Mar 24, 2017 Last Updated 12:15 AM, Mar 15, 2017

Businesspeople disappointed with leaders

Pacific businesspeople who met in Majuro in conjunction with the Pacific Islands Forum wanted political leaders to back initiatives and remove hurdles to creating airline and shipping opportunities to improve north-south service in the region. But even though business leaders were given the opportunity to present a brief statement about their pre-Forum meeting to the leaders, the Forum leaders’ nine-page communiqué makes not a single mention of these business issues and does not acknowledge the presentation made by Marshall Islands Chamber o f Commerce President Brenda Alik Maddison on behalf of the regional business meeting.

Officials with the Marshall Islands Chamber of Commerce, who organized the early September Private Sector Dialogue, expressed their disappointment at lack of recognition to business objectives in the final communiqué because the point of doing these meetings—the fourth in as many years—is to offer input to the annual leaders’ meeting. The theme was “Enhancing Transport Solutions for increased Trade and Mobility—Connecting North and South Pacific.” During the two-day business consultation, businesspeople from the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu said lack of air service makes development of tourism and other business opportunities difficult.

Jerry Kramer, CEO of Pacific International Inc. based in Majuro, said the Marshall Islands government is subsidizing operations of Our Airline service that links Majuro with Brisbane and Fiji via Nauru. “Though it is much needed, it is not financially self-sustaining,” he said. But if Fiji approves an application from Air Marshall Islands to exercise landing rights in Fiji, the service “could be selfsustaining,” Kramer said.

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As flag-waving children of the Marshall Islands turned out to welcome Presidents, Premiers and Prime Ministers to the 44th Pacific Islands Forum, the assembled leaders were scheduled to arrive in a series of traditional canoes.

But inclement weather and choppy waters on the lagoon forced a change of plans, and leaders were driven to the opening ceremony. The Forum itself continues to sail in choppy waters. The Majuro meeting focused on climate policy, frameworks to replace the Millennium Development Goals and relations between Fiji and other Forum member countries. But the low-key gathering revealed a number of unresolved problems, which continue to affect regional cohesion. Firstly, the gap between rhetoric and reality was very clear. Representatives of major powers queued up to meet Forum leaders, pledging support and solidarity, but their policies on climate, trade and fisheries pose major threats to many Pacific communities.

Statements of climate solidarity are not matched by sufficient action to reduce the emissions that threaten regional livelihoods, environment and security. The unresolved question of Fiji’s relationship with the Forum continues to haunt regional politics. The suspension of Fiji from Forum meetings since 2009 has not stopped the Bainimarama regime from driving regional debate on a range of political and development agendas, aided by Suva’s current role as chair of the G77 plus China group within the United Nations.

Regional concern over the military’s role in drafting Fiji’s new constitution and doubt over the credibility of next year’s scheduled elections has not constrained Suva’s initiatives in the region, highlighted by the new Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF). A flare-up of jousting between China and Taiwan caused dramas throughout the meeting, with Beijing’s representatives reluctant to attend sessions in Majuro’s International Conference Centre (the Taiwan-funded complex features a large plaque and Taiwanese flag in the foyer!). Taiwan’s relations with six Pacific countries, including 2014 Forum host Palau, will continue to rankle Beijing, at a time when China’s influence is increasing across the region.

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Reflecting on this year’s successful Pacific Forum Leaders’ Summit in the idyllic island paradise of the Cook Islands, one might ask if we are witnessing a renaissance in this long-overlooked region. The presence of leaders from Australia, New Zealand, the US, Pacific Islands and senior officials from the People’s Republic of China and UN Women suggests that something is afoot.

The announcement of a 10-year, $320 million Pacific Gender Initiative by the Australian government and a unique partnership between China and New Zealand to finance water supply and sanitation improvements in the Cook Islands gave further reason to think that the future may be brighter in what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to as the “half of Asia-Pacific that does not always get the attention it deserves.” Three years after the “Cairns Compact,” is the situation on the ground evolving or are we just spectators at a 21st century version of Kipling’s “Great Game”—one played out over vast oceans rather than barren steppes? As such things go, the answer is slightly more nuanced than the guest list in Rarotonga might suggest.

The Pacific region is defined by its ocean, but it is also isolated by it. The cost of this isolation has been reduced rates of growth over the long-term with non-resource rich Pacific islands nations growing at around 1% per annum over the past decade, far less than population growth. Small land areas and isolation are also major contributors to fragility in the region. Transport, energy and communication costs in the Pacific’s small islands and isolated rural regions are among the highest in the world.

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• Stephen P. Groff is Vice-President for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific at the Asian Development Bank in Manila.

Not swept under the pandanus mat

The Leaders' Meeting of the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum was held in the Cook Islands in late-August. The event was attended by delegates from over 60 countries, including high level dignitaries such as Hillary Clinton (first time for a US Secretary of State), and resulted in new donor funding in a range of areas, especially gender initiatives. Widespread media coverage highlighted the continued importance of the event.

Largely ignored by the meeting was a damning review of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), the premier regional organisation that supports the Forum, is responsible for the implementation of the Pacific Plan, and is the permanent chair of the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific (CROP). The review of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat was commissioned by the Forum Officials' Committee, which oversees the activities of PIFS, and conducted by well-respected individuals in the region. Tessie Lambourne is the Foreign Affairs and Immigration Secretary for the Government of Kiribati and a long-standing member of the Forum Officials' Committee; Kolone Vaai is a former Financial Secretary for the Government of Samoa; and Peter Winder has considerable experience in public service management in New Zealand. The range of people interviewed for the review was extensive and included PIFS' management team and staff.

The review made a number of criticisms of PIFS, four of the most important being that: - PIFS lacks ownership by and engagement with member states: reflected in its reliance on donor funding and the failure of some members to send delegates to Forum Officials' meetings or to ratify the 2005 Agreement Establishing the Pacific Islands Forum. - Priority setting is weak and the budget is allocated ineffectively across many different programmes.

This criticism extends to the Pacific Plan, described as having an "absence of clear priorities or a robust prioritisation framework". - Funding is uncertain: only 18 percent of revenue has any year-to-year certainty (i.e., regular budget), creating operational difficulties. - Institutional overlap occurs between PIFS and other CROP agencies: climate change is designated an area of particular concern in this regard. Underlying many of these criticisms are "quite significant management capacity and operational issues". Substantial reforms are recommended to address these matters, including better reporting lines and country input into the prioritisation of activities (which would also improve engagement with member states). So far, responses to the report have been muted.

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Forum with a difference

The security agents of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were instructed to leave their guns behind at Rarotonga Airport in the Cook Islands.Her advance party scrutinised the arrival of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the Cooks, approved the dancers, the drummers and the flowery leis, but asked if "the guy with the spear" was really necessary. The answer: Yes he is. In recent years, the Pacific Islands Forum summits have seen informal Pacific ways overwhelmed by over-zealous security measures and preening acronymically prodigious officials.

But in the Cooks, in the centre of the ocean, the islanders struck back. The opening ceremony to which the leaders were carried on massive wooden thrones by eight warriors, surrounded by schoolchildren, dancers and drummers, was spectacularly colourful, and open to all.

The Cooks government insisted that the public—including many schoolchildren—were let in freely, and the new Forum chairperson Prime Minister Henry Puna began his formal speech by performing, with professional polish, a local hit country style song. Even the conference shirts—blue, naturally, to match the skies and the sea – were freakishly nonembarrassing.

They may well even be worn again. The 15 leaders met on One Footprint Island in Aitutaki Lagoon, a heartbreakingly beautiful piece of Pacific. “It’s hard to concentrate on work here,” half-complained Papua New Guinea’s highly focused Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. He wasn’t wrong. But the Forum still contrived to conduct some handy business, even though these summits have typically proven more valuable for networking between leaders who live scattered so far apart, then for concrete outcomes.

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