May 16, 2021 Last Updated 6:06 PM, May 14, 2021

Ten years ago Islands Business named the PNA, an acronym for the parties to the Nauru Agreement, as our Pacific ‘Organisation of the Year’, a recognition previously only given to individuals.

Given the events of the past few weeks at the Pacific Islands Forum and the University of the South Pacific, we’ve gone back to Dr Transform Aqorau’s super-readable book on the birth and evolution of the PNA, Fishing for Success: Lessons in Pacific Regionalism.

Dr Aqorau’s observations on how and why the PNA has succeeded, and how this might apply to other collective, regional efforts, are worth revisiting.

“The goal of regional cooperation should be to reduce aid dependency, not perpetuate dependency on others,” Dr Aqorau writes.

“One of the lessons I have learnt is that Pacific Island countries are not always going to succeed in all the endeavours they attempt. For Pacific Islanders, there needs to be a ‘common currency’ surrounding regional projects, so the various countries are able to work together cooperatively. Specifically, this is a willingness to pursue something when it does not appear to encroach on matters that members feel should be done by them individually, and not collectively. If this aspect is missing, then failure is to be expected.”

Significantly, the PNA set up its headquarters in Majuro, marking a shift in the geopolitics of Pacific fisheries from the south to Micronesia. This resonates given the recently articulated concerns of the Pacific Islands Forum’s Micronesian members, who say the PIF has failed to be truly responsive to, or respectful of the issues of all of its members, particularly those from the north.

PNA does not include all Pacific Islands, its members are those who have a real stake in the tuna industry. It is not heavily reliant on donor funds for its operational costs or survival, and therefore not influenced by the agendas of external donors. It is not a heavy bureaucracy. It has clear and tangible economic and social objectives.

The current fractures give us license to ask again, when is collective action really appropriate and necessary, rather than just assuming the default position. The PIF and the USP will survive; they are bigger than any individual. And would it be so bad if the Forum for example, spent its energy on a small and focussed number of issues that are important to all of their members, rather than the laundry list of resolutions (with no meaningful follow-up) we see emerge from Leader’s retreats some years? 

In his book, Dr Aqorau concludes that the PNA journey “has been a simple one. It has been about working from the heart, from a gutsy determination to do something different, to be innovative and to reach deep within my personal energy to ensure that our peoples — the young, the old and feeble, the people in the village — get a fair share of the returns from our tuna resources.” Ultimately, if our collective regional efforts do not serve our students looking for jobs, our needs as young nations for critical and constructive thinkers, and the desperate needs of Pacific islanders threatened by the economic and health impacts of COVID, natural disasters and climate change, what are they all for?  

In my last article in this magazine, I referred to the structure of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and its system of decision-making as being antiquated. This was on the basis that PIF’s type of regionalism is voluntary. Members are not legally bound to the decisions they make at the regional level. I suggested the prospect of its reconsideration as a means of enhancing the benefits to members.

I also pointed to the deficiencies in regional cooperation, regional integration for example, in the last 49 years of PIF’s existence, as areas to be redressed for greater benefits to members.

The direct implication of that hinted at a decision-making process that would be a reversal of the status quo: Involuntary regionalism, which would mean binding decisions at the regional level. Furthermore, that would necessitate derogation of sufficient state power to the region to enable the latter to make those decisions.

From my perspective, as one schooled in the classical Barassa model of regionalism – linear, with regional economic integration—advanced economic union, for example—and having worked 14 years in the European Union that exemplifies such a model, my assumption of eventual derogation of power from the states to the region was one I had thought to be a natural progression for Pacific regionalism. But it is not to be.

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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.

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