21 Jun 2013

Long-time manager at NZ's Volunteer Service Abroad moves on

5:16 pm on 21 June 2013

Dr Peter Swain has been one of the key people in the New Zealand voluntary aid organisation, Volunteer Service Abroad, for the past 13 years.

He has been VSA's international programme manager in that time, finishing up on 21 June.

Dr Swain told Don Wiseman about some of the highlights of his time at the agency.

PETER SWAIN: I started at VSA on 12 June 2000. On 14 June 2000 we had to pull everybody out of the Solomon Islands because that was when that conflict blew up. So that was really a low point, but within a year we had our volunteers back in the country. And I've seen that programme grow and develop. One of the, I think, highlights for me has been the work in Bougainville. In July 2000, when I first went there, it was a pretty tough place to go to. It was difficult. People were very distrusting and suspicious of outsiders after ten years of civil war. I was back in Bougainville two months ago. And to see the changes in that community over a bit over a decade - going from a war in which over 10,000 people were killed, to a society now that is looking forward hopefully, doing some really good things in economic development, but also doing some really good things in the community healing and growth that has come with that.

DON WISEMAN: What's the nature of the change?

PS: I think the nature of change is in the people themselves. It's easy to look at infrastructure - bridges going up, buildings built and things like that - those are the easy things. What I think is central to the development in a post-conflict society is the changes in the hearts and minds of the people, the healing that goes on over time. The Bougainville people have been very clear about reconciliation and there has been a whole range of traditional reconciliation processes going on. And that's sort of below the radar. It's not run by development programmes, it's not run by outsiders. It's local people making a strong decision that their children are not going to go through the conflict that they went through. So they're working to reconcile some of the hurts and the pain of the past and to rebuild the community themselves. And that has to happen from the bottom up through that community. So I'm seeing that happen. You see it in small ways. You see it in the trust and the confidence of people. When I first went to Bougainville the market in Arawa was a mango tree with half a dozen people underneath it selling a few sweet potatoes, looking over their shoulders, being pretty uncertain. If you go to the market in Arawa today, there's hundreds of people there, there's a big shed, people pay a kina for a space on the market. There's produce brought in from all the neighbourhoods, people fish overnight, they cook fish and chips there, they sell it there, it's good produce. It's a very lively, friendly place and it's an exciting place to be. Those, to me, are the indicators of the healing and reconciliation that's happening in Bougainville. And the opening of the Haus Stori, the Bougainville library, is another example of that reconciliation and healing, and looking at stories and learning from the stories in the past and creating a new story for the future.