Delivered by the Chair of the Forum Trade Officials Meeting, Permanent Secretary for Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport for Fiji, Mr Shaheen Ali.
09 July 2021
Deputy Secretary General,
Senior Forum Trade Officials,
Representatives of CROP agencies,
Representatives of Technical Agencies and Development Partners,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Bula Vinaka and a very good morning to you all. I wish to extend a warm welcome to you all from Fiji.
You may recall that last year, we had the opportunity to attend this meeting in person in Fiji, but the world has changed dramatically since.
The past year has been a difficult year for everyone. One of the key challenges has been striking the right balance between saving lives and keeping the economy going. However, we have to continue to calibrate and recalibrate this balance as the pandemic evolves.
With the economic lifeline of tourism and service sectors ruptured, most of us have experienced unprecedented contractions in GDP. The lasting ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic have created a huge financing shortfall within our economies.
Around the world, in nations of all sizes, economic sectors have been disrupted. But due to our remoteness, the small scale of our domestic markets, and our exposure to climate risks, those impacts are all intensified in the Pacific.
The urgent question at this virtual gathering is how do we stop that devastation from permanently scarring our development. Hence, the Regional nature of such challenges calls for a coordinated and strategic approach.
In this connection, the theme of this year’s Forum Trade Officials meeting, “Building Pacific Economic Resilience and Competitiveness Post-COVID 19,” is especially relevant as it underscores that we need to work in concert and respond to the pandemic in an effective and timely manner.
It also stresses the importance of having an integrated Regional response to the pandemic, strengthening existing Regional cooperation mechanisms and considering the extensive implications on our economies and the livelihoods of our people.
Through the years, the Pacific Region has weathered numerous setbacks and challenges by remaining united and addressing our problems together. This meeting is a testament of our approach to regionalism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been around for more than a year now, and will likely be around for a long time. To strengthen resilience, we have to learn to live with the virus – and innovate to overcome the challenges. The resumption of business and travel is important for catalysing economic recovery in the Region.
Worldwide access to vaccines offers the best hope for stopping the coronavirus, saving lives, and securing a broad-based economic recovery. Everyone should have access to vaccines, including people in developing and least-developed countries.
It has been more than eight months since a proposal to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics was tabled to the WTO. Fiji and Vanuatu have joined as sponsors of the proposal, which was first made by India and South Africa last year.
The waiver request also includes COVID-19 tests, treatments and personal protective equipment (PPE), albeit only for the duration of the pandemic. The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities throughout the world. Without access to vaccines, the gap will widen further. I call upon the other WTO members in the Region to show support for the waiver as this is highly critical for the recovery of the lives and livelihoods of our region.
I must emphasize that no one is safe until everyone is safe. No economy can recover faster unless everyone recovers in tandem.
Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are one of the hardest hit by this pandemic. Therefore, there is a need for targeted support, to help our MSMEs pivot and remain competitive. Businesses will need to think about improving their supply chain resilience, diversifying products, and developing digital capabilities.
It is encouraging to see that many businesses are not standing still during this period. Many are even seizing new growth opportunities that have emerged, and working together to emerge stronger from this pandemic.
Amid the slowing economic activity, there is a surge in e-commerce and accelerated digital transformation. Businesses and consumers that were able to ‘go digital’ have helped mitigate the economic downturn and business restrictions. This will also speed up a digital transition that will have lasting impacts on our societies. It is imperative that we recognise the challenges and take steps to embrace new ways of working.
Digital connectivity and the digital economy have a huge potential and have played an important role in offsetting productivity losses we currently face. There is a greater need for the Pacific to foster digital infrastructure development and support digital economic integration in the Region, as we attempt to restore the Pacific economy in the context of the crisis.
In addition to this, developing new market-access arrangements and supporting value chains is key to expanding trade. Australia had planned a commercial trial of kava imports in 2020. Unfortunately, this was put on hold due to the COVID-19 crisis. We urge that the trial be re-started as soon as possible. Such opportunities to promote Pacific exports in the Australian and New Zealand market will help MSMEs remain competitive.
New opportunities can also be created for labour mobility. This could be done by expanding existing labour mobility schemes to new industries and sectors to allow for Pacific workers to compete with workers from other parts of the world.
Today we have an opportunity to develop regional strategies to address the effects of this pandemic and any natural disasters in future. The shock caused by COVID-19 shows us the importance of deepening collective strategies in order to be prepared to face not only the challenges of pandemics, but also the climate-change threats that persist in our region.
To achieve this goal, we should come up with a clear and prudent recovery plan that lays out various scenarios for the gradual reopening of cross-border travel within the region, intra-regional trade, and the revival of sectors that are most affected by the crisis.
Another potential area of development and collaboration is sustainability and the green economy. By embracing a sustainability mind-set, allows us to help our businesses and workers seize new growth opportunities. This is why Fiji and New Zealand, alongside Costa Rica, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, launched the initiative on the Agreement in Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability. And other Pacific Island Countries are also encouraged to join this initiative in order to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change through the trading system.
We see significant opportunities for Pacific Island businesses to capture growing demand for energy efficient solutions in our Region. We also hope to encourage research and knowledge sharing of green technology solutions for the region.
Reducing trade costs and facilitating trade should be one of the other targeted policies that the Region should seriously consider. This can be achieved by strategically directing the Regions Aid for Trade to address our unique trade challenges. For instance, there needs to be sufficient support for trade-related adjustment to diversify our economies and to develop and expand new sectors of export interest.
Collective responses and solidarity are crucial to win the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. We will need to work closely together and with our external partners, including through the sharing of information and best practices, to remain responsive and safeguard the well-being of our peoples. This will ensure that our Region remains resilient and relevant in the decades to come.
The Pacific’s greatest strength is the resilience of its people. Hence, we should look towards strengthening the strong partnership shared by our Region and finding new opportunities for growth. By doing the right things, we are confident that we can seize the opportunities and emerge stronger from this crisis.
With these words colleagues, I wish you an enriching and fruitful day of discussions.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.