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Forum must address the reality of life in the Pacific

According to research, Vanuatu is the happiest country on earth. That hasn’t been evident when the Pacific leaders gathered this week in Vanuatu. There are some dark clouds gathering over the sunny Pacific isles.

According to research, Vanuatu is the happiest country on earth. That hasn’t been evident when the Pacific leaders gathered this week in Vanuatu. There are some dark clouds gathering over the sunny Pacific isles.

A major challenge is the future of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) itself. Next year the leaders of the 14 Pacific island countries plus New Zealand and Australia will celebrate the PIF’s 40th anniversary. The PIF has played a major role in bringing countries with huge diversity of geography, income and size together under a common umbrella. A major role for the Forum is to provide support to the smaller countries with regional services that they, as small countries, could not afford individually. The Forum has also provided for peer support and mutual accountability on issues such as human rights and security. These are important achievements.

But when leaders meet in Auckland in September of next year, they will need to be thinking about things other than the Rugby World Cup. There have been sharp disagreements that threaten the effectiveness of the Forum. The most visible of those has been about how to encourage Fiji to return to democracy. There is an official Forum process that is trying to establish a dialogue with Fiji, but different approaches between the strong language used by Australia and New Zealand (recently toned down) and the desire of Pacific countries to stay engaged with Fiji. It did not help that heads of state from Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu went to a recent meeting in Fiji but not to the PIF, nor that a spokesman for Sir Michael Somare said that he did not attend for personal reasons. The timing was also unfortunate. Julia Gillard, the chair of this meeting of the Forum, was not able to attend because of the forthcoming Australian election.

But there are other factors as well as Fiji. There have been tensions over trade negotiations. Pacific island countries have been concerned that Australia (and to a lesser extent New Zealand) has been pushing a free trade agreement that would carry huge risks for their economies. Better options are possible, but they will take time to develop, and they need a willingness for Australia and New Zealand to put sustainable economic development for the Pacific ahead of their commercial interests. There is scope for them to do so, because it is obvious that the development and stability of the Pacific vastly outweighs any commercial self-interest. It was notable that New Zealand extended an olive branch through inviting the possible participation of Fiji in the trade talks, reversing an earlier Forum decision to exclude them.

Behind some of these issues has been the perception that the PIF and its secretariat are too dominated by the interests of Australia and New Zealand. While this is a recurrent concern for a number of countries (notably the Melanesian countries of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji), the Polynesian countries (such as Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands), with strong ties to New Zealand, are more supportive of the Australia and New Zealand role.

Into this rather complex web is woven the deep fears of Pacific island countries, particularly the low lying and most vulnerable countries like Tuvalu and Kiribati, over their very existence in the face of runaway climate change. They are rightly concerned that Australia and New Zealand are not doing enough to help them with funding so they can defend themselves, not cutting their emissions at home and not advocating a strong international agreement to allow the survival of some Pacific communities, islands and even whole countries.   

In the past the reaction may have been one of resignation. Aid from Australia and New Zealand is important and there are few alternatives. But the world is waking up to the unique richness of the Pacific. In particular, China is interested in strengthening its ties with the Pacific (and accessing the Pacific’s natural resources) and is increasing its aid for infrastructure. In a strongly symbolic move, China funded the construction of a secretariat for the Melanesian countries in Vanuatu.

All of this is about governments. But perhaps the deepest failing of the Pacific Islands Forum is about not reaching out to Pacific people. Its discussions are seen to be divorced from the reality of people’s lives, especially since 80 per cent of Pacific islanders live in rural areas and earn their living from semi-subsistence agriculture and fishing. In some areas people do not have access to the basic services such as affordable education, health care, clean water and sanitation, transport and economic infrastructure. There are few job opportunities for young people. This is reflected in the Pacific’s slow progress towards the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals.

The PIF is seen to have little relevance to many people’s lives. The ritual signing of declarations and action plans has all too rarely resulted in tangible benefits that people can recognise. Even though there is a dialogue with business, there is no opportunity for engagement in the Forum’s processes by church groups, environment or social development NGOs, trade unions or women’s organisations (which is crucial given their exclusion from formal structures in many Pacific countries). In order to move ahead, PIF must engage with the people of the Pacific, traditional leaders and their MPs.  

The region needs a cohesive and strong Pacific, with good governance and accountability to the Pacific’s people. It should not only be the rugby teams that get ready for the World Cup, but the Pacific Islands Forum as well.