Associate Professor Margaret Keen

Why do you think the Pacific is important to study?

It matters for places like Australia because Pacific Islands are aid-dependent, and the more you can allow them to have that self-reliance and invest in stability, the stronger the region becomes. We don’t want instability around us. That creates vulnerabilities, not only of the people themselves, but of what can be trafficking through that region.

There is interest in the region, of course. The French have their protectorates there, the Americans have the American Pacific, we have our interests, New Zealand has theirs, so that’s pretty well your Five Eyes all coming together in one region. It’s a place to learn, essentially, and a place where collaborations probably can happen more easily than in other areas of the world.

I think there are lessons to learn all around the globe and if you neglect one area it’s not good for a global community that’s totally interconnected.

If you had to explain your research to someone who has no knowledge of it, how would you explain it?

I research how we can use resources better in the South Pacific in a way that engages people. Our main project is the urban project, which is looking at rapid urbanisation in Honiara, and it’s really about people as well as the resources.

Everybody thinks the South Pacific is palm trees and beaches, and that it doesn’t have the megacities as Asia has, but it’s growing – the cities are growing – faster than many other places around the world. 4.7% growth that doubles in 12 years is huge, so despite small populations, there are big pressures on resources.

And that’s everything from fresh water, to how you use electricity, to fossil fuels, to how infrastructure gets used, roadways, land, access to housing, et cetera. It’s the real interface between resources and people.

The resources matter - their vulnerability, their resilience to use, the laws change around resources, about how you access them, and the nature of them matters for the appropriate laws to govern them. That interface just keeps going up and, yes, one cannot work without the other, particularly in countries that are highly subsistent.

What makes it challenging for people in the Pacific to utilise their resources effectively?

Well, one of the things that make it very challenging is rapid population growth, with limited resources. They have very little land resources. These are little islands dotted amongst the oceans, so you’ve got population growth, you’ve got scarce resources, and you’ve got challenges in alternative growth.

Because they are tiny, little places, they don’t have economies of scale. They’re very far away from other markets, whereas other countries can quickly move through agriculture, manufacturing, tertiary industries. The Islands cannot do that as easily, so they are dependent on their resources, not only for their livelihoods, but that tends to be what they export, as well as their mines, their fish, their agricultural produce, their logs.

There is a lot of pressure on those resources, because of the population and because of the nature of their economy. Those things interact and make it pretty tough, and they don’t have a lot of money. They’re aid-dependent, so investing in strong management is hard.

They’ve got very young governments, very fragile governments. We see that all the time: prime ministers change, governments change, we have the odd coup here are there, therefore it’s really hard to do that long-term planning, with the churn in the political system and then issues of rent-seeking, and corruption, and young governments that aren’t strong. So there are a lot of issues that make that pretty complicated.

What is your career background?

I started in the Crawford School and then the opportunity came up to go over to the Office of National Assessments in the Oceania branch, focusing on the South Pacific area. There I did assessments of security and stability issues around the Pacific.

We advised directly to Prime Minister, Cabinet and the National Security Council, so senior areas within the government. It’s an all-source analysis. You are taking information from everywhere. Contrary to some of the labels that get put on ONA as a peak spy body, it’s not a spy body at all, but it does use all types of intelligence: open-source, gathered within government, to pull it together. It’s about pulling information from all sources that are available to give independent analysis.

The other important thing about the Office of National Assessments is that it is an independent agency. It does not have to agree with government policy. It has to give good insights to what’s going on internationally. To do that, they hire people who have already experience in the region, have language skills, understand culture and are willing to travel regularly out into the region, to cross-check the way they’re thinking and, obviously, work fairly closely with the people.

Now I contribute to the National Security College training and give talks on the Pacific, the South Pacific and stability, and defence course training. We have a lot of research projects and we do a lot of interacting with the Government and connecting up and servicing what they need.

When I was teaching every day I was always learning, because a student from China, Vietnam, Fiji would say something like “but it doesn’t work that way, does it, because in my country public participation isn’t about voluntarily coming along to a meeting!” It was the best environment to teach in.

What sparked your interest in the South Pacific?

I began in Resource Management. When I was at Crawford, I was researching both Asia Pacific and Pacific Island Countries, and I just started to focus more on the South Pacific. The need was certainly there.

I did a lot in community-based resource management and it’s just a lot faster and easier to engage at that level. There are lots of connections there that are ongoing and a very strong interest by the Government to keep the area stable and sustainable. It’s such a friendly area of the world that it’s just a really pleasant place to work in.

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