Traditional leadership versus role-vested leadership in Pacific communities

In an interview, Peter Sharry, director of Axiom Water Technologies, speaks about how in the Pacific, he finds that often traditional leadership roles carry more weight in the community than leadership vested by government. This article looks more closely at the role of the traditional leaders in managing water supplies.

This issue is not unique to the Pacific. An interview with Brad Moggridge discussed this same tension in the context of Australia.

What does a traditional leader look like?

“A traditional leader is someone who is prepared to take steps in either direction to try and bring everyone along… What’s best is if they’re an impartial and neutral identity who is respected by the community,” says Sharry.

In many Pacific communities, the leadership role is earned, not vested. It comes with knowledge, experience, and respect over time, which may be why it carries more weight than governmental leadership. Traditional leaders are typically involved in protecting the community, its laws and traditions, rights, knowledge, and interests. This cultural knowledge is deeply respected and its importance and impact are recognized by the community.

How traditional leaders impact water management

Where a government-appointed leader may come in and make a decision, or attempt to implement a system using scientific and economic reasoning, traditional leaders are able to add to that information with a host of cultural and traditional history.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s genetic knowledge, but it’s certainly handed down traditional knowledge. This includes things like “get water from this river just at the start of the incoming tide and then get it from the middle because there are so many toilets upstream. If you don’t, you’re going to get sick,” explains Sharry.

“Communities may intuitively take an integrated approach to water resource management. They don’t use the terminology we do, but their approach reflects the reality of environmental, social, cultural, and economic values in the way they address water use priorities.”

Understanding traditional relationships often takes precedence over common law, says Sharry, and community members often choose to manage problems, decisions, and challenges through traditional means before going to the government.

Because of this, traditional leaders can leverage community consensus, along with their cultural knowledge, to implement water management frameworks that actually work for the community. This goes hand-in-hand with traditional laws, rights, usage patterns, and goals. Instead of trying to fit a one-size-fits-all role-vested approach into a traditional community, these leaders can create something that is more likely to be successful, because they both respect and reflect culture.

How can leaders work together?

In many developing areas, it is important for appointed leaders and other decision-makers to work in conjunction with those who are recognised to have a leadership role within the community. This involves getting to know a community at the ground-level, sitting and speaking with leaders and other members of the community, making an effort to learn the language, carefully considering cultural values, and collaborating to marry traditional knowledge and leadership through new water governance arrangements.

By taking a cooperative approach, decision-makers reduce the risk of dismissing important traditional values and roles. They are also able to create relationships with community leaders who can set a good example and share information and knowledge with other members of the population.

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