When Marnette Aggabao died from apparent COVID-19 related complications in Guam recently, she joined a tragic tally of health workers all over the world who have died during the pandemic.
Aggabao, a 62-year-old registered nurse originally from the Philippines, was admitted to hospital for other medical problems and with a COVID diagnosis. She spent more than spent six weeks there before she died.
Local media quoted her friends as saying Aggabao had talked of retiring, but “then this thing happened.”
This ‘thing’ is COVID-19, and the response of our health frontliners in working so hard to treat COVID patients, test and screen many of us, undertake contact tracing, communicate new behaviours (extended hand washing, sanitiser user, social distancing), and deliver usual health services—all in the face of their own fears and exhaustion— is why they are our Pacific People of the Year.
In some Pacific states and territories, health workers also represent a significant number of patients. 60 Guam Memorial Hospital staffers had tested positive for COVID-19 from the start of the pandemic to October. In Papua New Guinea, a large number of healthcare workers who had been stationed at a COVID-19 testing lab were exposed, and their family members along with them.
Prime Minister James Marape ordered an inquiry, saying: “All healthcare workers are supposed to be equipped and all health facilities have been supplied with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Something went wrong somewhere.”
But in most Pacific nations, health workers have escaped infection through the application of strict protocols including the donning of PPE.
“I think our health care workers have done very, very well,” says Fiji’s health minister Dr. Ifereimi Waqainabete. “They’ve actually shown what I’ve known all along. What has actually worked in our favour is that over the last few years the government has actually invested a lot in opening more positions for health workers, making sure there are a lot of scholarships available…That coupled with the fact that there has been sufficient renumeration of doctors and other staff in the ministry of health have actually prepared us really well for the challenges we have faced this year and they’ve been able to answer the call and in some cases, above and beyond what is expected.”
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It is almost the end of 2020 and Palau has remained one of the handful of countries globally which have not registered a single case since the coronavirus outbreak was designated a pandemic in March.
For Palau’s health Minister Emais Roberts and the frontliners, the secret to success in keeping the virus at bay is thinking ahead, strict quarantine measures and early border closures.
It also helps that Minister Roberts is a practicing surgeon.
"This thing took us all by surprise when it was declared back in March. Thinking back, there were several steps we took even before WHO told us to close our borders."
Roberts said he took the advice back then of a former classmate that works with the Center for Disease Control (CDC). His classmate pointed out that given Palau's isolation, lack of resources and small population, it was best to take proactive measures.
"Thinking about it , Palau is very high risk compared to most of these Pacific nations, we have direct flights from China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan, Philippines and Guam. We have multiple entries."
As early as January, Palau closed its borders to flights from mainland China. By March, flights from Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Philippines to Palau had stopped, as the virus spread globally.
Once its closest neighbour Guam started experiencing a surge in cases, Palau decided it would not accept flights via that route.
Minister Roberts said while the nation is reliant on tourism to spur its economy, Palau didn't want to wait too long to implement measures to keep the virus out, as he knew keeping the borders open for too long could have had a devastating impact on its people.
"We asked ourselves, sacrifice the economy or the people? We decided that people are more important. We have to secure the people first and then we can always deal with the economy later," Roberts told Islands Business.
While border closures have impacted tourism, construction of infrastructure for the upcoming ‘Our Oceans’ conference in Palau has spurred the economy.
Roberts said from the start, he urged President Tommy Remengesau Jr. to follow science and not politics. Palau also used Taiwan’s tough approach as a model for COVID restrictions.
Minister Roberts said along with Taiwan, the US, Australia, Japan and other foreign partners, the help of the Palau representative in the United Nations was critical in mobilising COVID-19 test kits, supplies and equipment to be flown to Palau via chartered aircraft.
Palau’s Ambassador Olai Uludong said she worked closely with the Ministry of Health and took their cues from Minister Roberts. "We always trust our doctors," she said.
Minister Roberts said other essential frontline workers, including not only health workers but also airport workers and police officers, are the unseen heroes who are keeping Palau safe by serving as gatekeepers despite the health risks.
The Commander of Palau’s Emergency Operation Center- COVID-19 Response Incident, Ritter Udui, said their line of work meant they had been preparing for a pandemic. “We all knew that it would happen one day, we just didn't realise the extent of the pandemic.”
As a result, Palau’s health workers experienced mixed emotions, from being excited, to being anxious, to being scared.
Udui said the National Emergency Committee formed by the government, helped to make sure MOH has also the resources, equipment and facilitates to deal with any COVID-19 cases.
Deputy Incident Commander, Gaafar Uherbelau said at the start of the global outbreak, Palau's priority was to check the borders and catch the virus to avoid community transmission.
Uherbelau said they also sought to ensure the public knew what restrictions were in place, and how those restrictions would impact the community.
He said also while initial responses from the community had not been all positive, the government leadership was instrumental in amplifying the messages of the health sector and keeping the community in the know.
While Palau is still COVID-free, Minister Roberts, Udui and Uherbelau urged the public not to be complacent and to do their part by staying informed and following government guidelines on hand washing and hand sanitising.
Marlene Dutta is the brains, and the heart, behind Barter for Better Fiji. She is also our Pacific Community Champion for 2020.
Early this year, as borders closed in response to the pandemic and Fiji’s tourism industry came to an abrupt halt, Marlene Dutta started asking herself, “what do you do when there is no more cash?” At the same time, she said she felt she was becoming a “horrible person.”
“I was just angry all the time. Everywhere I went, I felt no one was taking coronavirus seriously, there was little to no social distancing wherever you went…and I knew something had to give, something had to change.”
Dutta turned to social media, and specifically ‘kindness pandemic’ pages which offered positive messages and stories in response to COVID-19.
Meanwhile, looking for solutions to what was clearly an impending economic crisis, Dutta started to study barter—both the historical experience of barter around the globe as a response to crisis—and how it might be modernised.
She thought it could be an easy sell for Fijians. “People here understand barter, they claim it as part of their tradition, so there is that ownership of the concept. It is something we have continually done in smaller spaces and smaller circles. So for those reasons I felt it might be something worthwhile. I had no idea it would mushroom out to what it became but I just felt like it hit a few spots that people would resonate with.”
Nauruan Lionel Aingimea is our leader of the year.
The Nauruan leader’s unwavering determination, grit, and a burning desire to save the USP earned him respect and accolades this year.
While University of the South Pacific vice chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia is credited with exposing the rot in the regional institute of learning, it is his incoming chancellor that made sure that the vice chancellor kept his job this year.
Many other leaders would have shied away from the crisis that gripped the university leadership. Not Lionel Aingimea though. He took, as it were, the bulls by the horn, and as President of Nauru and new Chancellor of the university, convened at least three special USP Council virtual meetings to obtain consensus that paved the way for resolution of the year-long impasse.
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At a brief sitting of Papua New Guinea’s parliament in November – with all Opposition MPs absent – the James Marape government passed its 2021 Budget, before abruptly adjourning until next April.
Treasurer Ian Ling-Stuckey told the 51 MPs present in parliament that government expenditure was expected to reach K19.61 billion (US$5.58 billion) in 2021.
It was, he said, “a very substantial increase of 9%” on the 2020 fiscal year. “The domestic and international context for our 2021 budget is the most challenging in our nation’s history. Since 1975, there has never been … a global crisis as the one we are now facing today,” he said. The Budget for 2021 also reveals lower government revenue at K12.9 billion (US$3.67 billion), and the largest planned deficit of K6.63 billion (US$1.88 billion).
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Rabuka turns his back on Parliament – again
After losing the 1999 General Election to the Fiji Labour Party under Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka resigned. His deputy in the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni iTaukei – Ratu Inoke Kubuabola – took over the leadership and became Leader of the Opposition.
Rabuka has never taken rejection well. In 1999 the voters’ rejection of him either for leading the military coups of 1987 or embracing Jai Ram Reddy’s National Federation Party in an attempt at national unity, led to the SVT’s annihilation at the polls. He stepped aside and took up the position of first commoner to lead the now defunct Bose Levu Vakaturaga, often referred to as the Great Council of Chiefs.
When Rabuka was defeated in a palace coup and replaced by Bill Gavoka early this month, members of his Social Democratic Liberal Party should have known what their leader would do.
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Fiji’s next national election may be some time off, but political leaders of all persuasions have been meeting constituents across the country in recent months. Joe Yaya caught up with Unity Fiji leader, Savenaca Narube in Fiji’s north recently.
Unity Fiji leader, Savenaca Narube believes an alternative leadership is what the people of Fiji are calling for, and more urgently, what the country needs at this time.
“You may have a good party, the best lineup in Fiji, but if you have a leader that doesn’t have the capacity to lead the country, then what’s that?”
Narube unsuccessfully led Unity Fiji to the polls for the first time in 2018, following a long and distinguished career with the Ministry of Finance and Reserve Bank that abruptly ended in 2009. While moving up the hierarchy in the bank, Narube undertook attachments with the World Bank in Washington DC. He also spent a few years at the IMF, and today consults for the Asian Development Bank.
Four days before the May 2000 coup, he was appointed governor of the RBF. The upheavals of 2000 tested Narube’s ability and competence to handle the country’s finances during those tumultuous times.
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A rare conjunction of events is emerging. The events are both directional and prescriptive. The conjunction’s rarity is evocative. The conjunction provides an opportunity for Pacific regionalism (or the Pacific Islands Forum, PIF) to reinvent itself in order to capture the lost grounds it has frittered away since its genesis.
The calendrical end-of-the-year is synergised by institutional, exceptional and wider regional and global events whose essences can additionally incentivise the creative embodiment of the reinvention so needed.
December 2020 brings to an end the services of the incumbent PIFS Secretary General (SG), Dame Meg Taylor. Her replacement will take office in January 2021. The incoming SG’s terms of reference will be set out in the provisions of the 2050 Strategy, currently being compiled. The institutional processes of PIF will ensure fulfillment of that specific objective.
Candidates for the SG’s job and their respective proponents are active at their respective lobbying and public relations drives to get the nod at the final tape. Tongan candidate, Ms Amelia Siamomua has woven her own talanoa into her promotional public relations. I have put this down to an exceptional event, in the context of this article. Her rallying call of ‘Lalaga’ or weaving to resetting the Blue Pacific is built upon what she calls as the 4Cs – coordination, cooperation, commitment and care.
Other exceptional events are contributing to the conjunction.
I explored Dr Transform Aqorau’s ‘Imagining a new post-COVID-19 international economic order’ in the November 2020 issue of this magazine. I situated that scenario in the context of Pacific regionalism and cautioned a degree of hindsight to learning from what had happened in the past. That, however, is not to decry in anyway the relevance of post-COVID-19 events in this conjunction.
Being a regional champion himself, Dr Aqorau has just released his latest book: ‘Fishing For Success’ – Lessons in Pacific Regionalism. His philosophy of ‘applying limits to create scarcity and then be innovative about the opportunities for economic development’, is a rallying cry for all sectors of operation in Pacific regionalism going forward.
Non-governmental organisations, like the Pacific Theological College’s Institute for Mission and Research, is also getting into the act. Its ‘Reweaving the Ecological Mat (REM) works towards establishing an ecological framework for development.
An exceptional event but very much guided by the PIF Secretariat at the institutional level is work on climate change and sea level rise, directed at ensuring that members’ maritime zones are set in perpetuity once delineated. This work is critical for the sustainable future of the Pacific Island Countries (PICs), especially the Smaller Island States (SIS).
Two events – first within PIF and the second, at the Pacific rim to the east, add particular significance to the conjunction. New Zealand’s recent elections have seen the emergence of Hon Nanaia Mahuta as its first woman Foreign Affairs Minister. Maori herself, she will be able to view and regard her country’s ‘Pacific Reset’ programme in the region compassionately and with accustomed astuteness. The region anticipates from her due respect for PICs’ agency on all regional and global issues and proper exercise of political economy and geopolitical influences that unite rather than those which divide.
Moreover, the exciting and new US Presidential team, in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will add compelling prospects and a more consultative approach to the conduct of the Indo-Pacific geostrategy. But more so, the team offers a welcome support for the US return to the Paris Declaration on climate change. This, with a bit of luck, may compel Australia to properly honour and respect the climate change provisions under the Boe Declaration.
The conjunction is special and specific in the life of Pacific regionalism. The opportunity it connotes should not be wasted. PIF has to take huge strides, reinvent itself through the provisions of the 2050 Strategy. This is an opportunity, inter alia, to make good where it had failed in the past.
On regional cooperation, the 2012 ‘What Can We Learn Symposium’ concluded that the whole process was both cost ineffective and cost inefficient. The new normal, post-COVID-19, with greater use of information technology for on-line meetings, for example, is a good start in terms of cost effectiveness. Moreover, PICs particularly have got to better rationalise their attendance at these meetings. Prioritisation on the basis of anticipated benefits and minimisation of opportunity costs has to feature prominently in their decision-making.
Efforts at regional integration in the past – of member country themselves and of their various regional organizations have been undermined through, inter alia, costly duplication. The 2005 Regional Institutional Framework report had relevant recommendations to resolve this concern. However, some recommendations were irrationally politicised. The full impact of those expedient recommendations was thus undermined. PIF needs to do better next time around.
When it comes to regional economic integration, the regional experience is nothing to be proud of. The idea of an economic union for the PICs was conceived way back in 1971, 49 years ago. The Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA), an essential building block for such a union, only came into force in 2001, and today – 19 years later, only 50% of its signatories are implementing the agreement.
In 2018, the First Quadrennial Pacific Sustainable Development Report (FQPSDR) listed seven challenges for the region, one of which was: “Economically, whilst we see trends of sustained growth, it is often inequitable.” But that is only part of the story. PICs have remained as one of the highest aid recipients in the world on a per capita basis. PIF has to turn this around.
When it comes to regional pooling of resources, PIF cannot be proud of its past record in the areas of regional shipping and regional aviation. Even its current record, through the shenanigans at USP, is nothing to write home about. Better management of its exercise of sovereignty transfers from members is called for. Members themselves have got to impose restraining orders when it comes to exercising their influence on other members and on the conduct of regional organisations, including the Forum Secretariat. This is particularly pertinent in the consideration of political economy and geopolitics.
Any work on revitalising Pacific regionalism has to include a frank review of its structure. Pacific regionalism is voluntary regionalism. Members are not legally bound to the decisions they make. In this day and age, when leaders are increasingly being called and pressured to be accountable and deliver, the PIF system seems antiquated.
Apart from that, PIF membership is atypical. The dichotomy between the PICs and the developed countries of Australia and New Zealand has created its own challenges. There may have been a tendency in the past to over-emphasise their differences. Given the collective and the unifying rallying call of the Blue Pacific continent, the regional planners are obligated to unite and bridge the dichotomous chasm that exists. The unity so formed needs to be reflected at all times and at different levels including at the multilateral level.
The Forum Secretariat and its operations to effectively and efficiently deliver to the Leaders their annual meetings, especially their Retreats, seem to be over scrutinised and analysed. The Secretariat really needs to just pick up the gauntlet and start putting the fine recommendations that have been proposed in various reports over time. These include measures relating to its meeting processes and strategising for the most productive use of Leaders’ time at their annual get-togethers. Of particular consideration also is the provision of technical assistance to deserving members which is currently lacking.
A contributing event to the conjunction is the appointment of the new PIFS SG. The underlying problem is the existence of what is referred to as a ‘gentlemen’s agreement.’ To mark a new departure - a new dawn for Pacific regionalism, such an agreement can be critically reviewed; and, if justified, can be documented as future guide.
The author is a former Fijian Ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.
South Pacific Business Development founder, Greg Casagrande is a “serial social entrepreneur”, founding not only the SPBD microfinance network 20 years ago, but also MicroDreams, a microfinance acceleration fund, and Transformative Ventures LLC, a microfinance advisory company. Casagrande’s storied career has also seen him promote hi-tech entrepreneurship, and act as founding director of the Ice Angels, Australasia’s largest angel investor group. Here he reflects on SPBD’s 20 years, and the challenges and opportunities 2020 bought the network.
Islands Business: The SPBD network has just celebrated its 20th anniversary. How has your vision evolved over that time?
Greg Casagrande: SPBD began simply in the year 2000 with the vision of providing under-privileged Samoan women with the opportunity to obtain small unsecured loans to help them start and grow tiny income generating businesses so that they could work their way up and out of poverty. Since then we have learned that there are several other important needs that we can also address. Today we provide a full range of financial and business development services including: affordable savings accounts, a variety of death benefits, significant financial literacy education, heaps of micro, small and medium business training including our much lauded BLOOM programme, childhood education and higher education financing, basic housing improvement financing, several different asset purchase financing programmes, solar powered equipment financing and distribution, regional seasonal employee financing, remittance facilitation, mobile money transfers and more. Over the past twenty years we have also dramatically expanded our vision beyond the shores of Upolu in Samoa. Today we work throughout Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
IB: As founder, what has given you most satisfaction over this period?
GS: I always find tremendous joy meeting in the villages with our many successful women micro-entrepreneurs. I love hearing their stories about how they have taken charge of their lives and are working hard and making the living and educational environment better for their families and especially their children. So many of our members have become fantastic leaders in their communities. They are especially inspiring.
IB: What is the biggest lesson you have learned?
GS: I read a good quote many years ago that said, “if you want to go fast, travel alone, if you want to go far, go together.” My vision is for SPBD to be a permanent impact organisation that is spread across the region. To achieve that has required building excellent local teams in each one of our markets. Building a great team is critical to achieving sustained significant success. I am enormously proud of our excellent team throughout the region.
IB: Has anything surprised you about the way the network has developed?
GC: Building a financially self-sufficient, sustainable and highly impactful organization that serves the grass roots communities in nearly 2,000 villages across dozens of islands in five different Pacific Islands nations has not been easy. There were many times, especially early on, that we could have failed. I understand clearly why so many well-intentioned similar, well-funded efforts have in fact failed. I think SPBD has great tenacity in its DNA. When I started, I would never have imagined how difficult it would be. But the effort has clearly been worth it.
IB: 2020 has been a difficult year for Pacific island economies, and many families have turned to micro and small enterprises for their economic survival. How has the pandemic and resulting economic impacts impacted SPBD? What adjustments have you made?
GC: 2020 has indeed been an extraordinary and difficult year. SPBD has made many adjustments to better serve our clients in this significantly changed environment. SPBD adopted new procedures and policies to fully comply with all new government regulations in each of our markets. Among other things this included adopting significant use of personal protective equipment in all aspects of our operations, suspending weekly meetings as needed and then using micro-meetings (with just 3 people, in lieu of larger groups) when appropriate. We also helped our clients with their loans by providing them with significant repayment grace periods and opportunities to reschedule existing loans. Additionally we are providing all of our clients with the ability to take out new rehabilitation financing to either relaunch a business or, for those who were working in the tourism industry, to launch an entirely new and different business.
IB: You describe yourself as a ‘serial social entrepreneur’. What new ventures are you working on now?
GC: In addition to SPBD, I am also the Chairman and CEO of WaterHealth International (WHI). WHI is a major provider and operator of distributed, affordable clean drinking water facilities located in hundreds of rural communities across India, Nigeria, and Ghana. Millions of poor rural families rely on us each day for their purified drinking water.
IB: What is the one piece of advice you would give someone who is thinking of going into business?
GC: My advice, to any person considering going into business, is to have a very clear vision of the specific customer needs that you are going to address and satisfy. Figure out exactly how you are going to delight your customers by fully meeting their specific needs. With that knowledge in hand, you can then design a financially sustainable and scalable business model that will consistently deliver terrific solutions that please your customers. You will then be on your pathway towards a successful business.
IB: Who inspires you- and how?
GC: My father has always been my main inspiration in business. He is a tremendously accomplished entrepreneur. He instilled in me most of my core values, a strong work ethic, and a disposition to tenaciously and smartly build quality organisations around terrific, tightly knit teams.
IB: Sadly, you haven’t been able to travel to SPBD countries this year. But when borders reopen, where are you looking forward to visiting again?
GC: In 2021 I will most definitely be back in all five SPBD countries (Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Solomon Islands & Vanuatu). I look forward to meeting face-to-face once again with all of our teams and many of our wonderful, inspired members.
“[For] us women, there are always ways to earn money,” says Susana Silikiwai, a SPBD member from Kalokolevu village on Viti Levu.
Susana was one of the members who came to Suva to celebrate SPBD Fiji’s 10th anniversary recently. “I shed tears” Susana said while thinking about her SPBD journey. “I was looking at where I am now, the number of educated women that could [have] come here, and that God chose me to come here. I thank God.”
Susana runs a canteen and makes lovo packs. Since COVID-19 hit, she has also begun selling produce in Lami each Sunday, after 26 years selling from Suva municipal market. Lami is well known for its small Sunday market populated by Seventh Day Adventists like Susana (who mark their sabbath on Saturdays), and Susana says she can earn more on that one day than if she were to come into Suva market four days a week.
Susana is also training family to help in the business. “I’m teaching one of my children, my daughter. I told her not to go anywhere, or work elsewhere. I told her to stay in the market, for me to teach her how to buy and sell, for her to stay in Lami market while I run the one in Suva.”
Her membership with SPBD has enabled the grandmother of 25 children to care for her family, grow her income and extend her home, adding two extra bedrooms, a kitchen and sitting room.
“I take care of my children, my grandchildren, and even one of my nephews; his parents passed away. I am supporting his education. That’s SPBD. These banks here, they can’t help us like SPBD does. Our house is a small house, I used to say. One small house with 2 bedrooms, no kitchen. We cook inside; if the weather is good, we cook outside. I thank SPBD for giving me the wisdom and the knowledge, I am really happy with SPBD; [and have] extended my house.”
Susana continues to think about how she can increase her income and diversify her business. Kalokolevu is situated on the busy road between Suva and Nadi and she wants to take advantage of this convenient location.
“I want to expand my business and do one [stall] on the highway where we live” to sell vegetables, cooked food, juice and handicrafts.
“In two years’ time, I plan to purchase a van to assist with my farm produce and lovo pack deliveries,” she says.
Susana is also keen to buy a pool table to entertain the many children that come to her home and to further improve her kitchen.
As a participant in the Fiji Bloom small and medium business formalisation program, Susana says her coach has advised her to grow vegetables to sell, rather than buying them from other suppliers.
Like other Fiji Bloom participants, she also invested F$1000 of her own money in the training program. “This motivates me to explore other potential businesses out there,” Susana says.
She is also grateful for the assistance SPBD has given her to navigate loans and hire purchase agreements without the complications of detailed paperwork.
She encourages other women in her community to follow her lead.
“It’s all about honesty. If you don’t have honesty, you can’t do it.
“We’re poor…but I thank SPBD for raising our family’s living standard.”