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Beyond victims and saviours – sustainability in the Pacific

15 June 2021

With islands already being inundated, Pacific nations can be seen as some of the first victims of climate change and rising sea levels, as well as worthy and urgent beneficiaries of global attempts to achieve the United Nation’s internationally-agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


Award-winning political sociologist and interdisciplinary scholar, Professor Steven Ratuva is Director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at UC. Catch him at the online Hui 3# on 24 June, leading a panel session about achieving the SDGs in the Pacific.

The SDGs were designed to create a more sustainable and equitable world. How we frame these conversations matters, says University of Canterbury (UC) Pacific expert and Director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at UC Professor Steven Ratuva.

Victims versus saviours is an enduring narrative, but one in need of revision, he believes.

“These are some of the issues behind the scenes that people don’t understand and it is our job as academics to critique the processes, not for the sake of it, but to make sure things change, and that people are much more aware of some of the shortcomings of the status quo.”

Online panel open to all

Professor Ratuva is leading a panel to explore issues that impact on achieving the SDGs in the Pacific region on 24 June, as part of online Hui #3 of the Aotearoa New Zealand Sustainable Development Goals Summit Series 2020-2021. He is joined by Dr Joeli Veitayaki from the University of the South Pacific’s School of Marine Studies, Raihania Tipoki, activist and ocean ecology and sustainability expert, and Christine Nurminen, a Pacific leader on gender, diaspora and sustainable development.

The series culminates in a summit at UC on 2-3 September.

Born in Fiji, Professor Ratuva has spent over 20 years researching power, knowledge and how issues are framed by different groups. He is at the forefront of global interdisciplinary research on race relations, global security, social protection for vulnerable groups, climate change and affirmative action for minorities. 

He would like to see the conversation shift from how New Zealand can help the Pacific Island nations achieve the SDGs to what we can learn from these nations’ past and the adaptability they bring to their current challenges.

“New Zealand can learn from what is happening in the Pacific in terms of how they have adapted to climate change and without fancy technology,” Professor Ratuva says.

The dynamics of power

However, the dynamic needs to change. “Those in positions of power are still thinking in very negative terms, in terms of deficit, and they frame the crisis in the Pacific in relation to vulnerability. It gives them a lot of power when you frame someone as being inadequate – as dying, as someone to be saved, a victim – they don’t have any humanity, they don’t have any power,” he says.

“My take is very different, that the Pacific people have been existing there for thousands of years, and people want to learn from that experience.”

Professor Ratuva challenges how development dollars are distributed, why governments might be tempted to tick boxes rather than achieve meaningful change, and how people at the grassroots might see sustainability differently to their leaders.

“The SDGs cover almost everything, which is great, but I think the issue is the way it’s framed. An economist will see ‘equality’ differently to say a sociologist, or a corporate CEO may frame equality differently to a fisherman or fisherwoman, or to government officials who want to tick the equity box according to statistics.

“Statistics are instructive, but from the point of view of the poor, the landless, and the youth on the street, equity is seen very differently, because it’s not only stats, it’s their life, their identity.”

The hui is focused on “working together for change” by bringing together experts from academia, community organisations, business and government agencies to investigate opportunities for action across different sectors.

The 2020-2021 Aotearoa New Zealand Sustainable Development Goals Summit series is co-hosted by UC and Lincoln University, with mana whenua Ngāi Tuahuriri, in partnership with the Christchurch City Council and Ara Institute of Canterbury, supported by Tourism New Zealand, Te Pokai Tara | Universities New Zealand, ChristchurchNZ, and New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO. 


Hui #3 – two panels and a workshop

Also at Hui #3, the panel Intergenerational Conversations features UC Professor Bronwyn Hayward with a range of speakers including Atarau Hamilton from Learning City Christchurch, Inclusive Aotearoa, Lucy Gray from School Strike 4 Climate, Sarah Morris from Office of the Children’s Commission, Atarau Hamilton and others.

A concurrent Interactive Workshop: ‘Future Fit Business: a tool for Organisations’ will explore how organisations in Aotearoa New Zealand can credibly measure their sustainability and contribution to the SDGs using the Future Fit Business Benchmark. This workshop is co-hosted by Sally Wilkins, a sustainability consultant at Proxima Consulting (an accredited Future Fit Partner since 2019) and Roger Robson-Williams, Chief Sustainability Officer at Plant and Food Research (an early adopter of the Benchmark in Aotearoa).

Book here for online Hui #3, Working Together for Change, on 24 June.

The Aotearoa New Zealand Sustainable Development Goals Summit Series summit 2-3 September:

With workshops, world cafes, kōrerorero, creative stations, activations and small group discussions, plus field trips and a community feast, the Aotearoa SDG Summit Series: 2-Day Summit Collaboration for Systemic Change focuses on connecting, learning, collaborating, and taking real action on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Tickets are available now.

Professor Steven Ratuva

An award-winning political sociologist and global interdisciplinary scholar, Professor Steven Ratuva is Director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at UC. He has written and contributed to many books, including the three-volume Palgrave Handbook on Ethnicity, which he edited and which involved over 100 scholars globally. Earlier this year he was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of the Royal Society Te Apārangi. His expertise is sought by government and other agencies in New Zealand and globally.

His forthcoming book, Epistemic siege: Neoliberalism and the commodification of knowledge will be published in 2021.

Read more: Hierarchies of knowing | University of Canterbury.  

Professor Bronwyn Hayward

Professor of Political Science and International Relations and Director of The Sustainable Citizenship and Civic Imagination Research group at UC, Professor Bronwyn Hayward balances writing reports with Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) teams and youth climate action such the CYCLES Children and Youth in Cities Lifestyle Evaluation study, with media commentary and writing. She is a Coordinating Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change AR6 report (cities & infrastructure) and was a lead author for the 2018 Special Report on 1.5 (Sustainable development & Poverty eradication). She was made a member of the NZ Order of Merit for services to political science (sustainability, youth and climate), and recently released the book Children, Citizenship and Environment #Schoolstrike edition.

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