Aug 14, 2020 Last Updated 10:45 PM, Aug 12, 2020

A mere decade before the Pacific Island Countries join the rest of the world to account in terms of what we have done collectively to deliver the 2030 promise and the Sustainable Development Goals, a global pandemic has struck the earth with devastating consequences.

The crisis is forcing governments and policymakers to consider the unavoidable trade-offs between saving lives and preserving jobs and livelihoods.  Countries have been grappling with the collision of a triple menace – COVID-19, climate-related disasters, and rising domestic violence – compounding the wide-ranging challenges for sustainable development, national security and foreign policy.  The new challenges further stress an already difficult position for the Pacific Islands Forum.

The outcomes are not the same for everyone and the crisis is forcing governments to consider the painful questions and hard choices between inequality and economic growth, the redistributive and resetting pressures of building and strengthening health systems and preserving jobs and livelihoods that makes small states of the region economically dependent on foreign influence, aid-dependency, and soft power initiatives. 

The uncertainty in transitioning to a durable solution is unique with COVID-19, as there is a dilemma of managing the profound and long-lasting shock in the context of addressing the pre-existing challenges of poverty and inequality. The challenges are wide-ranging, from care work, including unpaid care work; to preparedness and readiness of health and social systems, to repatriation of nationals and travel bubbles; from economic recovery to debt-management, and the list continues.

The Pacific Island Forum’s vision for its peoples is one that is both familiar and ever-evolving, in response to the changing currents of the new world regime. Resetting the Blue Pacific has to be a Pacific story driven by the Pacific leaders’ aspirations for a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and economic prosperity through assertive diplomacy, assessing the diverse voices and paying much more attention to the large swaths of the Pacific Blue Continent. The timely invoking of the Biketawa Declaration and the establishment of the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19, as the avenue for the one Blue Pacific family to manage recovery and build back better is a point of convergence for resetting. Resetting with stronger genuine and durable partnerships as promoted by the Pacific Small Island Developing States (P-SIDS) along with the rest of the world’s SIDS in the SAMOA Pathway for sustainable development and using the 4Cs for effective delivery and lasting impact.   

The novel COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the region’s priorities and sustainable development goals, demanding innovative ways, and enhanced cooperation at all levels. The situation calls for a reset in the regional approach to these issues, in a way that is bold and innovative, while tapping into the deepest strains of our Pasifika psyche and traditions.  In tackling, we must not revert, instead, this is a once-in-a-lifetime to lay the foundations for a new revitalised Pacific way that will benefit generations to come. 

“Lalanga” or weaving, is a tradition that is common in communities and societies of the Pacific, whether from Micronesia to Melanesia and Polynesia.  This fundamental skill of our communities to weave baskets, mats, clothing or fishing nets, entails a patient and careful approach by multiple hands, laying strand upon strand, with overarching view of what the finished creation will be.  Lalanga, however, is more than weaving.  As our ancestors have taught us, the lessons of Lalanga — coordination, cooperation, commitment, and care (4C’s) — can be applied methodically through our life’s challenges.

In resetting the pathways for the Blue Pacific, we should enhance our traditional knowledge of the 4C’s. For a new normal, the regional architecture must be enhanced and sustained to ensure that the 4Cs of the Pacific Lalanga drive regional actions and deepen collective responsibility and accountability to deliver on the promises of sustainable development under the prospective 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy. The strands of 4Cs for the Lalanga must be stronger and more assertive. 

The growing interest of the world in the Pacific requires a rethink and reset of the Forum’s security and foreign policy positions to safeguard the stability and strengthen the resilience and sustainable development of the Blue Continent.  As described by the World Bank, the shocks of COVID-19 are causing the world economies to experience the deepest global recession in decades, despite the extraordinary efforts of governments to counter the downturn with fiscal and monetary policy support.

To eliminate and stop the spread of COVID-19 and its impacts, means not reverting to business as usual.  It is instead an opportunity to get it right, so that no one is left behind and that we could be in the same boat and we all come through this together. It is an opportunity to reinforce the links between climate actions and sustainable development, adaptation responses with goals of environmental conservation, economic development and societal wellbeing of all peoples of the Pacific. 

At this critical juncture, we must ask: Is Pacific regionalism robust and ambitious enough to navigate this new terrain effectively, and are the 4Cs working?

The Pacific Islands Forum is a coalition of the willing to protect the interests of its member states. It is committed to ensuring that the future of the Blue Pacific cannot simply be left to chance but requires a collective commitment to achieve it.  The 4Cs of coordination, cooperation, commitment and care are not new, but need rejuvenation with more assertive diplomacy, development cooperation and investment now to support member countries to manage the long-lasting shock of COVID-19 and build back better toward a post-COVID-19 durable solution. 

The greatest risks of the final decade towards 2030 are present, and every effort must be better coordinated, every opportunity for development cooperation must be seized to prevent further shocks, and manage existing shocks for P-SIDS.  The commitment of Forum Leaders to act now is demonstrated in the 2019 Forum Leaders endorsement of a 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.   It reflects a commitment to urgency for making it happen.  

The 2050 Strategy must be concrete, with binding and realistically achievable targets, and with the financial capacity and investments for implementation.  As we have learned from our ancestors, the 2050 Strategy during such an unprecedented epoch should not ignore our traditional 4Cs. Through our history of cooperation, mechanisms, and responses to coordinate economic and humanitarian aid can seamlessly be integrated. The key elements of the complex challenges of the vulnerable Pacific infrastructures and increasing costs as related to development assistance and foreign policy are also critical to the 2050 Strategy. More assertive diplomacy is needed with attention to multilateral mechanisms and protocols to boost Pacific regionalism for building back better. Let’s not forget our traditional knowledge.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a common threat and must be tackled using the 4Cs of Lalanga of coordination, cooperation commitment, and care for a better Blue Pacific.

Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua is a Pacific islander and an expert on regional and international affairs, serving more than 30 years as an international civil servant in the United Nations system and other international organisations globally, including the Pacific region.  She is the Tongan Prime Minister’s nominee for the position of Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum.

The global impacts of COVID-19 are unprecedented and extend beyond the realm of health into the social, economic and psychological aspects of people’s lives. Although the number of infections in Pacific Island Countries (PICs) may be low because of their relative isolation, they still cannot escape the consequences of the economic free-fall emanating from the lockdowns. The sudden demise of tourism, a major money earner for many island states; loss of jobs and income; decline in remittances and the dramatic shrinking of investment and economic opportunities have left families devastated and governments’ resources stretched to the limit.

In many ways, the pandemic merely exacerbates the existing economic challenges and further deepens the poverty and vulnerability that many Pacific peoples have been experiencing anyway. It exposes in more blatant ways some pre-existing social, economic and gender inequities. Those in vulnerable employment such as the hospitality industry, infrastructure, construction and manufacturing and those in the informal sector are amongst the first victims of the economic squeeze. The aid, debt and remittance-based Pacific economies are struggling to respond effectively as many do not have the means to provide wage subsidy and stimulus packages similar to those implemented by industrialised neighbours like Australia and New Zealand. This should signal the need for new innovative strategies and models of development that have the capacity to respond effectively to disasters and crisis; a strategy that requires identifying and building on local strengths and innovations.

One of the unique characteristics of Pacific communities is the dynamic interrelationship between traditional subsistence production and the market system. The subsistence sector in the Pacific has a significant role in providing subsidies for cash income, as well as a socio-economic cushion in times of crisis, as we saw during the 2008 global meltdown. There is almost a collective intuition to revert to community-embedded survival values and strategies when crisis occurs. For instance, the resurrection of the age-old reciprocity system which is now being enthusiastically embraced in Fiji (Barter for Better Fiji) to counter the cash shortfall; the rush to promote backyard subsistence farming; and re-engineering of indigenous social protection systems of support, shows that the basis of resilience is locked within local cultural and innovation systems. The challenge is, how do we incorporate these values of resilience into the formal policy process?

Perhaps, it is time for a dialogue between the indigenous systems of production and the formal sector in framing an innovative, equitable, resilient and sustainable system, which is capable of withstanding the potentially devastating impact of economic and social risks along the lines of the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs provide some universal pathways for equity, resilience, empowerment, diversity, people-centered development and progressive transformation. Amongst some possible strategies for resilience, equity and sustainability would be how to utilise local resources and knowledge which requires community participation, empowerment and benefits. For instance, today, indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants and resources constitute a major portion of the multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry, but very little benefits trickle down to the knowledge and resource owners. The UN-affiliated World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has been at the forefront of protecting these indigenous resources and knowledge from biopiracy.

Hence, rethinking new development strategies should also consider local innovations, community resources and indigenous knowledge and marry these with macro forms of institutional governance and development, which can be resilient yet empowering. As the remittance tap slows to a trickle, tourism and the travel industry collapses, as hundreds and thousands lose their jobs (as we witnessed with Fiji Airways) and as poverty and inequality increases, it is time to rethink innovatively about our future development strategies, especially strengthening the social and solidarity economy.

The pandemic has also put the spotlight on the need for PICs to strengthen their social protection strategies, seriously address the issues of inequity and cut down on their national debts and expenditure to respond more effectively to major disasters such as the one we are facing now. What we need are not incremental and token adjustments that only serve the interest of a few, but major conceptual and structural transformations for the betterment of entire communities.

SDGs response

The SDGs’ strategies for equity, inclusivity and empowerment has become even more relevant and imperative in these times of the pandemic crisis. A UNDP report ‘Position Note on the Social and Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Asia-Pacific’ calls on countries in the region to avoid returning to some pre-pandemic unsustainable development paths and to capitalise on the opportunity to pursue innovative alternatives.

From the point of view of PICs, the pandemic has strengthened the SDGs moral authority as a guiding light for sustainability and resilience - and the challenge is how countries can ensure that their responses are comprehensive as well as equitable and inclusive, so that no one is left behind.

The Pacific is part of the global system and thus all these require both local innovations and global support, because the impact of the virus is global. Meanwhile, defeating the pandemic is the immediate aim and the words of UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner, may provide us the means to do it; “We must act in borderless solidarity to defeat it.”

Emily Moli is a Knowledge Communications Analyst, UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UNDP.

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