Sep 23, 2020 Last Updated 9:19 PM, Sep 22, 2020

Current global forecasts envision a 5.2% contraction of the global economy in 2020 – the deepest global recession in decades. Triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, this recession will have long term impacts on economies the world over through lower investment, erosion of human capital through lost employment and education and the fragmentation of global trade and supply links.

This global forecast will impact economies in the Pacific region primarily due to the limited capacity for domestic responses available to Small Island States and the pre-existing underlying socio-economic challenges. In reality, the COVID pandemic has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities, like climate change, and generated new ones.

In the Pacific, the region is forecast to contract by 4.3% in 2020 with declining in economic activity across all sectors, especially tourism.

This sets the tone for the 2020 Forum Economic Ministers Meeting on 11 – 12 August 2020.

What has the Pacific done collectively in response to COVID-19?

Recognising the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, Forum Leaders and Governments acted quickly and decisively to close borders and implement strong measures to mitigate and contain the spread of the virus domestically.

Consequently, 12 countries remain COVID free, and our region’s total number of COVID-19 cases remains relatively low, compared to other regions in the world.

Regionally, Leaders established the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on Covid-19 (PHP-C) which is designed to facilitate the delivery of medical supplies and equipment to Forum Island Countries (FICs), and at the same time, serve as a platform to share knowledge and experience.

Indeed, I was pleased to witness the first airlift of medical supplies through the PHP-C this last week and look forward to supporting Members in the weeks to come.

The 2020 Forum Economic Ministers Meeting

This weeks meeting of Forum Economic Ministers will focus on the three-pronged crisis currently facing the region – the impact of COVID-19, the devastating effects of climate change induced natural disasters and the fragile economic health of the region as a consequence of inherent vulnerabilities.

The meeting provides a critical opportunity for the region’s economic ministers to have a collective discussion on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their economies. They will discuss economic responses and recovery packages and strategies, whilst keeping in mind the need to ensure and maintain their commitment to strengthening climate resilience in their recovery packages. 

The impact on FICs has been devastating. The key issue that sets this crisis apart from other disasters is that the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting all Forum economies simultaneously, thereby impacting the delivery of immediate assistance and aid from traditional development partners.

FICs are projected to experience a substantial contraction in their economies in 2020, ranging from 21.7% in Fiji, 11.9% in Palau, 3.7% in Samoa to 1.0% in Papua New Guinea.    The Forum Secretariat has also conducted a survey of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)  in the region which confirms massive declines in revenue, with follow-on negative impacts on the well-being of Pacific communities that depend on SMEs for their livelihood.

Economic Ministers will consider regional policy options and initiatives to support the next phase of recovery. The focus will now shift from protective measures to how best we can ensure our Forum Members can revive their respective economies whilst ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of our Pacific people is not compromised. In the absence of a vaccine for COVID-19, the global outlook on the pandemic remains uncertain and therefore, so does the regional outlook.

A related consideration by economic ministers at their meeting next week will be the 2020 Biennial Pacific Sustainable Development Report which reviews the region’s progress towards the 2030 Agenda, taking into account the emerging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on socio-economic development across the region.

Lessons from COVID-19 for the Pacific region

What is strikingly clear is that the region will operate differently in the post COVID-19 era. A key challenge is the need for access to timely and relevant data to support decision-making during this evolving crisis. The effectiveness of any response measure is based on the appropriateness and agility of our national and regional systems and institutional mechanisms to react promptly – this will only be possible through the availability of relevant and timely data.

Further, the importance of our health infrastructure also comes to the fore. In several FICs, the average public spending on health care per person is US$275 which is relatively low. The prioritisation of short term, medium and long term investments in health infrastructure and services will need to be addressed if we are to have the tools and equipment to respond to COVID-19, particularly as countries assess their readiness to open their borders.

Perhaps most importantly, this crisis has also reaffirmed the importance and value of strengthened digital economies across the Pacific region. Digital economy and e-commerce in particular is an area that remains unexplored and has the potential to become a regional priority with multi-sectoral and political support should Ministers and Leaders determine so. The key impediments so far have been access to cost effective digital infrastructure and how we can come together as region to support this.

Regional cooperation and solidarity through this crisis

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed the region in an unprecedented situation. The need to respond to three crises simultaneously has exposed the underlying vulnerabilities of many of our economies. This reality was amplified in April 2020 when Tropical Cyclone Harold left a path of destruction in the region, as countries went into COVID-19 lockdown.

In spite of this, we in the Pacific have demonstrated time and again the strength of our region, when we come together to respond to crises. This time is no different. Indeed, pioneering regional responses, such as the Pacific Resilience Facility, and the PHP-C, show we can deliver innovative solutions to deal with the biggest challenges facing our generation. Such innovative approaches must inspire more multi-sectoral regional cooperation to assist in our efforts to build back our economies and societies. Greater collaboration and meaningful engagement between governments, civil society and the private sector is no longer an option, it is essential. 

Pacific Leaders have endorsed the Blue Pacific call for collective regional action, recognizing the economic and strategic potential of our shared oceanic continent. It is important this collaboration continues, to strengthen the resilience of our economies to future shocks and ensure our Pacific people can survive future disasters. Our nations are already rethinking national development and rewriting their strategic development plans. A renewed focus on self-reliance and innovation is surely of value and achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals is more important than ever.

The wellbeing of our people is under threat. We must and will work together to help our nations thrive. We must work together to help our people thrive. If we collaborate as one Blue Pacific Continent, we will emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient.  

The Pacific Islands Investment Forum says economic conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic are an opportunity for the region’s superannuation, pension and provident funds to accelerate plans to pool their resources and invest in commercially-viable infrastructure across the Pacific.

Pacific Islands Investment Forum (PIIF) members—18 superannuation, pension and provident funds with combined funds of approximately NZ$ 75 billion (US$50 billion) —are keen to look at opportunities where they can work together to support national development and grow member funds.

CEO of the Cook Islands National Superannuation Fund and the PIIF Secretariat, Damien Beddoes says they have offered governments the option to exchange cash for equity—that is, to buy shares in government entities. Beddoes says this provides the funds with an opportunity to diversify beyond currently-volatile  public markets (publicly-listed stocks) and gives governments  “an initial large sum payment into their books, into their finances.”

“They can then choose to do with that cash what they want,” Beddoes says. “They can reinvest it into other areas of infrastructure that may be social, that may provide options to use it for budgetary support, however governments choose to use that money is entirely up to them. “

Beddoes says it would give PIIF members consistent returns for their contributors and the ability to contribute to the responsible management of national infrastructure projects, as well as “a chance to build the infrastructure, to reinvest, to grow it, to make it more resilient, to improve its outputs, to take it in new directions, by investing in that infrastructure we believe we can improve it for our people and assist in the long term development within our countries.”

The PIIF favours investments in monopoly utilities, such as electricity providers, and aims to take a significant stake, allowing it to bring expertise, transparency and independent board members with a long-term commitment.

As Beddoes says: "We're not just there for the initial 'here's the cash, thank you for the 50% ownership'." Pacific Islands governments are largely looking to donor partners and multilateral financial institutions for grants, soft loans and debt restructuring to keep their economies afloat and fund economic stimulus measures. Beddoes says, “the Pacific region actually has the money to solve its issues”, although there are a number of barriers to investment including double taxation, dividends, stamp duties, capital gains taxes and other fees and charges. The PIIF has urged Pacific Islands Forum Economic Ministers to look at easing these barriers, or to provide an exemption to PIIF members to allow free movement of investment funds around the region.

Forum  Economic Ministers are due to meet again next month, and Beddoes hopes this matter will be on the agenda.

He says the PIIF has approximately NZ$3.5 billion (US$2.32 billion) available for investment across various sectors, but that this figure is growing. The Cook Islands National Superannuation Fund for example has grown by $80 million due to compound interest in the past four years.

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