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An emerging chasm in Pacific integration. Islands Business, March 2013

23/02/2013

The Forum Secretariat is currently coordinating a review of The Pacific Plan, while the MSG Secretariat is coordinating a review of the Melanesian Spearhead Group to chart a way forward for the next twenty five years.

On the surface, it all looks very progressive for regional integration.

But look a bit deeper, and what emerges is a Deep Chasm opening up between two groups of Pacific countries, with donors leading one side, and a truculent semi-independent group on the other.

The two reviews have fascinating contrasts, with one unfortunate common element so far.

Review of the Pacific Plan

 

The Review Chair is  PNG’s eminent Sir Mekere Morauta, with the other two members being  Peseta Noumea Simi (Samoan Assistant CEO of Finance) and Redley Killion, former Vice President of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and former Senator of the FSM state of Chuuk.

This is not a particularly strong regional representation, you would have to admit. But note that the PNG Government has also nominated an astute and experienced civil servant (Mr Robert Igara) as adviser to Sir Mekere.

The Review Team will also have two international consultants. Peter Bazeley of the UK (with expertise on development strategy and aid effectiveness) and  Dr Nick Poletti of NZ (with expertise in the areas of strategic planning, public sector reform and economic development).

Forum Secretary General, Tuiloma Neroni Slade was reported as saying (Islands Business) “The consultants will have primary responsibility for producing the written outputs of the Review, including a Review report and a refreshed Pacific Plan, under the guidance of Sir Mekere”!

Given that the core of the Pacific Plan (though of course, not everything) ought to be regional economic integration, it seems a glaring omission on the part of those who influenced the selection of the Review Team, not to also include even a single regional expert on Pacific integration issues.

There are at least three eminent Pacific Island economists who have either been working in these very areas or who have sound practical knowledge of the issues involved: Professor Biman Prasad (Professor of Economics at The University of the South Pacific and former Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics); Professor Satish Chand (Professor of Economics at the University of New South Wales); and Dr Sitiveni Halapua (former Head of Pacific Island Development Programme, University of Hawai and currently a Tongan parliamentarian).  I suspect there may be another one or two around.

There are also prominent academics like Dr Thomas Webster, Dr Ray Enere, Dr Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, Dr Sitiveni Ratuva, Dr Transform Aqorau, and Dr Uentabo MacKenzie, whose regional expertise could have been brought to bear (in addition to the international experts, of course).

This omission of the prominent academics is even more remarkable given that Sir Mekere is reported to have stated at his Team’s meeting with the Hon. Luamanuvao Winnie Laban, New Zealand’s first Pacific Island woman parliamentarian and now Assistant Vice Chancellor (Pasifika) of Victoria University, that “Academic perspectives provide an important evidence base for our work, and are a valuable addition to the views of politicians, officials and civil society.”

In any case, the Review Team priorities seem to be indicated by their meeting with stakeholders in Wellington, and planned meetings with stakeholders (including academics) in Canberra and Sydney (the latter organized by the Lowy Institute).

The Review Team apparently called for a meeting with academics of The University of the South Pacific but there was no open  meeting. While this was no fault of the Review Team, one would have thought that an open meeting at USP (as in Wellington, Canberra and Sydney), might have allowed greater inputs from all interested academics of the only regional university belonging to the 12 Member countries, who comprise the majority of the Forum.

While there are meetings planned in most of the member countries of the Forum, it is not clear whether Fiji Government officials will be included (they are still excluded from Forum meetings), despite Fiji’s centrality to any regional agreements such as Pacific Plan or Pacer Plus.

Of course, at some stage, the fundamental question will be asked (if not by the Review Team itself): why is there a need for a “Pacific Plan” at all, when virtually everything it covers could have been covered by the PACER (conveniently renamed “PACER Plus” to exclude Fiji), which Australia and NZ are in no hurry at all to finalize?

Pacific Islanders do not mind, of course.

The Pacific Plan exercise will require endless meetings in all the capitals of the Pacific, to be attended, of course,  all at donor expense, with plenty of per diems to be saved or pleasantly spent, while myriads of consultants will have a field day spending the boomerang aid money.

The MSG Review

The MSG Review is another kettle of fish altogether, for several reasons.

The MSG Review Team is being selected by the MSG countries themselves, with the Chairman (a former Minister in the Qarase Government, Kalio Tavola) already nominated by Fiji and (warmly) accepted by the MSG Director General (Mr Peter Forau) (read: the other MSG countries were all in favor).

The other members of the MSG Review Team will be nominated by the PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and FLNKS.

The traditional donors are unlikely to have any influence on this Review and I would be surprised if there will be any “experts” from Australia, NZ or UK as part of the Eminent Persons Group.

Note, though that China is a supporter of the MSG Secretariat, and while this might suggest a chasm amongst the donors as well, China cannily supports countries on the other side as well.

The MSG political leaders  have amply demonstrated that whatever their countries’ degree of aid dependence, they are quite prepared to express their political independence from the donor countries, as evidenced by their staunch and continuing support for Fiji.

But here it must be also asked why the MSG Review Team does not include any regional economists or experts as part of their Eminent Persons’ Group? Peter?  

MSG: the Western Pacific  Powerhouse

The bottom line however is that the MSG offers very real and significant economic benefits to the Melanesian countries, and especially Fiji, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands, who can work linkages with the new found minerals,  LNG wealth and booming economic growth of PNG.

The MSG may well expand to include West Papua and FLNKS (Kanaky New Caledonia) both also resource rich, and both of whom will at long last find the regional support for their independence struggles, long denied them by Forum Secretariat.

Should Timor Leste also be included in the future, the MSG will be even further strengthened as  the most powerful regional integration movement, totally overshadowing the economic possibilities from the Pacific Plan.

There is also every likelihood that the resource rich MSG has far more complementary  benefits to offer the atoll countries (Kiribati, Tuvalu, FSM etc) than the Eastern Polynesian countries.

Fiji has already taken the lead by giving Kiribati access to a substantial area of Fijian land (which has more arable soil than all of Kiribati combined) while Tuvaluans have (very quietly and unobtrusively) had relatively free access to residence in Fiji and ancillary benefits such as education and health services.

These are indeed interesting times and it will be interesting to see where the reviews of  the MSG and the Pacific Plan take them.

Their current separate trajectories and dynamics indicate that the South Pacific now has its own Deep Chasm between the East (Polynesia) and the West (Melanesia), to match the Marianas Trench in the North West Pacific.

What a challenge for visionary Pacific Island political leaders to ensure that this Deep Chasm does not become as permanent and unfathomable as the Marianas Trench.  The Pacific sorely needs someone of the stature of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

PS to the MSG Review Team: A change of name (and acronym) might help to distance this serious integration movement from the ubiquitous Chinese flavor enhancer, however much it resonates  with China’s ready assistance. The Western Pacific’s flavors are rich enough already. 

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