Presentation by Regional Governance Advisor on Pacific Plan and FOI
Freedom of Information Training Workshop
for Pacific Policy Makers in Forum Island Countries
Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel,
Honiara, Solomon Islands
30 June 2008

‘Pacific Plan, Regionalism, Democratic Governance and Freedom of Information’


Dr. Henry Ivarature, Regional Governance Adviser,
Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat

Distinguished representatives and participants from the Pacific Islands Forum member countries , Freedom of Information experts and advocates, workshop facilitators and colleagues from the UNDP Pacific Centre

From the outset, I want to thank you all for accepting the invitation from the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat to participate in this training workshop on freedom of information. The Secretariat and the UNDP Pacific Centre hope you will not only go away inspired by what you will learn but will also work in your countries to lift freedom of information on the political agenda. That is the difficult and hardest challenge. I think the big thing will be getting the shift in commitment up the line from your levels to Ministers and parliaments. We at the Secretariat need to get better at helping you with both resourcing and knowledge to do that kind of follow-up.

However, we also need to help advocate the enactment and implementation of effective access to information regimes as a key practical output on the good governance agenda. Workshops like this, drawing on the achievement of the Cook Islands on freedom of information are some of the advocacy tools for promoting freedom of information in the region. The Secretariat draws its mandates from the decisions of the Pacific Islands Forum through the Biketawa Declaration, the Forum Principles of Accountability and Good Leadership and the Pacific Plan, amongst others.

Freedom of information, in particular, is one of the milestones identified for implementation in the Pacific Plan. It is classified as a mechanism for enhancing good governance. Others in this classification include the harmonization of traditional and modern governance values and structures; traditional courts, media, enhancing the effectiveness of Parliaments, training in peace building and conflict resolution, models for land ownership, tenure and use; good governance education and the development and monitoring of governance indicators.

Enhancing good governance is one of eight good governance initiatives in the Pacific Plan endorsed by Forum Leaders in 2005. The Pacific Plan is based on four pillars – (1) economic growth, (2) sustainable development, (3) good governance and (4) security. The broader objective of these pillars is based on the concept of regionalism by strengthening regional cooperation and integration. Regionalism is about countries working together for their joint and individual benefit. It does not imply any limitations on national sovereignty and nor is it intended to replace any national programs, but only to support and complement them. Regional approach is taken only if it adds value to national effort.

The Pacific Plan depends on support for regional approaches by Forum member countries, civil society and private sector organizations, development partners and other stakeholders. This freedom of information workshop reflects that support from member countries through your participation, including our partner organization, the UNDP Pacific Centre, civil society organizations and other development partners. Support for regionalism comes from an informed constituency which necessitates a high level of awareness of the benefits and costs of regionalism.

The wish by Forum Leaders to strengthen regional cooperation and integration in the Pacific involves considering several quite different concepts of regionalism. These are regional cooperation, regional provision of public goods and services and regional integration. Regional cooperation involves setting up dialogue or processes between governments. Regional cooperation means services such as health, statistics, audit etc are provided nationally, but often with increased coordination of policies between countries. This is either based on an agreed strategy such as the Forum Principles on Regional Transport Services or arranged through a coordinating body such as the Oceania Customs Organisation.

Regional provision of public goods and service involves pooling national services. For example, customs, health, education, sport etc at the regional level. Governments are released from daily management of some services and can concentrate on service delivery in other areas and on policy development. For example, by providing tertiary education through the University of the South Pacific, Pacific governments can focus more on ensuring their individual primary and secondary education systems cater to their unique national needs.

Regional integration through lowering of market barriers between countries can help to improve access for Pacific businesses to consumers, increasing economies of scale, reducing prices and making more goods available.

The path almost any regional initiative takes usually begins with regional cooperation. Moving towards regional integration or regional provision of services or both depends on an assessment of obstacles to development and consideration of benefits and costs. The Pacific Plan is placed on the premise the regional approaches to overcoming capacity limitations in service delivery at the national, and increasing economic opportunities through market integration are expected to provide the highest gains.

The Pacific Plan identifies a wide range of regional initiatives for the first three years (2006-2008) based on an alignment and consistency with the Leaders’ vision, the priorities identified by Forum Member countries and other stakeholders and the various regional approaches discussed earlier in this paper. Freedom of information is a milestone identified under the initiative on enhancing governance mechanism for implementation.

In terms of freedom of information, the Secretariat is still at a fairly early stage of its thinking about freedom of information legislation and “right to know” among the Forum members. While the initiative is fairly open, it does provide the Secretariat with a mandate from Leaders to play a role in coordinating and exploring the work in progress in the region. The Secretariat is aware of work supporting the development of freedom of information legislation in Nauru, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Our own effort includes developing a draft information disclosure policy, and at least lead by example.

This workshop is however the first one for the Secretariat aimed at policy makers in Forum Island Countries which have already demonstrated an interest in freedom of information such as those mentioned above. Cook Islands I must admit surprised everyone and we hope that by facilitating this workshop, Cook Islands might share their experience with others and also learn from the experiences of other countries, including accessing technical and advisory support.

Bringing freedom of information legislation to Forum member countries is a long-term commitment. Many governments have very poor or non-existent record keeping systems. Few have official websites or disclosure systems. In this respect, sensitivity must be shown for each country’s particular situation, to work progressively on an appropriate time frame for the changes to be introduced. Hence disregarding specific country situations can be counter-productive for good governance. But this does not mean that we wait until all the basics are fixed. In many respects, introducing freedom of information legislations helps to strengthen these areas which are lacking. Other technical and advisory support could be brought about to help build the complementing basic requirement to support the legislation.

In planning and undertaking this workshop, the Secretariat and the UNDP Pacific Centre envisaged that it will provide an opportunity for policy makers to identify partners with expertise in freedom of information. With the commitment from the Solomon Islands government to explore freedom of information, we will certainly liaise further to see how this assistance can be provided. We hope that the arguments in favour of freedom of information, good practice standards on freedom of information law-making and practical issues for consideration when implementing freedom of information will help frame our thinking and also encourage the development of freedom of information regimes in the region. The Secretariat definitely will be using the outcomes of this workshop to prepare a strategy of assistance to Forum Island Countries.

In advocating and working towards freedom of information legislation, whatever complementing work on building the capacity of existing frameworks that are essential to supporting freedom of information legislation and its associated obligations, must be addressed, and as I said earlier, these can be developed, improved and strengthened together. I would like to refer us to some of the issues raised by the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Dr. Derek Sikua in his opening statement this morning. The basics of disclosure and information management needs to be thought through and a program to address these requirements should be developed to help Pacific Island countries who are ready to take on freedom of information legislation with all its obligations. The Secretariat is supportive of this work in the region, especially to make sure that it is done well, and gains the support of members, rather than overwhelm them. We will seek to work on ways for supporting Forum Island countries in partnership with development partners, civil society organizations, private sector and the media.

I want to conclude by reminding ourselves of the foresight of our Forum Leaders in endorsing a vision for the region’s future – a vision that seeks peace and prosperity, freedom and worthwhile existence. And to achieve this vision, the Leaders foresight in endorsing the Pacific Plan as the roadmap for regional integration and cooperation to build on at the national levels towards this vision. Freedom of information and other mechanisms for enhancing governance in the region are identified in the Plan for implementation towards achieving the Leaders vision. The responsibility falls, not only on our Leaders, but on all of us, including civil society, to continue to improve the quality of governance in our region.