How relevant has the Pacific Islands Forum become to us?

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Alexander Rheeney

The recently concluded 49th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Summit in Nauru would go down in history as one of the most controversial in recent times.

There is a lot to like about the outcomes from the September 3-6 conference, which culminated with a Leader’s Retreat and the release of a Forum Communique, that highlighted the priority areas for the region’s heads of governments and commitment to pursue common goals and interests over the next 12 months until the next summit. 

The discussions in Nauru revolved around the theme “Building a Strong Pacific: Our People, Our Islands, Our Will” and strived to, in the words of the leaders: “recognise the opportunity that the theme presents to strengthen the region’s collective will to drive the region’s ambition to overcome the persistent development challenges faced by the Pacific people”.

As usual regional security, climate change and disaster resilience, fisheries and the oceans were highlighted as “regional priorities” for the Forum leaders. A total of 14 Heads of State, Government and Territories attended the summit with Australia, Fiji, Palau and Papua New Guinea represented by ministers of foreign affairs, trade and state. 

We would like to think that every time our bureaucrats and technocrats from throughout the Pacific Islands gather at this premier regional annual summit, they have the collective interest of all Pacific Island communities and their welfare at heart. 

Close to four years ago, the United Nations Development Programme (U.N.D.P.) released a 144-page report titled “The State of Human Development in the Pacific: A Report on Vulnerability and Exclusion in a Time of Rapid Change”, which gave an update on the state of human development in the region. The report was based on data collated from household income and expenditure surveys that were conducted in various Pacific Island Countries. Sadly, the report does not make good reading.

“The report shows that poverty (hardship), vulnerability, inequality and exclusion are on the rise in many PICs, and that the most vulnerable people are likely to be women, youth, the disabled and the elderly, as well as those living in the outer islands and rural areas.

“Dealing with the challenge of reversing this rising tide of vulnerability and exclusion while also providing safety nets and social protection for those at risk will require Pacific governments to adopt new policy approaches and make some difficult choices.

“This report also provides policy options and insights for decision-makers, development partners and communities on how to foster more inclusive and sustainable human development in the Pacific during a time of change,” wrote Haoliang Xu in the forward of the report. Xu is the UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Assistant Administrator and Director, Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.

The four-year-old report confirms that all is not well in the region and data from another survey – if it was to be done today – would probably point to worsening social indicators and living conditions of Pacific Island communities. 

The development challenges facing people in the various Pacific Island nations – regardless of the size of their local economies and the estimated gross domestic product growth figures – can compel Pacific Islanders to question the relevance of institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum. 

To a lot of Pacific Islanders, the annual summit is just another talkfest for the region’s political leaders and technocrats, without outcomes that would impact positively on the lives of the people. 

And the recent turn of events in Nauru during the PIF Leaders Summit, when New Zealand journalist Barbara Dreaver was detained by local authorities for interviewing a refugee, and China and Nauru got into a diplomatic spat that made world headlines, only adds to the concerns about the relevance of this institution.

Perhaps it is time for the region’s political leaders to start joining the dots between their discussions at such a regional conference, and outcomes such as life-changing positive intervention programs at the community level in their respective countries. The people want to be assured that the leaders would represent their interest wholeheartedly.

The absence of the newly elevated Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill from the Nauru summit would not have gone unnoticed. Mr O’Neill and Mr Bainimarama represent the region’s biggest economies outside Australia and New Zealand, and Mr Morrison is the head of government of the Pacific’s largest aid donor in Australia. What impression does the absence of these three leaders from the recent PIF summit give to the region and the world and their concerns for the small and the big issues that affect communities in the Pacific Islands? 

There is a lot to work on over the next 12 months in the lead-up to the next PIF summit in Tuvalu and we hope our leaders take their jobs seriously and give their best shot in September 2019. 

Have a top working Samoa and God Bless! 

© Samoa Observer 2016

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