It’s not all palm trees and fruity cocktails
Deputy Director General for the Pacific Department Emma Veve unpacks the misconceptions of working for the 14 island countries of the Pacific and shares the exciting urban projects ahead.
“I’m not an urban person. I’m an economist, and I just sort of ended up doing what I do.”
Emma Veve, who was born in Brisbane, Australia and has been the Deputy Director General of the Pacific Department (PARD) since 2020, was quick to clarify her expertise. Economics has been the focus of her career ever since she graduated with a degree on the subject from the University of Queensland. She immediately landed a job with the national government in Canberra soon after that, and eventually earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of New England, where she enjoyed a lot of development economics classes. This set her off working for the Australian aid agency, AusAID, before settling as an economic adviser at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Suva, Fiji for nearly six years. In 2005, Emma joined ADB as a regional economist in PARD.
To date, she has accumulated about more than 20 years of working experience in the Pacific. To think she originally studied agricultural science. The reason she obtained a second degree in economics was due to, as she described, “an interesting gender story”. She had done a number of job interviews but kept getting offhand remarks. At that time in the late 1980s, all the jobs in that field went to men. Fed up, she shifted her focus on economics since it was a degree she could gain quickly. Emma bounced back on her feet, and has since landed on international development, a job she “absolutely” enjoys. “I like going out and seeing projects in action. I like meeting the people who benefit from it and seeing how it changes people’s lives,” she said.
As for the Pacific, it’s also an area she has grown to like – mainly because of the people. “They tell you what they think, most of the time. There are no games, and because it’s a small population you can talk to heads of departments easily.”
These days Emma is not solely attuned to economics, as she has to manage different sectors and topics in her division, including fragile and conflict-affected situations and information and communications technology (ICT). As director, she oversaw the financing of submarine cables in Palau and Samoa, and she is expecting to further grow this type of investment in the rest of the Pacific. As a whole, she currently manages a portfolio of 16 projects across 14 countries amounting to $280 million, and there is an additional $190 million of projects in the pipeline. Read the interview below for more about her work:
“It’s getting the understanding that these pieces of infrastructure and the investments needed in urban areas have a minimum cost regardless of how many people you happen to service. You can’t scale a lot of these infrastructure. The understanding is that even if we are talking about 50,000 people they still need water just as much as anyone else.”
Deputy Director General
Your division is not exclusive to urban development. Do you consider it an advantage in terms of project operations?
Emma: That’s right. We only have three sector divisions in the department and two of them are the more traditional ones. I think it’s an advantage for all the sectors we have because it becomes really easy to do the cross-sector linkages such as health in urban areas. In fact, this is quite strong for us and a lot of our urban projects have a good proportion of water drainage issues with health benefits. I can easily get our health specialists to work with our urban colleagues, and also with ICT, my team. I don’t have to run around and ask other directors to borrow their staff.
Why is there a big focus on information communications technology in the Pacific?
Emma: Because in the Pacific, while we have cities in all of these countries, they are not linked like how you’d find Asian cities or European cities with roads and trains and what have you. You have to fly in and out, and sometimes within the same country to get between cities. The transport systems are fairly basic so we’re very keen on connectivity projects—be that ICT or transport sector projects.
The traditional sector in most of these islands is tourism. Now tourists tend to fly in and out through the capital cities, and they disperse out. Predominant tourists are from Australia and New Zealand, and they expect the internet and all that comes with it, so it’s quite off-putting for tourists to not be able to access those things. In urban areas, the government officers need to communicate with each other so we’re working in the Tonga urban area to connect government ministries together by a cable system and a whole bunch of other ICT work. There is that potential there, and the Pacific islands are only starting to use ICT for, say, urban traffic management. They’re using ICT in the management of urban water supply and sanitation systems. They’re starting to get more and more interested in those.
Most of the urban work is focused on water supply and sanitation. Moving forward, what other urban projects can be expected?
Emma: Until last year or so we had an extremely small urban team. We had one engineer here and an urban planner in Suva. We had at various times posted people in Timor Leste, like engineers and urban economists. But it’s a small team trying to cover 14 countries. Now we’ve brought in a planner, an extra engineer, and we’ve had a young professional working on disaster risk management issues in urban areas, so we’ve expanded the team. As a result, urban planning is now more on the table than it was in the past.
There are lots of exciting things coming up. There is the desalination plant in Kiribati. We’re requesting financing from the Global Climate Fund for that. There is no desalination in Kiribati apart from very small ones that use portable machines in the outer islands. With this project, it’s about how do we get a relatively high technology equipment in the island. We also placed a five-year operation maintenance contract into it, since thinking about how we can design the procurement elements of the project to last is critical in the Pacific.
In Vanuatu, the government has asked us to turn our attention to their second biggest town, Luganville. We’ve been involved in urban planning, working with stakeholders to set priorities and picking up some of those priority projects to run forward with. Getting our foot into a whole new city we haven’t been in before is quite interesting.
Are there any misconceptions in terms of development in the Pacific?
Emma: I think just the scale of it. Our projects are small, 10, 20, 50 million dollars, and when you break that down on a per-head kind of basis it looks really expensive. So it’s getting the understanding that these pieces of infrastructure and the investments needed in urban areas have a minimum cost regardless of how many people you happen to service. Even though you have a small urban area, putting in a water supply facility will cost a certain amount. You can’t scale a lot of these infrastructure. The understanding is that even if we are talking about 50,000 people they still need water just as much as anyone else. Sometimes it does cost more to get that basic service to them.
Oh and it’s not all palm trees, coconuts, and fruity cocktails by the hotel pool. Some of the urban issues in the Pacific are just like the urban issues in Asia: overcrowding, poor sanitation and water supply, affecting health outcomes for women and children in particular.
What do you think is the biggest urban development challenge in the Pacific?
Emma: Getting the planning right and getting the institutional setting right to think about urban issues rather than water issues or transport issues, since these tend to be packaged up separately by separate parts of government without talking to each other. That’s a real problem I think, and the real glaring issue when you go to urban areas is the informal settlements that are developing around these areas. You don’t think of high density, very poor housing when you think of the Pacific but that’s actually the case when you go to a place like Suva in Fiji or Port Moresby in PNG. People often think it’s tropical islands with not much there. In truth, these small cities, developed from colonial times, they’ve expanded. There is a lot of migration into urban areas, so you have informal settlements in peri-urban areas. All that needs addressing quite critically and working out where people can live.
What has been one of your more memorable experiences here in ADB?
Emma: I think it’s probably visiting some of our atoll countries, the ones that are very flat, particularly I’m thinking of my first ever visit to a place called Ebeye in the Marshall Islands, which is a very small atoll that is next to a US military base. Some of the locals who work on the military base live on this island so they can’t stay on the base overnight and it has a very high population density. In fact the average household size is something over 20 or 30 people. They have shifts to sleep in bed. It’s incredibly overcrowded. We’ve been working on a water project, a desalination equipment to put water into the households and just seeing the difference that can make in people’s lives, although people are living in what is a really tough, tough environment. The fact they keep going and have hope for the future and that they’re happy to see positive change is, I think, one of the more memorable things.