Being Non-Anglo Fisheries Consultants in the Pacific
Authors: Francisco Blaha, Saurara Gonelevu, & Kenneth Katafono
“It's too personal, the donors are not interested in the stories of the people you working with nor your or their personal views, this is technical report, I know we wanted you to talk to them as stakeholders and get their views, but not as what they think is better, and definitively not their stories, names and places. Also your English grammar is terrible”… this was the feedback I got for my first report as a fisheries consultant in the Pacific. I remember the first time I met the fisheries consultant that gave me that feedback.
Photo by Francisco Blaha
I was working as a fisherman in the Western Pacific, I was in the wharf working out a massive line spill of the reel from a longliner, and this white man with a strong British accent and lots of sunscreen came and asked me what agency I was working with?
While I’m partly western European in my ancestry, I have dark hair and skin. I sit in that mixed-race niche of a “white-passing” brown man or a “brown-passing” white man, so his first assumption was that I must be working for a development agency; otherwise, why would I be working with local fishers for a local skipper?
Francisco, and Saurara (in red dress). Francisco was a co trainer for a fisheries and seafood safety inspectors training on our way to board Tuna Purse Seiners in Tarawa (Kiribati) in 2019.
He talked to me a bit and realized I had university training in fisheries (yet another surprise to him), so he invited me for dinner that night at a restaurant (that I could have never afforded) and interrogated me for 3 hours while I was eating. In the end, he gave me his card.
A couple of years later, I was living in New Zealand and working for a fishing company there. I wrote to him then asking for the “report” he mentioned when we met. He was happy to get back in touch with me, and he sent me the report. Shockingly, the report was more or less a transcription of what I said to him but without naming me once. As if that was not enough, and to my surprise, I felt his entitlement and lack of shame, when he also asked me if I would be interested in working for him as a “consultant.” He mentioned he could only pay me a reduced rate since I didn’t have “development experience.” Albeit at that stage, I had two Masters of Science degrees and over 15 years experience as a fisherman in 4 different gears across two different oceans. Obviously, my English wasn’t at academic standards, so he would have had to edit my work before submitting it to the agencies he worked with. Still, he was offering me per day what I was earning in a week… so of course, I said yes and became a consultant, did my first job, and got that feedback.
Having grown up in a native land on the border of Argentina and Paraguay under a colonial mind frame, the fact that a guy who has obviously never fished in his life and who could not have survived a full day in the sun, yet he was a Pacific Islands Fisheries Specialist didn’t trigger me. Well, at least not at first. He was white European, spoke excellent English, and was in a region at the other end of the world from the place he grew up in, so of course, he must be a master at his trade. On top of that, he was giving me a job! Of course, he was my “superior.” I was an “immigrant,” while he was an “expat”.
He didn’t need to know the names of the kids of the people I worked with, didn’t have time for us to share with him the stories of our ancestors, go to church, learn to cook local food… that was MY job. I was kind of like them, and he was not. Of course, it was ok that he paid me less money than he was getting paid, because he had to correct my English so that people like him, people at his level, could understand what I wrote without getting frustrated by my terrible grammar and dyslexia.
It was only after a few years living in New Zealand and learning from the way Maori dealt with colonization and their rights that I slowly realized that I actually also spoke English, surely not as good as he did, but I also spoke three other European languages he did not, besides my own native language—Guarani. I could make myself understand in the languages of the places we worked in, and he didn’t. I also had a university degree, was already in those places targeted by the consulting work, and more importantly, I really knew a lot about fishing because I happened to be a fisherman. I realized that I could work at the same level as him, or actually better if I engaged in consulting myself without him as an intermediary. If needed, I could subcontract the editing of my reports.
Photo by Francisco Baha
So, I started doing that, yet I never kept bad feelings towards him. In fact, I am always going to be very thankful to him. Without the opportunity he offered me and the connections to this consulting world, I may have never realized what I was capable of.
I also made a point of working with my Pacific islands’ colleagues in crossing that “colonial mindset gap” that took me years to cross myself.
I am still learning the challenges of decolonizing your own perceptions on work. It also made me realize that my European side thinks in “me” terms, while my non-European side thinks in “we” terms. That launching yourself into the insecurities of self-employment as a consultant is not always compatible with the expectations trusted upon your role into the “we” mindset of families in the Pacific.
Photo by Francisco Baha
Over the years, these paradigms have been the topic of long talks with two fantastic young colleagues from Fiji: Saurara Gonelevu and Kenneth Katafono that are working as consultants in their region. Their words are more important than mine in this article, since they are the present and future, while I fade into a past where those that “know best” have to be from somewhere else, and that has to stop. That is why I asked them to write about their journey and what their impressions were when they met me as a foreign consultant.
Like for many of my fellow PICs colleagues, working as consultants or debuting on the international scene of work could be quite intimidating. As a young Pacific Islander and more so, a female working in a male-dominated field, breaking into the arena of international consultancy, and working alongside experts from developed countries is an impossible dream and something that seems so far-fetched.
In 2016, I was encouraged by a few of my good colleagues and mentors to apply for a vacancy in the region through a New Zealand MFAT funded program. I seriously doubted my chances of getting the job, because I knew of only one of my Fijian colleagues who was working in the region in my field at that time.
One of those who encouraged me to pursue this opportunity was my good colleague and friend, Francisco. I met Francisco when he came in as an international trainer while I was an attaché with the Fiji Seafood Safety Authority. I always thought that he was different because, for one, he did not look like a “kaivalagi”, a term we use to refer to “white men” coming outside of Fiji. Second, he was a fisherman who could talk so casually about international issues and subjects without having to wear a suit.
Being a Fijian Islander, we grew up in an environment where silence was deemed the highest form of respect so that was the first hurdle that we faced when trying to overcome the challenges of colonization. Even for my generation, it was sort of “normal” to believe that regional, let alone international, jobs were only for the chosen few who were at the top of everything, be it education, experience in regional work, or what is assumed to be sort of the “right age group” to be a consultant -- let alone your ethnic group, consultancies being often awarded to white men. I say this with great respect for our colleagues who are all that and still so inclusive of those that may come from countries that may be underrepresented in these regional and international arenas of work.
It takes one who has been in our shoes to understand our unspoken struggles, show the way, and give the best advice, which could help change mentalities to embrace the changes that are here now. Francisco is one such person I know to have had continuously made efforts in his work bridging the gaps that otherwise seem impossible to close up; i.e. the younger and older generation of consultants in the region and beyond, colleagues in the similar line of work in the region regardless of your skin color or status and more importantly interact with the same respect with fisheries decision makers and those who cut up fish as their everyday job.
Photo by Francisco Baha
In 2017, I was awarded the contract by the New Zealand MFAT to work in the Republic of Kiribati, and that was my biggest breakthrough. Four years later, thanks to the connections I have forged along the way and more people believing in local and regional talent, I am now working with international consultancy companies and other organizations like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The challenges I share here, are issues that people like us have to overcome to then get recognition similar to those of our colleagues. Though I must say, I have come across some of the most amazing colleagues in other international organizations like Francisco who do not make you feel the issues discussed, and I salute them for that. They have been the true agents of change and have our deep respect for that.
Once we see ourselves as equals, we realize then that other Fijians and PICS colleagues, like Kenneth Katafono and Francisco, are constantly breaking the glass ceilings and whose journeys are a constant reminder that nothing really is impossible if you put your mind and heart into it. As I now am more conscious of the same, I take responsibility as well in working with others to forge onwards and overcome more hurdles that can further pave the way for the many hopeful PIC Islanders and my colleagues beyond the region who think these are only possible in dreams!
I started my consulting career in my final year of undergraduate degree studies, but it wasn’t until I started working in fisheries in 2012 that I saw and worked with many consultants - mostly older “kaivalagi” (European) men who had been working in Pacific fisheries for decades. As a novice to fisheries and being Fijian, it was intimidating to work with these consultants, many of whom had a storied past.
Progressing through my fisheries career, I often wondered – “Where are the consultants from the Pacific islands?”. Among my colleagues, it was well known that getting into fisheries consulting was difficult, and if someone was lucky enough to do so, it was often on much lower terms. In a conversation with a highly qualified, experienced, and well-respected fisheries expert from the Pacific who previously held senior leadership roles in Pacific fisheries agencies and was grappling with the realities of consulting, he asked me, “Why aren’t we (Pacific Islanders) getting the consulting jobs in the Pacific?”.
I first met Francisco at a meeting in Rarotonga, the Cook Islands, in 2012 when I worked for a regional fisheries agency. He didn’t look like any consultants I had seen before—he wore shorts and an island shirt, expressed himself well and wasn’t shy to share his opinion, had a good rapport with my islander colleagues, and even took lunchtime swims in the ocean. Certainly not the mould of consultant that I was used to. Unlike other consultants, Francisco seemed quite comfortable socializing with us.
As I grew in my fisheries experience and status, it became easier to associate with consultants, and I could easily fit into their company. A lesson I learnt growing up in Fiji was that of humility, respect, and knowing where you came from. I never forgot that in my professional career, and while I could easily fit in with the consultants and senior fisheries folks, I was more comfortable with my islander colleagues, regardless of their status.
Almost a decade working in fisheries and four years since leaving formal employment to go into consulting and entrepreneurship, I can count on one hand the number of fisheries consultants from the Pacific. I’ll always be grateful for the counsel Francisco has given me over the years and for being a positive role model as a consultant and human being. Standards matter, and Francisco is one of the few people who I have seen consistently keeping to his standards, personal and professional.
Interestingly, I get more international fisheries consulting opportunities working for agencies like the FAO and in other continents than I do in the Pacific. When I started my fisheries consulting career, I recall Francisco telling me at the time that I was the youngest fisheries consultant in the Pacific. It wasn’t lost on me to be a good role model to my fellow Pacific Islanders to show them that they, too, can have rewarding careers as consultants.
Glass ceilings are meant to be broken and, like Francisco, I believe that those of us who have been fortunate to pave the way have a duty to encourage and usher in the next generation of fisheries consultants in the Pacific.
How to cite this page:
Blaha, F., Gonelevu, S., & Katafono, K. (2021). Being Non-Anglo Fisheries Consultants in the Pacific. [online] Shackletontrust.org. Available at: https://www.shackletontrust.org/being-non-anglo-fisheries-consultants-in-the-pacific. https://doi.org/10.54823/3fksj4i6