I Came, I Saw, I Learned: My Journey into the South Pacific

For this article we are privileged to hear from MIDP’s Rowena (Weng) Veloso, who provides a wonderfully informative and reflective piece about the experience of her recent Monash internship in Fiji.

‘Bula, na yacaqu o Weng’ (Hello, my name is Weng). This was my usual introduction in the communities I visited during my month-long internship in Fiji. Perhaps it was my funny accent in the Fijian tongue, but I found it amusing that most of the women in the different villages called me ‘Wendy’.
Before ending up at Monash to study a Master in International Development Practice by some twist of faith, I was an accountant and a Master of Business Administration graduate in the Philippines. I also worked at a multinational company for 7 years doing finance and sales. I suppose due to my background, I have always found the subject of financial education interesting and how the knowledge, or the lack thereof, could spell boon or bane for people.

I was one of the 5 students who volunteered for this year’s Fiji Impact Trip. The program is a collaboration between the Monash SEED, a student-run organisation, and the South Pacific Business Development (SPBD), the largest microfinance institution in Fiji, with branches spread throughout the country. Centre Managers, who are part of SPBD’s staff, are the institution’s front liners and managed the accounts of the members who organised themselves into groups and centres. One of my main tasks was to work with these different managers to visit four to five villages a day, where women held Centre Meetings to make weekly loan repayments and savings. During these gatherings, where the women also socialise and discuss any issues, I conducted member satisfaction surveys using a semi open-ended interview format aimed at gathering data and feedback on the participants’ experiences with SPBD.

My short stint in Fiji provided me with a greater insight into microfinance and financial literacy. Microfinance has become a bridge to financial inclusion for these women, most of whom are housewives, and some of whom are illiterate. It has enabled them to become financially included despite their lack of formal documents, collateral, and their villages’ lack of proximity to traditional financial institutions. I heard multitudes of amazing stories on how these women were able to start their own businesses, turn their skills into income-generating endeavours, improve their household, contribute to their children’s education, and build up their savings. Sadly, these narratives are not reflective of everyone as there were those who have not been able to pay their obligations, leading to a worse financial standing. Some of the women have been alienated from their communities as other members had to shoulder the debts because of the group and centre guarantee clause. Even though microfinance is often hailed as the panacea for poverty alleviation, it can also be a double-edged sword. Does it truly empower women or does it make others more vulnerable? There are no easy answers. Hopefully, I will get an opportunity to understand more of how microfinance plays out in gender and development.

Conducting the field work helped me gain a much greater appreciation for the theories I learned at university since I have no prior background in development, notwithstanding the fact that I am from a developing country myself. The field work reinforced the importance of cultural sensitivity, which was not only limited to the physical observance of wearing the sulu (traditional Fijian skirt), leaving my footwear at the door, or sitting on the mats with the women in the villages. Being culturally sensitive is essentially about respect. In this context it was also a celebration of the uniqueness of the Fijians I engaged with and of my own multicultural team. The acknowledgment of differences is also fundamental in practicing reflexivity, which is the awareness of how my own background could inform my biases. I also discovered that in dealing with people, no theory can ever substitute sincerity, empathy, and deep listening. It was indeed humbling to recognise that I came to Fiji not because I could teach something to the women, but because I needed to learn from them. Being open-minded enabled me to immerse myself in the stories of resilience from the ladies who warmly welcomed me into their homes and into their lives, even if it was for just a brief period.

This same kind of openness was what perhaps drove me to feel at home. Midway through the field work, in the villages and in the SPBD branches, I decided to embrace my Pacific Islander name ‘Wendy’, which I could never help telling people without a chuckle. Maybe this sense of having a newfound identity is quite telling of what’s in store for me in the future. A shift in career may not be far behind, who knows. For now, vinaka vakalevu (thank you) Fiji!

Rowena Veloso

Single Origin Coffee: More than just a delicious cup of joe


Coffee is a beverage that all of us know, most of us drink, and some of us desperately need to function in the mornings. As a barista who has been working with ‘specialty’ coffee for just over five years, I have been lucky enough to make, taste and experience coffees from all over the world. From Rwanda to Panama,each coffee growing country has a distinct characteristic due to factors such as altitude, climate, varieties within the beans themselves, and differences in the processes of the cherry both after it is picked, and after it is dried. From harvesting the cherry to making a latte, we often forget that there are many steps at the heart of coffee making. The fact that it is the second largest traded legal commodity in the world shows its importance.

Sometimes, when walking into a café, you may see espresso or filter coffees that range from 5 to 30 dollars, which seems like a lot of money when you know you could probably buy a 1 dollar coffee at any  7/11. The process to turn a coffee cherry into a coffee bean has multiple stages, all of which cost the farmer time and money. When big buyers of coffee partake in the race to the bottom, it is the coffee farmer who loses. Much like Australian dairy farmers, they are forced to sell their product for less than what it takes to produce.Now, I do not need to go into details, but the ripple effect of conglomerates buying coffee for the lowest price possible has crippling effects on the farmers, their families, their workers and the community as a whole.

Over the summer, I was lucky enough to go to Guatemala and visit coffee farms who have direct relations with roasters from all around the world, including Melbourne. As buyers and roasters of coffee are always on the lookout for exciting, new coffee farms, this has opened the door to direct trade between farmer and roaster. Direct trade between farmer and roaster ensures both a profit and  a predictable cash-flow during harvest, which is not always the case for farmers who can be easily coerced into selling their coffee to big buyers for an unfair price. This income source means that farmers can invest more money back into the farm knowing that their income for the next harvest will be steady. To name a few examples, farmers can invest in better quality fertilisers or cultivating different varietals. Additionally, a steady income can also change the ways in which pickers are paid; pickers can be payed per day instead of per kilo of cherry picked, which is considered to be fairer for the pickers.

Valuing quality means that we can make good on the promise of development through the de-commoditisation of coffee so as to ensure that coffee is a logical and sustainable choice for the farmer. Farming coffee is a tough business; harvests are dependent on climate and rainfall, plants are susceptible to disease (coffee rust or coffee borer beetle to name a few), coffee plants need to be maintained to ensure maximum harvest, and in some countries, coffee only harvests once a year. When taking all this into account, if the final price is lower than what it costs to produce, it is easy to understand why Colombian farmers might turn to coca production instead, as it requires less cultivation and harvests at least three times a year. Obviously, this is a very simplistic analysis of the situation, as there are other factors that also come into place. However, it is the one aspect we, as consumers, can easily influence.

So what can you do to help? The next time you have a coffee, scout places that have direct relations with the farmer because these places also have the ability to pay the farmer more by cutting out the middleman. If this is not possible, cafes that serve single origin coffees are also  a good starting point.  Paying those extra cents  could help a farmer in Guatemala send the children of their workers to school as opposed to  condemning farmers from all over the world (especially Vietnam) to sell their product for less than it is worth. Coffee is just one example amongst many of how direct trade can make a big difference in someone else’s life.



Source: Unsplash
Source: Unsplash

Today, we’ll talk about some issues surrounding the components that make up goal number 8 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As part of the SDGs, the target of goal number 8 is to achieve (by 2030) ‘sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full productive employment and decent work for everybody.’ Yes! It sounds amazing! Most importantly, thinking about the fact that access to jobs, fair income and equal work opportunities are crucial in the fight against poverty, goal number 8 appears to be spot-on.

How is this going to be achieved? We know businesses, large multinational corporations (MNCs), industries, and governments have a role to play. However, as individuals and citizens of the world, what role do we have to play? How can we contribute to achieve this goal? A lot can be said, but my passion steers me towards one direction: perhaps we may start by changing the way we think and what we consume.

But first let’s take a moment to explore six components of the goal. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), economic growth can be achieved by providing decent work and, in general terms decent work stands for:

• No child labour or forced labour
• Access to jobs
• Jobs with dignity
• Equality
• Fair income
• Safe working conditions

Decent work is productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equality, security and human dignity. It involves opportunities for work that deliver fair income; provide security in the workplace and social protection for workers and their families. But what are the implications behind these components?

The former General Director of ILO, Juan Somavia, said: “Decent work is at the heart of the search for dignity for the individual, stability for the family and peace in the community.”

In general terms, this suggests making global labour fair. How do we as individuals influence this? Consider this quick demonstration with chocolate: we all love chocolate, we buy it and consume it all the time, and for many special occasions. However, did you know that 80% of the cocoa that you consume comes from Africa and is harvested by children? Countries such as Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Ghana produce majority of chocolate in the world and 1.8 million children in those countries work in the cocoa fields (Slave Free Chocolate). Those countries have huge problems in child slavery, and children are vulnerable to brutal labour practices and have been trafficked from other countries that are in conflict zones to work in cocoa plantations. This essentially infringes on their human and basic rights to education and health.

According to the ILO there are some 168 million children that are currently living under slave-like conditions of forced labour, and a great part of that number comes from the production of goods that we consume daily in our lives such as coffee, cotton and chocolate. More specifically, the ILO estimates reveal that about 59% of child labourers aged between the ages of 5 and 17 work in the agricultural sector, 7% of them work in industries including mining, construction and manufacturing, and about 25.4% work in services including retail trade, restaurants and transport.

Thus, across our daily lives, one way or another, depending on what we buy, we may be promoting child labour. Auret Van Heerden, a labour-rights activist suggests that the responsibility does not only rest on MNCs and governments. We, as individual, need to play an active role in ensuring an ethical supply chain.  We need to engage in ethical consumption of the products we buy.

But here is where it gets tricky. Does engaging in ethical consumption mean poor families would enjoy basic rights but at the detriment of their income? Poor families in most developing countries largely rely on child labour in order to have access to basic necessities. Thus, without getting the kids out there to work, families may wallow in poverty, and suffer from significant hunger. As part of the campaign to promote the basic human rights of poor families and to eradicate child labour, advocates have argued that consumers need to steer clear from items produced under poor labour conditions. However, this may deny some families the right to eat.

At one point, I would have boldly declared: “I want a better world free of child labour. Watch what you consume!”

There’s a hidden dilemma in all this though. Do we choose products made under conditions of child labour to help poor families afford their basic needs; or do we uphold global standards for human rights, free of child labour. Which is the correct way forward?

Decent Work and Economic Growth

Decent work and economic growth, is goal number eight of the Sustainable Development Goals. While there is definitely an interlink between work and economic growth, there is not necessarily a connection between decent work and economic growth. United Nations’ International Labour Organization or ILO estimates that by 2030 there needs to be 600 million new jobs created, that’s 40 million new jobs every year. But how do we ensure that all these jobs are decent work? And furthermore how do we ensure that workers are treated as humans and not just as a commodity?

The fashion industry has created millions of jobs and contributes to economic growth in several countries in Asia over the last decades. The CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson states in their most recent annual Conscious Action Report:

“Buying products made in developing countries is the most
effective way to lift people out of poverty and give them
opportunities for decent life”

While this might be true, at least according to a neoliberal worldview, the fashion industry has caused some serious social issues as a side effect. Sweatshops are known to use humans as machines; letting them work long hours, under bad working conditions and low wages. This is something even referred to as a form modern slavery.

If we look at economic theory, specifically at Karl Marx (1884), he argues that humans through their labour can become commodities that can be bought and sold, and used as machines. And that this alienates the worker from his or her real value as a human being.

“The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.”

So how can we deal with the need for rapid economic growth without compromising the value of a human being? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not seem to be enough to protect the workers in the sweatshops and garment factories. Do we have to rethink the norms and structures of working?

New Economic Foundation has played with the idea that everyone works no more than 30 hours a week. The idea is that this would create jobs for more people, because more people have to share the burden. Furthermore this would mean that each individual would have more leisure time. But this thought doesn’t not seem to fit with a neoliberal growth paradigm – it would probably also lead to lower level of individual consumption, but maybe spread more prosperity around.

Is neoliberalism and free-markets actually as Karl-Johan Persson say, an effective way to lift people out of poverty? How do we create enough jobs without compromising human dignity and acknowledging that humans are not machines? Put in an another way, how do we ensure decent work for all?