Australia's Indigenous approach supporting education in Vanuatu

Utilizing the Indigenous to Indigenous approach to development, a program in Vanuatu is hoping to show new ways to support better engagement in education by combining local culture with Western education.

The second phase of the Vanuatu Education Support Program, or VESP, funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, aims to strengthen education systems through a focus on community engagement, communications, social inclusion, and localization.

To reach new communities in this second phase, VESP is partnering with Australian Indigenous development experts i2i Development Global, which has historic connections with the local population, and Coffey International.

“It’s been an exhilarating time full of learning,” Tony Martens, director of i2i, told Devex.

In July, i2i visited remote schools and communities in the Tanna Province of Vanuatu — including some that had not previously been engaged in development programs. And despite the program being in the early stages, Martens said the engagement of Australian Indigenous educators is already building strong connections that he hopes will build a sustainable education program in remote areas of Vanuatu.

Martens added that the makeup of the team is a mix of very experienced educators from a range of disciplines — including a technical college, universities, experienced principals, and classroom teachers. “But the unique thing we have brought to the partnership is that the majority of our team has Australian Indigenous heritage coupled with the Australian South-Sea Islander background.”

In the 1800s, the “blackbirding” trade saw thousands of workers come from the Pacific Islands to Australia’s sugarcane fields — some willingly, but most through force and deception, and working for limited pay, where deaths were common.

Vanuatu was the most prominent country in this trade, and i2i staff have links back to Vanuatu through this forced removal of ancestors from their homeland.

“As part of our cultural approach, we spent a lot of time explaining who our people are and asking the communities about their background,” Martens said. “It was emotional for them to see people from Australian connecting with them through their heritage, and also coming back to support them.”