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There is growing concern about increasing instability and tensions in the Pacific. In Melanesian societies, particularly Papua New Guinea/Bougainville, Solomon Islands and Fiji, instability is characterised by ethnic or tribal clashes, soaring crime rates and a deterioration in government control and accountability.
The circumstances and causes of conflict in each country are unique, but there are some common and interrelated causes.
The unequal distribution of benefits from rich natural resources creates a perception of injustice. Young people face a shortage of employment and lack of economic opportunities whilst others profit from export revenues. Often the expectations of young people in rural areas don’t fit with the subsistence lifestyle and they drift towards urban areas where competition is high for limited employment opportunities. It’s all too easy for these disappointed, frustrated young people to be drawn into criminal and conflict activities.
Ethnic differences alone are not a cause for conflict. But ethnic groups can provide social security whilst the state fails to provide such basic services as law enforcement, water, education and health-care. This increases a sense of belonging to a group whilst at the same time destroying a sense of national identity.
Traditional values and customs are being replaced with modern government and state institutions. But these modern institutions don’t necessarily fit with the Pacific understanding of decision-making and rule. This gap between society and the state adds to instability by weakening the state’s ability to manage and further fuelling people’s sense of belonging to a group or community rather than any sense of national belonging.
The availability of firearms is widespread and accelerates and aggravates instability and conflicts. Where firearms are available, minor disputes become shootings, making it easier for young people to become killers.
Finally, resource exploitation by international corporations can also accelerate the outbreak of conflict because of the devastation they often cause to the local environment and local livelihoods.
Oxfam New Zealand is an active member of the Pacific Small Arms Action Group (PSAAG), a group dedicated to reducing the deadly impact of armed violence in the Pacific region.
Oxfam’s approach to building ‘human security’ in the Pacific is through community-based development. Some of our current work includes: