The Pacific region is currently the focus of attention by Pacific rim powers mainly concerned about their own security and economic prospects. The geopolitical situation is aggravating the challenges faced by many Pacific Islands Countries and Territories (PICTs) such as the dual threats caused by the climate and Noncommunicable Disease (NCD) crises, and chronic shortcomings in education and skills development. Furthermore, despite good evidence of the limitations of the neoliberal ideology and practice, these policies continue to dominate the development agenda in the Pacific region.
So, the natural question is ‘Who is driving the agenda?’
Pacific Island Forum Leaders have embraced regionalism as the key to overcoming their common challenges and enhancing prospects for economic development and prosperity for all.
“The expression of a common sense of identity and purpose, leading progressively to the sharing of institutions, resources, and markets, with the purpose of complementing national efforts, overcoming common constraints, and enhancing sustainable and inclusive development within Pacific countries and territories and for the Pacific region as a whole.” (PIF 2017)
In 2014, leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum endorsed a Pacific Vision calling for a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion, and prosperity, so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy, and productive lives. In 2017 Forum Leaders endorsed the “Blue Pacific” identity as the core driver of collective action to advance this vision. The Blue Pacific seeks to re-capture the collective potential of the region’s shared stewardship of the Pacific Ocean based on an explicit recognition of its shared “ocean identity”, “ocean geography”, and “ocean resources” (PIF 2019).
The leaders’ vision for the region is noble but unattainable due in large measure to capacity constraints, lack of resources and chronic concerns about loss of autonomy. Nonetheless, the vision provides the broad framework for development.
Without a doubt the climate crisis threatens the lives and livelihoods of Pacific people. Access to clean water and nutritious food will become even more difficult for people of the Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) as salt water inundation, sea level rise, coral bleaching and loss of habitats aggravates fragile and precarious environments. The sea provides 80% of the protein for people of the Pacific. The 2018 IPCC Report suggests that 70-90% of the world coral reefs are expected to die when the air temperature reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius. When coral reefs are destroyed, the food chain for many in the Pacific region is compromised. A likely response is that people will turn to imported highly processed food and sugar sweetened beverages.
The climate crisis alters the social and economic determinants of health and is likely to have a profound negative impact on the health of children, in particular. Most health care facilities in the Pacific are located along the coast, leaving them exposed and extremely vulnerable to the damage caused by severe weather events. Most of the facilities do not meet acceptable building codes. The cost of ‘climate proofing’ health care facilities is prohibitive for most PICTs.
Despite the visible and strong vocal advocacy by Pacific leaders at the global UNFCCC process for enhanced and ambitious actions to reduce the harmful greenhouse gases (GHG), most PICTs are ill prepared for the negative impacts of the climate crisis, especially in the health sector. It is clear that PICTs need to design and implement better adaptation and mitigation measures for their countries alongside global advocacy to reduce GHG emissions. The investment needed is likely to be significant.
NCDs such as diabetes and heart disease cause three out of four deaths in the Pacific. These conditions are fuelled by a pipeline of risk factors such as high levels of smoking, unhealthy diets and reduced levels of physical activity. These conditions cause considerable personal costs such as blindness and kidney and heart failure. Furthermore, the full impact of these conditions on health care systems and economies is yet to be fully realised. The Pacific NCD Roadmap is a world first policy instrument developed by the Pacific Community and regional partners at the request of Pacific Ministers of Finance and Health. Seventeen PICTS have introduced measures recommended by the Roadmap such as increases in tobacco and alcohol taxes. There are encouraging signs in many PICTs of action being taken to prevent and control NCDs, but the impact of these interventions remains limited. The Pacific region also lacks the resources needed to effectively tackle NCDs. Access to funds for national and regional interventions remain a top priority.
Skills for the Workplace
The Pacific region must also address the challenges of a youthful population especially in Melanesian countries. Results from the SPC Pacific Islands Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (PILNA) surveys show that Pacific young people are not achieving expected literacy and numeracy skills. Year 4 and Year 6 boys in particular are lagging behind the girls. Deficiencies in literacy and numeracy is the start of a cohort of young people without the necessary skills for the work place. As a result, PICTs lack the necessary skills for economic development. Policy instruments deigned to address these gaps are often poorly funded and not fully implemented.
Opportunity – The 2050 Strategy
This year, Pacific Island Forum Leaders agreed to develop a the 2050 Strategy for the region. This is an opportunity to regroup and revise the policy agenda for the Pacific region. It is time to regain the mana of Pacific leaders and agree on priorities that truly address the needs of the people of the region. The changes will require courage and compromise, commitment to one another and a determination never seen before. PICT leaders should commit to their fellow Pacific leaders first and avoid the temptation to comply with external demands. In this regard, Pacific leaders are encouraged to invest further in and support the Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific (CROP) agencies. Regional organisations currently receive about 6% of the official ODA allocation. They provide value for money and they focus solely on the needs of the Pacific region. They are directly accountable to the members that own and govern them. Unlike global entities, their accountability is visible and direct. Leaders of the Pacific should also expect global organisations working in the Pacific to demonstrate clear plans to increase the visibility of and leadership by Pacific nationals in these organisations. Global organisations often compete directly with regional organisations for resources from the same donor pool. Development partners can do more to improve the development landscape. It is time for Pacific nations to set and drive the development agenda.
Dr Colin Tukuitonga was, until recently, the Director General of the Pacific Community (SPC).