A new international economic order must be embraced for the Pacific islands which places our peoples and cultural heritage at the core of this new development paradigm. There are those that imagine the proposed bubble with Australia and New Zealand as involving mainly the opening up of our borders to enable tourists from those two countries to visit the islands but if there is anything that we have learnt from the economic impact of COVID-19, it is that we cannot and should not rebuild our economies by going back to the same models that we have been using before the pandemic. It is logical therefore that we have to now rethink our development strategies, and look to each other to help ourselves. In this regard, how can we package a new international economic order for the region that embraces our peoples and cultures as the core of a new development approach. The idea of a people centered approach to development is not new, but what might be novel is the idea of integrating our economies to have a single custom and development union within which we all apply the same high standards towards the extraction of our natural resources to ensure that our peoples are the major beneficiaries from the benefits that flow from their natural resources.
A Pacific islands bubble containing a single economic and development union
When the Solomon Islands Government declared a state of emergency in March, the Prime Minister encouraged those that did not have any reason to be in Honiara to return to the villages. A lot of people went back to their home islands and villages signifying for us that we in the Pacific islands have the option of going back to the village, that we can turn to the land and sea to sustain ourselves, that our God given natural and cultural resources are what will sustain us. Indeed, even in Honiara people extended the cultivation of food gardens in whatever spare area of land on the hills and slopes that they could find on the outskirts of the town boundary. This is the second major crisis that Solomon Islands has faced since independence which is having a major economic impact. On both occasions people have gone back to their villages and their land to sustain themselves. I would like to imagine that in a new international order for the region that we develop our own economic bubble, wherein we become a single customs, trade, and development block in which we see ourselves more as peoples of this single union, working to help and support each other, rather than as being compartmentalized by our nation states. We have spoken of the region as an oceanic state, or the aquatic continent, yet we are not free to work and live in our respective countries. Some of us still require visa’s to be stamped on arrival, and at the most only give 30 days’ visitors visas. We have spoken a lot about having a greater level of integration, but it is easier said at regional meetings than practiced. Looking ahead however, I imagine a Pacific islands bubble in which there is greater labour mobility amongst our peoples and even greater flexibility to do business in our respective countries by our own people in the bubble. We need each other more than ever, but more importantly we need to share our resources and ideas with each other so that we help to support and uplift our regional economy.
The current features of regional cooperation would have to be transformed in this new international economic paradigm through the establishment of a Pacific islands Parliament which would be a regulatory authority for customs, trade, investments and the setting of common environmental standards for the extractive industries involving our terrestrial and oceanic resources. This does not necessarily mean that our countries would be giving up on their sovereignty as they would still be free to choose who they do business with, but it is to ensure that the interests of our peoples are safeguarded.
A new paradigm for our extractive industries
I can also imagine a new paradigm for our extractive industries especially our fisheries and forestry resources whereby we pursue a development model that promotes cross border investments in fisheries where we control the supply chain for the global tuna industry. COVID-19 has revealed some shortcomings with the current supply chain for our extractive industries especially tuna and round logs. The overreliance on foreign fishing has exposed some of the shortcomings in the current business model where most of the raw material is taken to Thailand and Ecuador. The fishing businesses that were mostly affected were those who rely on transshipment of their catch to overseas ports, but those who are vertically integrated and rely less on foreign crews such as the National Fisheries Development (NFD) Ltd and Soltuna Processing Company in Solomon Islands are not as badly impacted. This is revealing of the major defect in the current model for the development of our tuna resources which is simply relying on licensing fees. There have had to be trade-offs between giving these foreign operators greater operational flexibility by not applying some of the mandatory requirements which have been put in place to ensure our peoples tuna resources are not stolen. In a new international economic order for our tuna, I can imagine the Pacific islands within the economic union to be the primary producers of canned tuna. This can be done through the promotion of cross border investments with each other which will see canned tuna from tuna caught in Nauru, Kiribati, or Tuvalu processed in canneries in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji and sold at Coles, Woolworth’s and Aldi supermarkets in Australia and New Zealand. Solomon Islands produces some of the tastiest and most popular canned tuna in the region, but you will be lucky to find it in any of the supermarkets in Australia and New Zealand. I imagine in this new economic order that we find in ourselves the will and courage to change the business model of fishing so that we help develop our tuna resources in our economic bubble.
The legacy of large-scale commercial forestry extraction especially in Melanesia is even more sobering and should be transformed so that the business model is one that entails the resource owners harvesting their resources themselves. I imagine a new international economic order whereby builders and furniture businesses in Australia and New Zealand agree to purchase their hardwood from within the economic bubble. A new business model could be developed which would require the logging industry to work to a higher standard of environmental safeguards, promote logging to meet the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification, and also ensure that a tree is replanted for every tree that is removed from the forest.
I also imagine a new international economic order that takes into account the cultural, biodiversity and ecosystem values of the oceans and forests and factor these in the extractive costs of tuna and round logs. In order to do this, the national accounting system in the economic bubble would also have be reconsidered so that it not only measures the contribution of the extractive industries to the gross domestic product (GDP), but also take into account the value of the loss to biodiversity and the ecosystem.
Transforming into a digital economy for our rural farmers
I imagine that in this new international economic order, the role of digital technology will become more pronounced as we develop our connectivity to each other, to the markets and also to the outside world. In this regard, we will have to look at innovative ways in which produce from our rural farmers can be valued added and reach to the markets. We have to provide a platform for online trading for our artists and singers to share their skills with each other and with the outside world. Our new international economic order should allow us to become closer to each other, so that we can help build our economic bubble.
The challenge going forward will be how to grow our economy in the face of all the constraints to the supply chain and trade with our traditional partners. An important political statement that I envision in this new international economic order that I imagine is that we cannot look to anyone else to help us save ourselves. We have to look at what we have from what God has given us to provide for ourselves. As we have been able to demonstrate in Solomon Islands, not once, but twice now, it is our rural people who have helped sustain our economy when we found ourselves in economic strife. We can only look once again to ourselves and our own resources to help create a new international economic order for our peoples. This is what I imagine for our economic bubble.
Dr Transform Aqorau is CEO of iTUNA Intel, Founding Director of Pacific Catalysts and OSA International Global, a not for profit social accountability for crewing standards on fishing vessels. He was former Legal Adviser to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Legal Counsel and Deputy Director-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, and Pioneer CEO of the parties to the Nauru Agreement Office (PNAO).
This item is part of a forthcoming publication entitled “From the Deep: Pasifiki Voices for a New Story” edited by James Bhagwan, Elise Huffer, Frances C Koya-Vaka’uta and Aisake Casimira. The collection is published by the Pacific Theological College and will be available in August 2020. It is published here with the kind permission of the author, editors, and publishers.
The Pacific Outlook series is an initiative of the Pacific Hub.