Opening Speech by Forum Chair, President Baron Divavesi Waqa at the 49th Pacific Islands Forum

President Waqa delivering Forum Chair speech

Esteemed Colleagues, Distinguished Heads of Delegations, Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the people of Nauru, it is an honor to welcome you to the 49th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting to continue our project of “Building a Strong Pacific: Our People, Our Islands, Our Will.”

This year, Nauru celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence, which has inspired a great deal of reflection among my fellow citizens. The recent history of our region is quite remarkable. A political wave was set in motion by the people of Samoa in seeking a better life and it quickly swept across the entire Pacific. The founding fathers and mothers of our newly independent island nations firmly believed that we must be the masters of our own destiny – that prosperity must be crafted with our own hands. And so we asserted our right to self-determination and began our Pacific project.

I imagine it was this same irrepressible spirit that led our ancestors leave the security of the continent and embark on their amazing voyages thousands of years ago.

A large part of what drove our pursuit of independence was the recognition of our uniqueness. How could a distant administrator ever hope to understand the local needs and

concerns, hopes and aspirations? However, our founders also recognized that their nascent States would face enormous challenges. A rapidly industrializing and financializing world would not always be the most welcome environment for nurturing our small, isolated, and vulnerable nations. They understood that broad-based prosperity and security would require regional cooperation with each other and with their international partners.

When reviewing the historical documents of the South Pacific Forum, as the PIF was then called, you can sense their overflowing optimism. Our founders had an ambitious vision of Pacific Regionalism that would build a strong Pacific on our terms. The overarching goal? Bring the Pacific closer together – closer through trade, through shipping and civil aviation, and through telecommunication. Central to this project would be our ocean, with tourism and the export of marine resources driving our economies forward and opening up new possibilities for our sustainable development.

As the Pacific Islands Forum rapidly approaches its own 50th anniversary, we might wish to consider how our founders would judge our progress towards a “Strong Pacific.”

I think it is fair to say that the results have not been terribly encouraging. A 2017 report by the PIF Secretariat on the State of Pacific Regionalism concluded that performance across the region with regard to the Millennium Development Goals was weak. Only two countries achieved all of the eight MDGs, and

the majority of Pacific Island Countries achieved less than half. Indeed, growing political, economic, and environmental uncertainty is projected by the Secretariat to “exacerbate the vulnerabilities and dependencies the region currently experiences.”

I think it is incumbent on us, as Leaders, to ask whether we have stayed true to the original vision for a strong and independent Pacific. Or if we have strayed, then why?

Our unique challenges as Pacific Island Countries are widely recognized. Some are inherent in the geophysical nature of the islands we inhabit, such as small land mass, limited natural resources, geographic isolation, and vulnerability to natural disasters. No less important are the challenges imposed on us by the global economic system, which was not designed with our countries in mind.

Our small populations and production base do not yield the economies of scale sought by private investors. Volatility in commodity markets have outsized impacts on our fiscal planning. And the negative externalities of consumption-based economic growth have destroyed the health of our oceans and the safety of our climate. Meanwhile, corporate consolidation and a liberalized global financial system translate into fewer, and fewer opportunities for new enterprises to develop domestically.

These are not new observations. We have been grappling with these challenges for decades. But in the face of climate change, developing effective strategies for dealing with them has become much more urgent. “Security” has become the watchword for the region, and it is essential that Pacific Island Countries define precisely what that word means to us.

The work ahead may seem daunting, but no more so than when our parents and grandparents began this project to build a strong Pacific several decades ago. Like them, we can see the enormous potential of our people. We know our islands have provided us with all we needed to live with dignity for thousands of years, and can continue to do so for thousands more. At this moment in history, we must once again summon our will to lay out a clear vision for building a strong Pacific.

Thank you.