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

Energy poverty is widespread in the Pacific. It is estimated that 70 per cent of households in the region don’t have access to electricity and 85 per cent don’t have access to clean cooking energy technology. These access rates are low by both international and regional standards, being equivalent to those in sub-Saharan Africa and slightly below the average for low income countries. This is despite higher income levels in much of the Pacific. Energy poverty, or the lack of access to modern energy services, is a concern given its development impacts.

Limited access to electricity is a barrier to economic activity and the delivery of key public services, including health, education and infrastructure services. At the household level, un-electrified households have been shown to spend more on energy than do households with access to electricity. This is because un-electrified households are forced to spend money on fuels for lighting, such as kerosene, which are more expensive than the use of electricity for lighting. The situation does not appear to be improving.

There has been limited progress in widening access to electricity in rural areas of the Pacific – which is where the vast majority of un-electrified households are situated. This is particularly true in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, where electrification rates are lowest, being below what would be expected given per capita income levels. There are a number of reasons why access to electricity in rural areas is so low in the region. One relates to spending on rural electrification. The high upfront cost associated with rural electrification means that subsidisation is generally required (this is subsidisation for the upfront cost of establishing an electricity supply, not ongoing supply costs which can be met through user fees). But government resources that are dedicated to rural electrification in the Pacific are limited.

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The annual Forum leaders meeting in Palau this year released the Palau Oceans Declaration titled: “The Ocean: Life and Future: Charting a course to sustainability.” The declaration outlines lofty ideals about our ocean home, the many threats that are faced by our ocean and also provides the justification for the exploitation of our ocean resources under the disguise of sustainable management.

For too long we have treated Forum communiqué and declarations with little regard because we regarded them as not legally binding and in many cases irrelevant. Unfortunately these declarations and communiqués have a way of coming back to haunt us because these documents give at least the impressions of political legitimacy which in turn bestows a mandate. Naturally funding from developed partners follows mandate. The real winners are those that understand how to manipulate the Forum decision making process – member states, technical agencies as well as NGOs have from time to time used Forum processes to give legitimacy to their different causes.

In the past we have seen how Australia successfully used a Forum communiqué to justify the launch of the controversial PACER + negotiations without the consent of the Pacific islands parliaments, the national democratic institutions. Historically Australia has used Forum communiqué to secure compromised language on climate change despite the resistance and anger of small island states.

This year the real winner is the seabed mining industry under cover of the EUSOPAC Deep Sea Mining (DSM) project. Technical agencies such as SOPAC and in particular the EU-SOPAC DSM project have been working to ensure that their project secures the highest political mandate from Forum leaders meeting precisely because this is a highly controversial project with significant public resistance with calls to ban seabed mining. Non Government Organisations (NGOs) argue that the EU-SOPAC DSM project sets out a number of dubious and unfounded assertions about seabed mining that contravene numerous international law norms such as the Precautionary Principle, and the right to Free and Prior Informed Consent.

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I f there is any resource in which Pacific Island Countries can be certain of achieving sustainability and continuous socio-economic gain, it is its youth cohort. The key however is significant and serious investment in the fulfillment of their potential as game changers, and if we are to reap the benefits of this demographic dividend. A total of 717 million young people aged 15 to 24 live in the Asia-Pacific region, comprising 60 per cent of the world’s youth.

Among Pacific island nations, youth (15-24 years) populations range from 14 per cent of the population in Palau to 22 per cent in Federated States of Micronesia. Inclusive of Papua New Guinea (PNG), 11 of the 15 Pacific island countries’ covered in the recently-published Population and Development Profiles: Pacific Island Countries report a median age of 20 and 24 – this is the age at which exactly half the population is older and half is younger – in 2014. The high proportions of young people in a population are the direct result of high fertility rates which is the average number of children born per women; the higher the number of children born per woman, the higher the proportion of children in the population.

These children represent growth potential as they will become parents themselves and even if fertility rate fell, the sheer number of youth today means population growth will continue to be recorded for some time. In the Pacific, the proportion of population younger than 15 years of age are remarkably high, with most comprising a third of the total population for example the proportion of persons younger than 15 years in the Marshall Islands comprises 40 per cent of the total population. Implicit in figures like these are questions of socio-economic issues like employment opportunities.

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One of the stand out features of this year’s Forum Leaders Summit in Palau was the decision to appoint Meg Taylor, a female to head the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. It is not ground breaking though in so far as having a female head of a regional organisation.

That honour belongs to Lou Pangelinan of Guam who was Director-General of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. It is however ground breaking for the Forum Secretariat because for the first time in its history, it will be headed by three females. It is paradoxical that this decision was made by an all male Forum Leaders Summit. Our male leaders have no problems doing this at the regional level, but qualm at having more women represented in their national Parliaments where real decisions concerning the social and economic development of our countries are made. Why are they willing to make this structural change at the regional level but not at the national level? The reason is that the Forum does not, in and of itself, make legally binding decisions.

Indeed, someone commented that Forum Summits are a holiday for our leaders. Their work is done for them, programmes of consultations are prearranged with bilateral partners and donors, and the communiqué is pre-developed. So apart from the Retreat where Leaders have space to themselves, most of the work is done before they even arrive for their Summit. Indeed, I was given an advance copy of the draft Forum Oceans Declaration a few weeks before this year’s Forum Summit.

My reaction was it was good piece of work by an NGO; another important changing feature of the regional architecture. The language in the draft Forum Oceans Communiqué was not typical Forum parlance. The alignment of some Forum Leaders with certain NGOs is reflected in the causes that gain prominence in Forum discussions.

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The PIDF Comes of Age

The second Summit of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) was held on Fiji’s Denarau Island from June 18 to 20. Over 400 delegates from the region and beyond were in attendance and keynote presentations were provided by the Prime Minister of Fiji, Rear Admiral Josaia V. Bainimarama (Retd) and His Excellency Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono the outgoing President of Indonesia. PIDF II Summit Announcements and Outcomes The PIDF Summit outcomes document is concise and focused.

It begins with a restatement of the Ten Things needed to enable green-Blue Pacific economies from the Inaugural Summit outcomes statement. This statement captured the spirit of the Inaugural Summit and a reminder of it is valuable as the PIDF becomes more oriented toward implementing this vision. The Outcomes document includes a summary of the presentations, deliberations and agreed initiatives to guide the activities of the year ahead. The first plenary focused on “the strategic framework for green growth.”

It included presentations that highlighted the steps needed to implement the Ten Things vision from the inaugural summit to produce an enabling environment to embed green-blue economies at the national level. This plenary included an interesting reflection on how the PIDF could integrate with regional and subregional organisations such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group. It dovetailed with the strategic statement produced by the Governing Council on the eve of the Summit. In addition, the Fijian government detailed their new Green Growth framework, which could act as a model for how other PSIDS could operationalise these principles in national policies.

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