Story and photography by Ben Bohane and courtesy of the Australian High Commission.
Australia’s new High Commissioner to Vanuatu, Jenny Da Rin, has the spark of enthusiasm you find in people who feel they have just been given a lucky break and want to do their utmost to achieve great things. In her case, it may be because this is her first posting as a High Commissioner anywhere, having moved up the foreign service ladder from an interesting background in communications with DFAT (Dept. of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and a spell in the corporate world, where she helped reinvent the Australian Made logo and certification process.
The daughter of northern Italian immigrants to Australia in the 1960s, who struggled like most migrants before becoming successful “Aussies”, Jenny’s journey is another migrant success story and she hopes to bring her own sense of purpose, empowerment and social justice to her time here. With a strong background in business and development, she hopes to build on the “excellent” relationship between Australia and Vanuatu. As only the second woman High Commissioner posted here, it is likely she will be investing in women’s empowerment and finding clever ways to develop better trade and cultural links as she oversees Australia’s $62 million annual aid budget to Vanuatu.
BEN BOHANE sat down with her at Vanuatu’s newish National Archives building, a gift from Australia that makes her proud.
Q: Traditionally Australia has focused on governance and development issues, but would you like to see Australia investing a bit more in the culture space, such as this terrific National Archives building?
A: I’m interested in how we can build cultural bridges to deepen our understanding of each other, especially in the arts, because I think it is something that people can relate to. It’s also a place where as Australians, we have come to appreciate our indigenous culture much more than we did when I was growing up. There are a lot of similarities in the way Aboriginal and Pacific islanders approach their art and culture. We have also learnt how to produce and market our arts better and that is something I’m interested in personally and so I hope I can help build some of those bridges here. A lot of Pacific history has not been written down and part of the excitement for me is tracking it down and seeing how Pacific peoples have their own perspective on the world, rather than imposing an Australian perspective of history on them. I want to know how Vanuatu sees other parts of the Pacific too. So I reckon this is a pretty good place to be having this conversation, because if the history is not preserved in a building like this, then some of the stories get lost for future generations.
Q: Do you have any background in cultural development?
A: I came to AUSAID as a specialist in public affairs, in issue management and campaign marketing. I was first employed as part of a team responding to the Indian Ocean tsunami in Indonesia, where we had made a really big pledge to support the rebuilding effort, especially in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. This was a new challenge for me because up until that time I had not been involved in international affairs or development. But I had some skills which were useful and an interest in doing something different. I put my hand up and much to my surprise I got the job and a month later I was in Aceh (in the aftermath of the tsunami) and that was one amazing experience. I was hooked from the first day!
Q: So you were handling communications at the time?
A: That’s right. Part of it was managing expectations of how quickly you can mobilise resources and rebuild after a disaster and I’m seeing some of that here in Vanuatu after cyclone Pam. It takes a long time for communities to plan and generate good projects and have them implemented. Sometimes people have unrealistic expectations that you can click your fingers and do that overnight. But you know, that is often the case in developed countries as well, such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It can take a long time and it has to be the community that manages it – it can’t be imposed from outside.
A: I did a lot of things before I joined AUSAID. I worked in industry policy for some time, including research in the early days of the internet and how it could be good for business. It seems extraordinary now because it is hard to imagine working without it! But in the 1990s it was so clunky and slow that many businesses were not sure it would be useful to them. I worked on a book about it which sold out, and learnt about the technology involved, although I’m probably a bit rusty on it now.
I ran the Australian Made campaign for five years, resurrecting it from a business that had become defunct. I took it on and now it has been adopted by the government as the symbol for ‘country of origin’ labelling in Australia. It is good to see over the course of 10 years how it has been completely revitalised. I have done lots of things! A very eclectic career….but all of those experiences have helped me in my next phase.
After Aceh, I became the media director for AUSAID through an interesting period of growth, but also through some tragedies – namely the Garuda plane crash in Jogyakarta when my boss was killed and several friends were killed too; I knew four out of the five Australians who perished on that flight. It was a very distressing time but at the same time we recognised that the best way to honour them was to make sure they were well remembered for lives well lived. It was the first time I recognised how well our foreign service mobilises in times of crisis.
After the Rudd govt was elected in 2007 I was asked to work in parliament house in the transition team working for the Foreign Minister (Steven Smith) as an aid advisor. Then I worked as an advisor in East Timor which was great, a chance to see government from the inside.
A: That is a really difficult question because I have only been here for a few months and whatever I say will make me sound like a development expert in Vanuatu, when really, I feel as though I’m here to learn and listen to what the government thinks that it needs to do to develop its country, so we can work out how we can help with that. I find that the things people talk about are the same things people want everywhere: they want to be healthy, they want their children to be healthy, they want their babies born in safe environment, their kids to be able to go to school and learn to read and write, to be able to work and provide for their family in whatever way that works for them. In some cases it means a formal education and university and a professional job. For others it may be learning a set of skills that makes them productive in their home villages – these are universal wishes.
What we are doing to help Vanuatu is improve its capacity to do some of those things. So we are helping them to provide better health services that reach more people, by training doctors and nurses and giving them the materials they need. We are helping them develop better curriculums for schools. One thing we are proud of is helping Vanuatu train primary school teachers to teach in their own language so children learn faster. It seems really obvious but in the past the curriculum was designed to teach in an unknown language and letting children struggle through all that. Now we have learnt that it is better to let children learn first in their own language. We are focused on years 1-3 at the moment, before moving up the years to improve literacy and numeracy.
In terms of gender issues, there are many really capable women in Vanuatu who are not reaching positions of leadership in the numbers that you would expect. Again, Australia has been there too but you need to have a conversation about it to move things forward. So helping that conversation and speaking to women here is really important, that is one of things I am doing.
Q: Every day we have container ships arriving from Australia full of produce for the supermarkets here, yet those container ships leave Vanuatu mostly empty. What can be done to improve the trade imbalance?
A: I agree trade is very important and domestic markets are not enough to generate growth and revenue for a country to be self-sustaining. But I think it is a case of not just trade but in Vanuatu’s case, labour mobility; the chance to go overseas and work and return with money to build a home or invest in a business. That is why Australia is creating more opportunities for Pacific islanders to go to Australia under the seasonal labour program, so they can use those skills and generate an income which over time may generate more revenue than what our aid program provides. We want to see Vanuatu generate its own wealth so it is not reliant on aid donors. It will take time, but the more a country has the ability to do this, the more it can determine its own future and that is a positive thing.
So it takes not just opening up Australia’s labour market but also providing people with the skills necessary to work in Australia or anywhere, including things like technical and trade skills and also financial literacy and the ability to manage agreements.
Ministers have recently signed off on the PACER PLUS agreement, which over time can offer really good opportunities for Pacific countries to make them more export orientated. Vanuatu produces some really high quality products like beef, coffee, seafood, vanilla…there are all sorts of things Vanuatu produces that would be attractive to overseas markets but it requires them to produce things with quality and consistency, that meet bio-security rules and then getting them to market.
There’s a lot of work to be done to get all those pieces in place. Some of those will be businesses that will grow with some outside investment. An example of that is Tanna Coffee which has just received a boost from a new fund called the Difference Incubator, an impact investor based in Melbourne. We have facilitated that but basically it is a commercial deal which will expand Tanna Coffee’s output and markets and the local growers who benefit.
There are lots of potential investors but we have already spoken about some of the challenges here, including the need to maintain consistency of quality and supply for products, getting the supply chain right, meeting the customer’s specifications. Not just in food products but also in things like handicrafts. In my short time here I have seen lots of opportunities for Vanuatu.
Q: Will the opportunities for work go beyond agriculture and seasonal labour to include other areas like aged care, hospitality?
A: We have been piloting some other sectors like hospitality with small groups from places like Kiribati. There is also much interest in aged care so that work is going on now, but it won’t happen overnight. You need to create a pool of employers who want to work with Pacific islanders, who can meet the requirements that need to be met. I agree there are opportunities in new sectors and I think we will see more of that opening up in future.