more money on unnecessary legal services.

Post-script 3:  No money in text books for Fiji

My hopes for a text-book publishing scheme (through my registered company Vanuavou Publications) went nowhere, as one of the key persons in the Ministry of Education (whose support I needed to have a book declared a text-book) slyly wanted a commission, which I refused.

Post-script 4:  Trouble No. 4 came soon after

Not too long afterwards, while in Christchurch preparing for a family holiday, I was a passenger in a new Toyota rental car driven by a Japanese fellow golfer (who had worked on the Monasavu Hydro Project), when he failed to stop at an intersection.  Our car was hit from the side by another car being driven at more than 100 k.p.h.
The engine was torn right off, the airbags blew, I found myself inexplicably lying dazed on the tarmac, while my Japanese friend was completely unscathed but very strangely walking around in a daze picking up the broken glass (while people were injured and moaning all around). I was eventually evacuated in an ambulance to hospital, while other more serious victims were evacuated by helicopter.  I was lucky to escape serious injuries, but a fraction of a second earlier into the intersection, and neither of use would have been alive.
Among flowers     My family arrived that evening in great panic and we duly continued our holiday driving around the South Island of NZ.  With my badly hurting ribs, I could not play any golf, and neither could I go sky-diving with my two sons and nephew. But my family enjoyed the beautiful sights that I remembered from my Otago University days.


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