The global impacts of COVID-19 are unprecedented and extend beyond the realm of health into the social, economic and psychological aspects of people’s lives. Although the number of infections in Pacific Island Countries (PICs) may be low because of their relative isolation, they still cannot escape the consequences of the economic free-fall emanating from the lockdowns. The sudden demise of tourism, a major money earner for many island states; loss of jobs and income; decline in remittances and the dramatic shrinking of investment and economic opportunities have left families devastated and governments’ resources stretched to the limit.
In many ways, the pandemic merely exacerbates the existing economic challenges and further deepens the poverty and vulnerability that many Pacific peoples have been experiencing anyway. It exposes in more blatant ways some pre-existing social, economic and gender inequities. Those in vulnerable employment such as the hospitality industry, infrastructure, construction and manufacturing and those in the informal sector are amongst the first victims of the economic squeeze. The aid, debt and remittance-based Pacific economies are struggling to respond effectively as many do not have the means to provide wage subsidy and stimulus packages similar to those implemented by industrialised neighbours like Australia and New Zealand. This should signal the need for new innovative strategies and models of development that have the capacity to respond effectively to disasters and crisis; a strategy that requires identifying and building on local strengths and innovations.
One of the unique characteristics of Pacific communities is the dynamic interrelationship between traditional subsistence production and the market system. The subsistence sector in the Pacific has a significant role in providing subsidies for cash income, as well as a socio-economic cushion in times of crisis, as we saw during the 2008 global meltdown. There is almost a collective intuition to revert to community-embedded survival values and strategies when crisis occurs. For instance, the resurrection of the age-old reciprocity system which is now being enthusiastically embraced in Fiji (Barter for Better Fiji) to counter the cash shortfall; the rush to promote backyard subsistence farming; and re-engineering of indigenous social protection systems of support, shows that the basis of resilience is locked within local cultural and innovation systems. The challenge is, how do we incorporate these values of resilience into the formal policy process?
Perhaps, it is time for a dialogue between the indigenous systems of production and the formal sector in framing an innovative, equitable, resilient and sustainable system, which is capable of withstanding the potentially devastating impact of economic and social risks along the lines of the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs provide some universal pathways for equity, resilience, empowerment, diversity, people-centered development and progressive transformation. Amongst some possible strategies for resilience, equity and sustainability would be how to utilise local resources and knowledge which requires community participation, empowerment and benefits. For instance, today, indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants and resources constitute a major portion of the multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry, but very little benefits trickle down to the knowledge and resource owners. The UN-affiliated World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has been at the forefront of protecting these indigenous resources and knowledge from biopiracy.
Hence, rethinking new development strategies should also consider local innovations, community resources and indigenous knowledge and marry these with macro forms of institutional governance and development, which can be resilient yet empowering. As the remittance tap slows to a trickle, tourism and the travel industry collapses, as hundreds and thousands lose their jobs (as we witnessed with Fiji Airways) and as poverty and inequality increases, it is time to rethink innovatively about our future development strategies, especially strengthening the social and solidarity economy.
The pandemic has also put the spotlight on the need for PICs to strengthen their social protection strategies, seriously address the issues of inequity and cut down on their national debts and expenditure to respond more effectively to major disasters such as the one we are facing now. What we need are not incremental and token adjustments that only serve the interest of a few, but major conceptual and structural transformations for the betterment of entire communities.
The SDGs’ strategies for equity, inclusivity and empowerment has become even more relevant and imperative in these times of the pandemic crisis. A UNDP report ‘Position Note on the Social and Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Asia-Pacific’ calls on countries in the region to avoid returning to some pre-pandemic unsustainable development paths and to capitalise on the opportunity to pursue innovative alternatives.
From the point of view of PICs, the pandemic has strengthened the SDGs moral authority as a guiding light for sustainability and resilience - and the challenge is how countries can ensure that their responses are comprehensive as well as equitable and inclusive, so that no one is left behind.
The Pacific is part of the global system and thus all these require both local innovations and global support, because the impact of the virus is global. Meanwhile, defeating the pandemic is the immediate aim and the words of UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner, may provide us the means to do it; “We must act in borderless solidarity to defeat it.”
Emily Moli is a Knowledge Communications Analyst, UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UNDP.
Harnessing traditional knowledge of the oceans in a way that isn’t exploitative or tokenistic is emerging as a strong theme at a regional ocean meeting currently underway in Noumea.
Scientists, policy makers and others with an interest in oceans management are meeting at the Pacific Community to plan for the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-2030.
The Director of the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific, Frances Koya, said the very premise of the UN decade and all Sustainable Development Goal frameworks need to be questioned first.
“When we unpackage the conversation about the Blue Pacific identity, the blue economy and the blue continent, it is very much an economic agenda,” she said.
“We will need to invest in research that examines indigenous understandings of sustainability, sustainable livelihoods, custodianship, stewardship and of course, resilience. Not just ecological resilience but a holistic, multidisciplinary understanding of what resilience means to us.”
Koya says we need to be vigilant about what another speaker described as ‘parachute researchers’.
“How can we ensure that we do not perpetuate extractive research and development practice, of taking from indigenous communities and knowledge systems to strengthen western models of good practice, that is culture and indigenous knowledge and participation solely for an outside agenda? We will need to be mindful for the need for very difficult conversations about meaningful participation, intellectual property rights and copyright in the context of collective cultural knowledge, shared and mutual gains and benefits, protective safeguarding mechanisms and legislature.”
Fiji’s Patrina Dumaru, who is a geography lecturer at USP reinforced this message, saying in her own research she very quickly learnt ,“you can’t really create behavioural change without appealing to the belief systems and the customary practices and values of the communities which you work with.
“I have worked with some great scientists who have appreciated this, but who also had challenges in interacting in that kind of environment.”
She appealed to scientists to think about how they can make their work relevant at the community level.
“ It is great to be innovative in your labs in the universities that you work in, but our relevance will be what kind of change is going to happen on the ground.”
A Pacific Youth Council representative at the meeting, Tyler Rae Chung, said learning traditional navigation techniques and ways of being with the ocean, “brought me back to my grassroots to understand that it is not just about extracting information from the ocean, but it’s also about understanding that there was indigenous knowledge before us.”
She appealed to participants to think about how they can work with young people during the ocean decade through a mentoring-monitoring program.
“It would be great to see what we can offer the next generation of leaders in terms of education assistance and building their capacity from grassroots levels to indigenous knowledge because it all comes back to the people as well as scientific knowledge.”
The Noumea meeting is the first of a series of regional meetings around the world to plan a scientific research agenda for the Ocean Decade. It continues today.
You are able to enjoy independent news coverage from the Ocean Decade conference through SPC’s Australian funded Climate and Ocean Support Program in the Pacific (COSPPac).