Chequebook diplomacy, promise of millions and the reality

By Mata'afa Keni Lesa 17 November 2018, 12:00AM

All eyes are on Papua New Guinea this weekend as it hosts what is arguably one of the biggest meetings a Pacific nation would have to accommodate in recent memory, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (A.P.E.C.) Summit.

With Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence among a host of high profile world leaders flying into Port Moresby for the event, this is as big as it gets for the Pacific.

And while specific A.P.E.C. business – whatever that is - will hardly raise interest in this part of the world, the one thing we know is that A.P.E.C. will only heighten the interest on the topic of chequebook diplomacy and the strategic battle between the big nations for control of the Pacific. 

Which is fascinating because on the sideline of A.P.E.C., an even more interesting and relevant meeting to the Pacific, is taking place. This one involves our very own Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi who is among a host of Pacific leaders meeting with President Xi. 

The official notes say that the meeting is an “exchange views on bilateral ties and pragmatic cooperation.” Well that’s pretty neat diplomatic language, isn’t it?

The truth is that for most Pacific countries, President Xi’s P.N.G. visit means Christmas has come a little early. Folks don’t let the official language fool you; apart from the hello and how are you, there is no exchange of views in that meeting. It’s Christmas time for the Pacific. This is the chance for the leaders of the Pacific to go with their shopping lists and beg for more aid assistance.

China knows this. 

President Xi’s A.P.E.C. attendance is convenient because China knows the value of his presence in the Pacific at this particular time. Regardless of what the United States say, the absence of President Donald Trump speaks volumes.

Here’s the thing, if you want to show a people that they matter, you show up and talk to them. You spend a few more days than just a fly by night visit, which is precisely what President Xi has done. Which means that once again, China wins this latest round.

Away from the Pacific China relations, it’s interesting to note the criticisms against Papua New Guinea’s Government in hosting A.P.E.C. P.N.G. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s administration has attracted a lot of criticisms over the spending to host A.P.E.C. amidst a budget crisis, an outbreak of polio and reports about the lack of basic medicine.

According to the reports from P.N.G., one news outlet quoted P.N.G’s Catholic Bishops Conference highlighting the dire shortages of basic services while the government poured millions into A.P.E.C.

“We share the concern of many about the huge amount of our limited resources being expended on this event which seems designed to entertain and impress the rich and powerful,” said its president, Rochus Tatamai. “Papua New Guineans are suffering and dying in order to make A.P.E.C. a success.”

Well that’s pretty sad isn’t it?

But this sort of carry on shouldn’t come as a surprise for us in Samoa. In fact, to be fair to the P.N.G. government, this scenario is not confined to them. It’s quite a common problem in the Pacific, where leaders blow out millions on these grand events promising millions of tala in return at the expense of poor taxpayers. 

Yet it hardly happens because no one ever does a proper cost and benefit analysis to measure the return on investment. We know this is true in Samoa.

The business community will have stories upon stories to tell about monies they were promised from these events, which never materialized. In some cases, many businesses lost a lot of money. 

At the end of the day, these grand events are often and always about the personalities. They are done at the whim of leaders, who want to create a new legacy, whereby they would be remembered by. They don’t care who suffers and whether the country benefits. 

But someone has to pay for it. And where is the money coming from?  The simple answer is this. From you, the silent submissive taxpayer. You will be taxed for every step you take in Samoa. The second option of course is aid, which opens the door to unsustainable borrowing, exposing the country to many risks. Keep in mind there is no such thing as a free lunch.

What is being used as collateral? All we’ve got apart from people are our marine and land resources. When you are desperate, none of that matters. 

Which brings us to a point we’ve made before and we want to make again. Our leaders must sit down to look at the projects they are committing our people to, and ask if they are really necessary.

We are talking about the need for a proper cost and benefit analysis in relation to all these projects. Such an analysis will require us to look to the past to determine whether all the major events we have hosted actually added value to the lives of the people of this country. 

You see, far too often, we become so excited about hosting such events with the notion that it will automatically inject “millions” of dollars into the economy. That hardly happens. Unless we are wrong? 

What do you think? 

Have a peaceful Sunday Samoa, God bless!

By Mata'afa Keni Lesa 17 November 2018, 12:00AM

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