The Pacific today faces three crises: a health crisis, an economic crisis and the ongoing climate crisis, and Pacific Islands Forum Economic Ministers will discuss all three when they meet (virtually) next week.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded the scale of the economic impact on Pacific people and communities has become clearer – and Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor says for some it is ‘catastrophic’.
Increased hunger, malnutrition and poverty is being reported by civil society organisations. Job losses, business failures and plummeting remittances are telling and industries such as the tourism sector face the prospect of decades in recovery. Governments are scrambling to put in place safety nets and cope with staggeringly bad COVID-related economic forecasts.
Dame Meg says it is time to think out of the box and act regionally.
She understands the tendency by Pacific countries to turn inwards during the pandemic.
“It is only natural when something like this happens,” she told reporters ahead of the Forum Economic Ministers’ meeting.
“We …look at what is happening to myself, what is happening to my family, what is happening to my friends, what is happening in my community, what is happening in my country.
Dame Meg Taylor says the ministers will focus on economic priorities to contain the spread of COVID-19 and recover from the pandemic to build “a strong platform for economic stability and resilience in the long term.”
She stressed the need for new and innovative approaches to development challenges based on self-reliance, pointing to the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway as an example of effective Pacific collective action.
“It is the only region in the world that has done this. And why is this important? Because it is the political space, making sure that the technical assistance can get in, medical assistance can get in, we can ship cargo and customs can be adhered to, that we can repatriate citizens, we can land aircraft, immigration facilities are all in place, and trying to make this work is no mean feat, as you will understand.”
Dame Meg is encouraging Forum members to look beyond their national boundaries, and for development partners to think beyond bilateralism, in order to facilitate “better and deeper coordination and collaboration.”
“It is, I think it is honest for me to say, that the development partners have really approached COVID with a very much bi-lateral approach. And we have watched this, and we have watched the geo-strategic issues play out.”
Dame Meg says the Forum and other regional organisations are also looking at digitalisation as a priority; to survey what infrastructure is in place or coming online plus prices and accessibility, and then explore how it can support the digital economy, health, education and other development goals.
“ I think that it is an opportunity that we need to look at. I know that development banks like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are looking at this through Southeast Asia and other countries. We have asked them to have a conversation with us in terms of what can be done in this region.
“But everything costs money and everything that we get from banks, unless it is coming from the International Development Assistance in the World Bank, everything will one day have to be paid back. This is the big issue for us in the region on how we are going to be able to service this debt over time.”
A paper on the Pacific’s own climate-infrastructure fund, the Pacific Resilience Facility, —with added content on the COVID pandemic—is also going to ministers. The Facility aims to raise US$1.5 billion and fund small projects through the interest generated.
“It is really important that we start thinking of how we can help ourselves, “ Dame Meg says.
“I think that there is a huge tendency in the International Development space every document that you pick up is about how much the Pacific relies on everybody else to do things for them.
“You know I am really sick of that! I'm sure that a lot of you who have worked around this are also tired of it too. It is not as if we are people who do not know how to look after ourselves but wherever they have been good ideas put forward, it is amazing how people think that ‘oh why did you think of that?’ And this is exactly the kind of resistance that we got on this from some of the development banks; we are doing that so why would you want to do it?
“We have got to start helping our countries get systems in place in countries where we can maximise funding that comes in so that countries can help themselves.”
Dame Meg acknowledges that thinking outside the box and building on the regional identity of the ‘Blue Pacific’ continent - launched by leaders in 2017 - is not always easy.
Sharing of experiences of individuals and of countries is important.
“I hope that this is what Forum Economic Ministers will do – to discuss and share their experiences and support each other,” she said.
Forum Economic officials meet this week, with the Ministerial due to open on Tuesday next week.
Tuvalu has asked Pacific Leaders to consider deferring the formal appointment of the new Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum until a face-to-face meeting next year.
Islands Business is aware of four candidates for the role; Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, Marshall Islands Ambassador to the US, Gerald Zackios, international civil servant to the UN and regional organisations, Tonga's international and regional civil servant Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua and former Pacific Community (SPC) Secretary General, Solomon Islander Dr Jimmie Rodgers.
However Pacnews reports that Tuvalu Prime Minister and chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Kausea Natano has written to Leaders asking them to accept a proposal by Vanuatu to defer the formal, face-to-face session Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting to 2021 – to be hosted by government of Fiji.
Natano is requesting a virtual Special Forum Leaders Retreat later this year to consider the ongoing impacts of the COVID19 pandemic on the region and Vanuatu’s offer to host the annual Leaders meeting in 2023.
The contract of current Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor expires at the end of this year, but Leaders could extend it until they meet face-to-face next year. Alternatively they could vote for one of the four contenders. The jockeying has already begun.
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.
Around the region, Pacific governments are introducing border controls and health regulations to limit the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. But regional organisations are also responding: a virtual meeting of Foreign Ministers has established a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway (PHP) to increase medical support to Forum island nations.
Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, spoke to Islands Business about the regional response to the coronavirus pandemic. Excerpts from the interview:
Dame Meg Taylor: We’re focussing very much on the health aspect and there’s a lot of bilateral negotiations going on with donors. But the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway (PHP) is a regional response, driven by the countries to say ‘This is the way we want it done.’
Everybody’s gone into an isolationist position because you’ve got to look after yourself first. Thinking of how we can all work together is not your natural instinct. But the Secretary General of the United Nations has really been driving this home: you have to work with the collective. That’s the job all Secretary Generals have – and the job I have. I’m really pleased that Pacific leaders have seen the merit of doing this.
IB:Did the Foreign Ministers Meeting discuss the economic as well as health effects of the pandemic?
Dame Meg: We’ve been instructed by the leaders to keep this focussed on health at the moment, but questions were asked around trade and economic issues. The Forum has already started work on that. Other institutions like the ADB and World Bank have done their work, while UNDP is looking at broader social impact issues. Fiji would like to see a virtual trade ministers meeting, but this will happen under the Forum rather than the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway. Our PHP focus is to get medical assistance to the countries and we will do that.
The big concern on the economic front is what sort of debt we incur, and how that will impact countries and the delivery of services in the longer term.
There’s an understanding in the region that the impact of this virus and global economic impacts will filter down to the Pacific. However, the feeling amongst leaders in the Pacific is that we’re going to take control in our countries and our region. If we don’t, we’re going to be left at the whim and interests of others. For the leaders, as well as looking at domestic issues, they’re also looking at how the geo-politics will play out.
IB:Is the response complicated by international geo-politics?
I’ve seen media reports in Australia with people worried, saying: “China is coming in and giving you people all this aid.” But China already has strong diplomatic relations in the region. Taiwan has relationships with some of our member states. China was quick off the mark – they’ve moved lots of supplies into the region. The Jack Ma Foundation is sending a shipment and they’ve designated that they want it to go to countries that have already been impacted, so we’ve said we’d get it to the countries through SPC and WHO.
Other countries are also helping. Australia and New Zealand are helping. [Australian Prime Minister] Scott Morrison has always raised the Pacific in his public statements, but Australia is launching its own Pacific corridor. We’ve had discussions that whatever they do and we do, we have to find complementarity.
I think our island countries want to help themselves. It’s like the climate issue – the voice of the Pacific needs to be heard.
The countries are saying that they want donors working closely with them, as they may be concerned that money coming in to the region is going to be captured by a third party.
If you don’t have co-ordination, you’re going to get every donor ringing every government saying ‘we can put together a charter for you.’ Countries are saying, if you want to bring in an aircraft, you have to abide by our protocols.
It’s not about sending people in to the countries to help – that what our countries are most fearful of. It’s a challenge for organisations like the WHO. Their personnel will have to quarantine before they travel. It’s very clear – island leaders are very concerned about any outside people coming in to their country at all.
IB: Is there a danger that the Covid-19 crisis will draw away international attention from other core key regional concerns?
Dame Meg: I think that is a concern and particularly on the climate issue. The greatest security threat now and into the future – with or without coronavirus – is the climate issue. Maybe Cyclone Harold is a reminder that climate change is always a vulnerability around the corner for us. Always. Coronavirus is the focus now, because if it spreads through the islands it could decimate our populations. Many countries have a strong memory of what happened with pandemics in times past, and that’s why they’ve sealed down their borders completely.
With the recession in major countries, you can see changes in the environment. There’s a reprieve for a short time. The fear is that China might triple its coal production to get back into business again.
IB: The islands with the highest confirmed rates of infections are often the US and French territories like Guam, New Caledonia and French Polynesia…
Dame Meg: Yes, the territories that are linked to metropolitan states were the ones that were impacted first – the numbers in French Polynesia are of concern.
IB:Will the scheduled Forum leaders meeting in Vanuatu proceed?
We haven’t made a decision, though we had discussions prior to the elections in Vanuatu. We’re waiting for the new government of Vanuatu before we can take this forward. The people of Vanuatu will be concerned about outsiders coming in. When we would have those meetings is still to be decided. It may only be a meeting of the leaders - the question is whether it will be face to face or whether it will be virtual. It’s all going to depend on what happens with the health and security of all our countries.
IB:How will this pandemic affect the regional debate about security into the future?
Dame Meg: There’s the health issue now, but some countries are already talking about the next phase of how we’re going to get through this. We’ve invoked the Biketawa Declaration, but the Boe Declaration underpins the next phase of the recovery. After health, there’s going to be recovery around food security, environmental security. The bigger countries have got problems, the smaller countries are extremely vulnerable. How the countries respond to this is going to be a sign of Pacific resilience.
IB:In many countries, are you seeing positive examples of communities preparing and mobilising?
Dame Meg: I think in the bigger islands, one of the good things is that everybody is planting and going back to our natural resources to feed ourselves. My own family and community in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea are getting their gardens going, so if there’s a long period of isolation, they will survive.
I think the hardest hit of our Pacific family will be the smaller island states and particularly our atoll states. We have to ensure that greater assistance goes to them in the longer term.
For only the third time in the last 20 years, the Pacific Islands Forum has invoked the Biketawa Declaration to respond to the global coronavirus pandemic. Forum member governments have agreed to establish a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway, to co-ordinate the regional medical response to the Covid-19 coronavirus.
Prime Minister of Tuvalu Kausea Natano, chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic is a global health emergency of unprecedented scale. It poses a real and extreme danger to the health and security of Pacific peoples. Never before has the formal Forum membership simultaneously been in crisis.”
In a video hook-up on 7 April, Forum foreign ministers and officials responded to a call from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and agreed to establish a “Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on Covid-19.” Regional agencies want donors to use the humanitarian pathway to assist island governments with medical supplies and equipment as they respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This co-ordinated response will be overseen by a Ministerial Action Group (MAG), involving Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Nauru, Vanuatu, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu. The MAG will be supported by a regional task force to ensure that medical supplies, technical assistance and essential equipment can be moved seamlessly through the region. This is especially important for some smaller island states that must tranship goods through regional transport hubs like Guam, Nadi or Brisbane. The humanitarian pathway aims to expedite customs clearance of medical supplies and fast-track diplomatic approval for chartered flights and commercial shipping.
This new pathway will complement existing regional meetings, as finance and trade ministers prepare to address the economic woes looming on the horizon. These include the loss of remittances, tourism and export opportunities; increased debt burden; and the double whammy of loss and damage from climate change and Cyclone Harold, which hit Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga in April.