For almost five decades, the independent countries of the Pacific have addressed common interests through a variety of regional, and increasingly sub-regional, approaches. The motivation for this is simple: We know that we can achieve more together, than alone.
However, the geopolitical and development context of the Pacific has shifted and the region is faced with a range of external and internal factors that are acting to reshape it, including increasing plurality of regional actors, and unmet development challenges. Such factors spur us to re-think the form that Pacific regionalism needs to take in order address our contemporary challenges.
Part of this contemporary context is the shifting global development landscape. But while the global context of international development has shifted with the new post-2015 development agenda, the region’s development challenges remain largely the same, despite our best collective efforts. For example, twenty-five percent of Pacific people live below the basic needs poverty line and very little progress was made in the past fifteen years under the MDGs to change this. In fact, it seems that economic inequality is on the rise. We continue to struggle with social inequities too, particularly those experienced by women. We have the highest rates of violence against women anywhere in the world and the lowest representation of women in national parliaments.
Whilst regionalism cannot be blamed for this state of affairs, Pacific Island Leaders have nonetheless recognized the need for a new inclusive and game changing approach to Pacific regionalism. A regionalism that can not only realize the unmet development needs of Pacific Island peoples, but also meet the demands of the new global development paradigm. It is this new Pacific regionalism that I would like to talk to you about today. At the heart of this new approach is an emphasis on inclusive policy development and implementation, as well as recognition of the political dimension for ensuring development outcomes for the Pacific.
Pacific Island Leaders have recognized that Pacific Regionalism now, and into the future, must be adaptable, innovative, inclusive, and most importantly, it must positively impact the lives of our people. Indeed, if our collective actions do not impact positively on the lives of the people of the Pacific then we have not succeeded. This is a position I take seriously and have advocated for throughout my career. For example, when I was at the World Bank Group in the Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), I institutionalized listening to the voices of the people who were the supposed beneficiaries of the Bank’s private sector development projects.
Consistently achieving positive impacts is no easy task. The region faces many important challenges. The Pacific’s performance on the MDGs was mixed. Reducing poverty remains a significant challenge. Real GDP growth has been small to negative, and our unique vulnerabilities and dependencies mean that any growth we see is volatile. The cyclones that impacted on Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga and the effects of global oil prices on PNG’s economy are recent demonstrations of this volatility. For example, cyclone Pam which struck Vanuatu resulted in an estimated US$450 million in damage and losses, equivalent to 64% of GDP. The increasing impacts of climate change will only add to the challenge of ensuring development impact in the region.
Add to this the growing urban populations, many of whom are poor, increasing numbers of unemployed youth, and critical health concerns such as cervical cancer and Non Communicable Diseases and you can understand the vastness and complexity of what we’re facing.
The Framework for Pacific Regionalism
Pacific Island Forum Leaders responded to these challenges with the endorsement of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism in 2014. It is through the Framework that I believe we are in the early and formative stages of what is a new era for Pacific regionalism. One that will strengthen our ability to charter our own destiny.
As Secretary General to the Pacific Islands Forum, the Framework – its vision, values and objectives – is the lens through which we support Pacific island countries to achieve the Leaders’ vision for this region. The Framework seeks to achieve four key objectives:
It’s critical to understand that the Framework is not a development plan or agenda. Rather, it expresses the political ambition of our Leaders’ to navigate the Pacific through the global and regional geopolitical forces that impact on our region’s ability to achieve development impact for its people.
An example is access to financing for development, which is crucial for meeting the development goals of the region. The unique vulnerabilities faced by the Pacific that I mentioned earlier have and should continue to provide the basis for certain privileges in accessing development financing. One important way that such privileges are determined is through fragility assessments undertaken by multi-lateral donors. At this year’s Forum meeting in Pohnpei, Leaders’ recognized that the current methods of assessing fragility used by the World Bank, are not sensitive to the unique vulnerabilities of the Pacific, particularly our Small Island States. Through the Forum Chair, our Leaders’ advocated their position to the World Bank and the United Nations, emphasizing the need to broaden fragility assessments to recognize the impacts of climate change, of geography and of limited capacities for equity.
Other examples that are testimony to the strength of our own Pacific diplomacy include successful outcomes from the COP 21 climate talks in Paris last year, and advocacy for SDG 14 on Oceans.
The point to reiterate here is that while the Framework for Pacific Regionalism recognizes the importance of addressing all three pillars of sustainable development, it also necessarily emphasizes the political dimension at the heart of development – a point that I am sure you would agree is essential for achieving impact.
This political dimension also brings certain challenges for Pacific regionalism. At the heart of any ambition to deepen regionalism is the willingness to share sovereignty. Getting a country to give up some of its own sovereignty for a collective purpose will always be a difficult ask.
Furthermore, the different political agendas of not only Pacific governments, but also development partners, donors, and regional organizations can provide significant challenges for ensuring political coherence and the accountability necessary for advancing collective actions. It’s not unusual for some actors to show political support of the Forum’s priorities one day and then hold a different position on the same issue the next.
Inclusive and agile regionalism
The Framework emphasizes that the regional agenda must be determined by Pacific people themselves, not regional and international organizations, not donors, but Leaders and their people.
The new Pacific Regionalism has to be adaptable so that it can respond to those individuals, communities and countries who are vulnerable, fragile and in need of development opportunities. The new Pacific Regionalism must be innovative in identifying the areas in which it can have the greatest impact. It must be innovative in how it engages with Pacific people to address those areas. And it must be innovative in responding to issues in ways that will ensure the best development outcomes.
Further, and of particular importance, the Framework places strong emphasis on the fact that achieving impact requires us to work together, not just as states, but in ways that include all actors in the region. The new Pacific Regionalism has to be inclusive so that we have access to the breadth of experience and insight that exists in our people. It has to be inclusive to make sure that it impacts on those in our communities who are most in need. It has to be inclusive because only by looking at the whole picture can we identify where we might make the most profound impact.
A key feature of this inclusiveness is the need for a more agile diplomacy to enable our countries to navigate complex geo-politics and deal with a plethora of regional actors, to address persistent development challenges. This agility will emphasize mobilizing actors, networks and resources around common issues, using political leverage where it makes sense – whether across issues, actors and geo-political context, and whether it be at the regional or sub-regional level.
The Framework provides the space for a political agility that actively engages with civil society and the private sector to proactively address issues. For example, the process for regional public policy development instituted by the Framework, which the Secretariat facilitates, ensures that the Pacific’s communities are part of political decision-making from the beginning. It ensures that people at the frontline of our development challenges can engage in the processes that inform the political decisions made to address those challenges.
Another initiative the Secretariat has implemented during the last two Forum meetings is a breakfast dialogue between the Forum Troika and civil society. 4 Leaders attended the Breakfast in 2015, and five were there this year. Reinforcing the value of this dialogue, the Samoan Prime Minister has undertaken to involve all Forum Leaders when they meet in Apia next year.
Therefore, the newly emerging wave of regionalism maintains a people-centred lens and Pacific control of a regional agenda, it fosters wider political engagement, and manoeuvres creatively through and around structures with the common goal of improving the lives of our Pacific peoples.
In this context, development actors need to work with us and understand the politics of development in our region, and seek to engage with us in a way that supports our agency and leadership on sustainable development.
The Role of Australia
Australia, as a member of the Pacific Island Forum, endorses the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. It shares responsibility with the other 17 Forum members for determining a prioritized regional agenda.
As the Forum’s biggest and wealthiest member, Australia also has unique value in supporting and driving Pacific regionalism. For example, Australia is currently chair of the Green Climate Fund which provides a great opportunity for supporting access to climate financing by Pacific Island Countries. Australia also plays a pivotal role in supporting the region’s disaster management efforts, as we have witnessed in the wake of cyclones Pam and Winston in the past couple of years.
From an economic perspective, Australia provides opportunities for driving economic growth in the region through trade and labour mobility. With Australia sitting on a number of important boards in global financial institutions, it can play a critical role in helping Pacific Island governments reduce their dependency on aid as well as developing the capacity of countries to implement the aid it receives.
However, the Framework for Pacific Regionalism also presents some challenges for Australian foreign policy. The emphasis on inclusive public policy processes under the Framework means that voices of civil society organizations will also help shape regional priorities. So far, these voices have spoken loud and clear on human rights issues facing the region, including the situation in West Papua, refugee detention centers and a range of indigenous issues. Therefore questions may emerge regarding Australia’s future foreign policy, with the primary question of course being how will Australia see its engagement with the Pacific? How will its foreign policy engage with an inclusive regional public policy approach? How will its foreign policy engage with the range of actors that seek to address regional human rights concerns, such as the Pacific Coalition on West Papua which includes a mix of governments and non-government organizations?
There are parallel lessons for the way Australian and International NGO’s engage with Pacific civil society organizations. For example, INGOs should be supporting local CSOs to access the funding they need to implement work on the ground – but ultimately we should be aiming to achieve greater sustainability for local CSOs so they are not so dependent on donor funding. Similarly, our local civil society organisationsshould not be put in a position where they are competing for resources with the INGOs, which is currently the case.
In concluding I wish to respond to the theme of the conference, ‘impact’. I was asked whether or not impact in the context of the Pacific should be conceived in terms of development outcomes or in terms of the increasing agency in the processes used to get there. I hope that in what I have just outlined in my remarks, the answer is clear: it is both.
This new Pacific Regionalism must improve the lives of our people. It needs to be at the vanguard of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals in the Pacific. It needs to drive economic growth and it needs to ensure safe and secure societies for our people.
While impact needs to be felt by people in their daily lives, they also need to have a say what issues are important, what issues Leaders should be paying attention to, and what the solutions might be. They also need to be included in the implementation of those solutions.
Most importantly, we need to work together at different political and technical levels. It is through committed and inclusive collective action that the region will have the best chance of achieving development impact.