SPC Tackles the Challenges of Communication in the Pacific

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Nuomea, New Caldonia – Communication has always played an important role in the work carried out by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), but over the years, as technology has advanced, the challenges have changed.

Mr Lindsay Chapman, Manager of the regional organisation’s Coastal Fisheries Programme, remembers the 1980s, when he worked in the Pacific Islands as SPC Master Fisherman for several years before returning to Australia.

‘In those days, it could take up to two days to communicate with headquarters in Noumea [New Caledonia]. The main form of communication was by telex.’

(For those too young to remember, telex was a two-way direct communication system connected through the public telecommunications network, with a telex machine at each end.)


[Richard Mann, SPC Deputy Director General and head of the Directorate of Operations and Management]

‘Phone and fax were often not available, especially in the small island nations such as Tuvalu. And using a telex required a procedure unheard of today. First, we had to write the telex message out by hand and take it to the Telecom Office. Then the person there would type the message into the telex preparation machine. Out of the machine would come your message on a long tape, as if it were written in Braille. The tape would then be fed into another machine, and hopefully the message would be sent and received.’

Thirty years later, consider the challenges faced by Richard Mann, SPC Deputy Director General and head of the Directorate of Operations and Management.

Not only does the directorate provide administrative, human resource and finance support for all SPC programmes throughout the region, it is also responsible for SPC’s ICT services, library, publications services and translation and interpretation services.

Add in 22 SPC island member countries and territories’ spread over an area of 30 million square kilometres (about three times the size of Europe) in an ocean that covers one-third of the earth’s surface, and far more than the services of a telex machine are required to provide the necessary communication.

‘With a staff of over 550 scientists, technicians and administrators working at several offices around the Pacific, and with a mandate by member countries and territories to provide technical and policy advice and assistance, training and research services, communication – both within SPC and with its member countries – continues to be an essential function,’ said Mr Mann.

Despite the size of the organisation and the area it covers, Mr Mann says that communication with the scientific and technical teams that are spread out over this vast region is much easier than in the past. Previously, technical teams could be out of reach for weeks or even months at a time.

‘Today, it is just inconceivable to think of how the United Nations and SPC communicated when they worked in the region in the 1960s,’ said Mr Mann. ‘It is much easier now. We have Internet access pretty much everywhere in the region. It might still be a bit expensive, but it has become much more reliable. And we also have things like voice and videoconferencing over the Internet, making communication easier.

‘Efficient communication is essential to our work, and we are fortunate to be able to have instantaneous contact with our teams in the field.’

Mr Mann who has worked in the region for over 20 years, the last 14 with SPC in various roles, said that his hope for the future of SPC is to see it continue to have the resources to address the ever-increasing challenges to member countries and territories.

SPC, through its six technical divisions, initiates and implements programmes determined by member countries and territories to address health, safety, environmental and developmental issues throughout the region.

‘And to achieve this we need to continue to be an organisation that combines the best of both worlds. On one hand, as a large organisation SPC can take advantage of its size to maintain more specialised support services that smaller organisations are unable to provide, such as specialised human resources support, information technology support, and related infrastructure and services that are not possible to the same degree in small organisations.

‘But we also don’t want to lose our nimbleness — the ability to act quickly that you would expect from a smaller organisation. So I think SPC’s capacity to grow, and yet be able to immediately respond to challenges, will continue to make it vital to the region.’