January 2016

Well perhaps the most significant thing about January was that I was still living in Vanuatu. This came as a surprise to some and less so to others. The ins and outs are not important here, safe to say that I am very happy to still be in my island home and looking forward to making the most of our extra time here.

I kicked off the year with my ‘traditional’ contribution to the Devpolicy blog: Pacific Predictions with a particular focus on elections and Pacific diplomacy. This led to 2 interviews with Pacific Beat, which you can listen to here and here.

‘Coffee and Controversy’ returned to the airwaves of Buzz FM 96 on January 19th with a 2-hour special focused on the forthcoming elections. You can listen to what we discussed on this podcast.

I provided some early analysis of the unofficial results of the Vanuatu elections for Devpolicy here. I subsequently discussed the election results with Pacific Beat here.


Resilience and state building – challenges and opportunities in Vanuatu

This item was first published on March 29th, 2015

We have heard a lot about resilience in Vanuatu since the passage of Cyclone Pam, during the 13th and 14th March. I referenced it in a post I wrote a few days after I returned to the country. It has been mentioned with approbation by politicians, decision-makers, UN aid workers and many more.

It is important to understand that resilience, whether of individuals, communities, organisations or states, is not a given. Resilience needs to be supported and preserved. By its very nature, resilience is something that operates over time and so it is important to think and act carefully in the immediate and short term to minimise the risks of undermining longer term resilience.

To date, little has been said about state resilience. Vanuatu, like other Melanesian countries, is often characterised as being relatively weak in terms of state capacity. It is certainly the case that beyond the capital city Port Vila the state’s presence is not extensive. There are schools, aid posts and sometimes police posts. They are often closed because there is no-one to staff them or there are no resources to allow for service delivery. Critical infrastructure, including roads, bridges, wharves and airstrips is poorly maintained and likely to be out of action especially when weather conditions deteriorate. All of these conditions pertained long before the arrival of Cyclone Pam.

So how resilient has the state of Vanuatu proved to be in the face of this event, the most significant natural disaster to strike the country in its (almost) 35 years of existence? In the 2+ weeks of immediate response, the machinery of government showed great resilience by showing up and taking control of the emergency response. Further to previous investment in the National Disaster Management Office, including through support from the Vanuatu Humanitarian Team, a coordinated and planned approach to assessment and distribution was able to be implemented from day one.

However, as we move to the medium and longer term, gaps in the resilience of state agencies are likely to appear. The public servants who are needed to lead the government’s work in coordination of aid are largely unavailable as they are working within the Emergency Operations Centre on distributing aid. Donors often complain that the central agency responsible for coordinating aid to Vanuatu does little in this regard. The public servants that work within this unit complain that donors do not do enough to comply with what they want to see happen in terms of coordination. The truth of the matter no doubt lies somewhere between these two positions. However, now more than ever, the people of Vanuatu need their government and the country’s donor partners to work together to deliver aid in ways that not only preserve state capacity but capitalise on opportunities to enhance it.

The politics of aid are well known and we have seen them play out in Vanuatu and the wider region or more than one occasion. It is too idealistic to think that all of the mistakes of the past will be avoided in Vanuatu over the coming weeks, months and years. And it is too cynical to say that there is nothing that can be done to prevent the aid circus from overrunning local leadership.

The path for government, policy makers, donors and those who advise them needs to be one based on putting the long term interests of the country and people of Vanuatu first and being committed for the long haul. There are a number of principles that I believe can and should underpin future decisions and developments on all sides. They include:

  • Investing in knowledge aggregation and sharing drawing on expertise, innovative thinking and experience from a wide range of sources.
  • Working with what is already in place, to achieve better multiplier effects and returns on previous and current investments.
  • Taking all steps available to reduce transaction costs in country
  • Managing the risks associated with individuals and organisations manipulating situations to prosecute vested interests rather than achieving objectives of national importance.

Another review of the Pacific regional architecture is neither warranted nor appropriate

This item was first published Matthew Dornan & Tess Newton Cain on Devpolicy on November 11th, 2014

The joint announcement by Fiji and Australia that the Pacific regional architecture should be reviewed has taken both the Pacific islands region and Australian foreign affairs establishment by surprise.

We can only speculate about the origins and underlying purpose of the announced review. Very little detail has yet to be made available, save that Australia will host a meeting of regional leaders (the exact composition of that group yet to be determined) in Sydney in February 2015. But whatever the trigger for this announcement, it raises some important questions about the future of regionalism and, more particularly, the respective roles of Australia and Fiji within it.

Is there either the need or appetite for such a review, given the recent completion of a series of reviews with focus on and implications for the regional architecture?

There is much that remains unclear but what is evident is that the ‘review’ (as described in the Fiji media) or ‘discussion’ (as described on the Australian Foreign Minister’s website) has arisen amidst efforts by Australia to normalise relations with Fiji. The exchange of high commissioners has been announced, and Fiji will be offered 100 places within Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program. Fiji will also be incorporated into the New Colombo Plan, meaning that Australian students will soon study at the University of the South Pacific. Defence ties are also being re-established.

Fiji’s involvement in the regional architecture meanwhile remains unclear. Its suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum (the region’s premier political body) in 2009 was lifted recentlyfollowing elections in which the former head of the Fiji military (and 2006 coup leader) won office. But Fiji has refused to rejoin the Forum, stating that it will only consider doing so if Australia and New Zealand leave the body that they helped to establish. The announced review of the regional architecture is most likely a bid by Australia to appease the Fiji Government – although it is not at all clear that Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola will back down from their opposition to rejoining a Forum that includes Australia and New Zealand as members.

Any review of the regional architecture, of course, brings with it opportunities. The Pacific Institute of Public Policy has welcomed the initiative as a means to “effect the necessary reforms” that will “reforge the regional vision and establish the relevant architecture to secure it”. Such a position reflects a widespread view that regionalism has done little to improve the lot of Pacific island populations (a view that to a great extent is true, although not universally so). The Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Brett Mason, recently reiterated that point when he said about Pacific regionalism that “things can’t remain as they are.” If the review does generate a broad-based political mandate for enhancing regionalism, it would certainly be a win for all.

But we are sceptical that the review that has been announced will fulfil this purpose, for a number of reasons.

First, there is the issue of timing. In the last 10 years, there have been myriad reviews of regional organisations and plans/processes. These include the 2013 Independent Review of the Pacific Plan for Regional Integration and Cooperation (the ‘Pacific Plan); the 2012 reviews of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (discussedhere); the 2007 Regional Integration Framework [pdf] (RIF) review, which led to the merger of a number of major regional agencies; and the 2005 review of the regional architecture commissioned by Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS). Surely this is overkill? The purpose of regionalism cannot primarily be to review regionalism.

Of these review activities, the most recent and most significant was the 2013 Review of the Pacific Plan, undertaken by Sir Mekere Morauta and his team and captured in a report [pdf] released less than 12 months ago. That review included detailed analysis of what the regionalism project has been and could be in the future (including work we did assessingpooled service delivery in the region). Its key product, the Framework for Pacific Regionalism[pdf], was endorsed by leaders at the Palau meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum.

The PIFS is currently implementing key activities arising from the 2013 Review of the Pacific Plan, including the rationalisation of regional meetings (a specific request from Pacific island leaders). Regional organisations such as the University of the South Pacific, SPC and the PIFS have only recently implemented recommendations from their comprehensive reviews, and in some cases, this process is ongoing. It comes as a surprise then that another review of the regional architecture should be announced.
It is unclear whether there is much appetite for another review in the region, with the implications of past reviews still being worked through and implemented by regional bodies and the Forum. Alf Simpson, former Director of the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC – now subsumed within the SPC), has said in response to the announcement that:

Time after time they keep asking the same questions hoping for a different response. Even worse the focus on the organisations only results in minor efficiency gains and the question of effectiveness is never addressed.

Transform Aqorau, the CEO of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement office, has labelled another review of the regional architecture as “ill advised, untimely and an overreaction.”
It is certainly significant that the announcement has been met with silence by most regional organisations (regional organisations, after all, would be unlikely to directly criticise the foreign ministers of Australia and Fiji). The one exception is the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, which has welcomed the initiative, although on the proviso that “the discussion comes up with some useful way forward”. Importantly, there has been no request for a review by the countries that have the greatest stake in regionalism: the smaller island states of the Pacific (a group that does not include the larger countries of Fiji and PNG, nor the developed economies of Australia and New Zealand).

This is cause for further concern. It is absurd that Australia and Fiji should bilaterally announce a review of the regional architecture with no consideration for the views of other Pacific island countries. After all, Fiji refuses to be a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, while Australia is not a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group or the Pacific Islands Development Forum. How can either country seek to review regional arrangements to which they are not party? The meeting in February will presumably include other Pacific island heads of government, but the fact remains that the need to hold a discussion was announced by Fiji and Australia without the involvement of other leaders.

The announcement may help to re-establish the bilateral relationship between Australia and Fiji, although there is no guarantee that it will succeed in bringing Fiji back into the Forum’s fold. But it is disappointing in terms of Australia’s engagement with the broader region. Whilst in opposition, Julie Bishop promised a better engagement with the region should her party come into government. What we have seen since last October is a selective approach to developing some bilateral relationships (most notably with PNG and Fiji) and a disregard for progressing regional relationships. Australia has been noticeable by its perceived absence in key forums where issues that matter to Pacific island countries (especially the smaller states) have been discussed. The continued inertia of the PACER Plus negotiations has arisen, at least in part, from the apparent inability of Australian (and New Zealand) officials to take the concerns of Pacific negotiators on board. And the Seasonal Workers’ Program remains a source of disappointment to many.

There are plenty of challenges ahead for the future of Pacific regionalism and visionary leadership is required if they are to be successfully navigated. A review of the regional architecture, announced by two countries less than 12 months after the completion of another review, is far from visionary.

Photo credit: Fiji Ministry of Information


MSG manoeuvres: What next for West Papua?

This item was first published on The Interpreter on 16th July 2014

It hasn’t taken long for the West Papua National Council for Liberation (WPNCL) and other pro-independence groups to to respond to Melanesian Spearhead Group’s (MSG) recent announcement on the WPNCL’s membership application, made during the MSG summit in Port Moresby. And the response can be characterised as something of a ‘good news, bad news’ story.

The good news was that the WPNCL, with strong support from Marcus Haluk (Chairman for the Working Group of the all West Papua pro-independence organisations), announced that a conference of reconciliation would be held in Port Vila, Vanuatu at the end of  August.

The aim of this meeting is to put forward an application for membership of the MSG (here’s a primer on the Melanesian Spearhead  Group) by an umbrella group of all West Papuan people, as recommended by the MSG leaders in Port Moresby. The conference organisers have expressed their confidence that this new application will be ready by the end of the year.

The conference is being supported by the Vanuatu Council of Churches, the National Council of Chiefs and the government of Vanuatu. The conference chair is Pastor Alain Nafuki, who has already expressed his hope that the government of Indonesia will assist in facilitating the travel of delegates from West Papua to Port Vila. (This may be something of a vain hope as, despite what others may say about the importance of West Papua to Indonesia’s ‘Look East’ policy overall, there is no evidence to suggest that Jakarta will be a willing contributor to a pro-independence convocation being held in another country.)

The bad news is that hard on the heels of this announcement came the news that pro-Indonesia West Papua Autonomy campaigners, Franz Albert Joku and Nicholas Simion Messet, would not be invited to said conference.

This is not surprising, given the longstanding antipathy felt towards pro-Indonesia Melanesians by those who have advocated, lobbied and fought for the independence of West Papua for more than 50 years. However, this decision means the  conference may fail to meet the criteria contained in the Port Moresby communiqué, which states that MSG leaders…

Agreed to invite all groups to form an inclusive and united umbrella group in consultation with Indonesia to work on submitting a fresh application…(Emphasis added.)

Meanwhile, the government of Vanuatu has stated its intention to continue its lobbying for the self-determination of the people of West Papua through UN processes. Despite having accepted the group-think in Port Moresby, the Natuman government is maintaining the stance that sets Vanuatu apart from the other sovereign state members of the MSG.

Of course, Vanuatu has little to lose , as it no longer has a defence cooperation relationship with Indonesia and there is nowhere near the level of Indonesian investment in Vanuatu as is the case in other MSG countries, notably Fiji and PNG. And, perhaps more significantly, Vanuatu does not have PNG’s  financial resources to influence fellow members through provision of development assistance. Nonetheless, Vanuatu got the West Papua issue on to the agenda of the MSG and will undoubtedly do everything to ensure it remains there for as long as is needed or can be sustained.

Photo credit: Flickr/AK Rockefeller


What does the future hold for SPC? An interview with Colin Tukuitonga

This item was first published on Devpolicy on March 20th, 2014

Recently, Tess Newton Cain spoke with Colin Tukuitonga. Colin is the new Director General of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). You can listen to a podcast of their conversation here and download the full transcript here. But for the highlights of what they discussed, read on …

Colin began by giving us a ‘potted history’ of his life. He hails from Niue and did his medical training in Fiji. He has spent much of his professional life working in the field of public health in New Zealand and in the Pacific island region. He has extensive policy experience, having worked at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva and within the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs in New Zealand. He joined SPC in 2012 as Director of Public Health was appointed Director General in 2013. SPC is the oldest of the Pacific regional organisations, having recently celebrated its 67th birthday.

So, what is Colin’s vision for SPC?

For me it’s about moving an organisation that’s already good toward something even better: to have more impact in the countries that we serve, to try and secure sustainable, more predictable, funding for our programs.

Whilst he describes the organisation as being in ‘good heart’, there are still challenges to be faced, not least in relation to funding:

SPC is handicapped in many ways because the bulk of its finances are project based. By that I mean the money comes for a specific project, for a short period of time and when the money ends, the project stops. It’s very difficult for SPC, and indeed probably other organisations in a similar situation, to have better long-term planning to secure and retain good staff, and all of those sorts of things.

We then moved on to examine an often-raised criticism of regional organisations, such as SPC: that they are not relevant to improving the daily lives of most Pacific islanders. Colin refuted this in relation SPC. He made particular reference to the work that has been done within the organisation to improve coastal fisheries, increasing the yield and making them more secure. These measures have made a significant contribution to the livelihoods of many Pacific island communities. But he also said that there was more to be done, particularly in relation to impact:

I mentioned … that one of our issues is that we’re in some 20-odd sectors … there’s not enough … working across the sectors together, in terms of responding to the development needs of the member states.

He also reflected on the need for SPC to improve the quality of its scientific output and to adopt a global focus rather than maintaining one that is purely regional.

In a somewhat similar vein, we moved on to discuss what key achievements Colin would like to be able to point to at the end of his time as Director General. The goal he identified first is central to one of the most significant challenges faced by the region right now:

I’d like to be able to have worked with the team and other organisations and countries on trying to achieve a decline in the prevalence of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, those sort of non-communicable conditions, which is clearly a major issue in the region in terms of individual well-being, but also in terms of the drain, if you like, on the economic development potential of small islands.

Colin’s other goals were to have moved more of the Pacific islands toward the use of renewable sources of energy, to have improved numeracy and literacy rates, to have contributed to the improved management of tuna fisheries in the region and to have strengthened SPC as an organisation.

We made a small detour in our conversation about Pacific regional development to spend a small amount of time talking about Niue. Colin noted that the challenges facing such a small country were very significant. He felt that trying to achieve sustainable economic development through fisheries and tourism was very ambitious and could possibly have a detrimental impact on Niue’s fragile environment.

We ended our conversation by addressing another long standing and somewhat vexed question: the justification for having two peak bodies in the region. The two bodies in question are SPC and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS). In Colin’s view, the demarcation is very clear:

The Pacific Island Forum Secretariat is essentially about politics and policy, and we are a technical, scientific organisation. We do quite a lot of the implementation and the accountability reports in the various sectors.

However, he said that there were areas in which a perception has arisen that the work of SPC duplicates the work of other regional organisations. For example, I asked what the relationship is between the work SPC does on fisheries and the remit of the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA)?

That might be an area where people might have some concerns about duplication and whatnot. But fortunately for us, over the years — at least before my time — they’ve worked out pretty clearly who does what. … there are a number of other agencies involved in the fisheries space. For us, we’ve tended to remain pretty much focussed on the things we know best, and that is the scientific, biological, technical assessment of the tuna stock. And then we provide advice on the health or otherwise of the stock to the FFA and others involved in the fisheries. So, the area for misunderstanding of boundaries is more in that space, rather than between SPC and PIFS.

Colin agreed that whilst within SPC and between SPC and other regional organisations it might be clear as to who is doing what, there was more to be done about clearly communicating that to the wider community:

There’s a lot of good work going on. But not everybody knows what that work is. And potentially, again, in terms of responsibilities and boundaries, I wouldn’t be surprised if people are not all that clear about who does what.

Colin Tukuitonga has hit the ground running in his new role, and as we can see from this interview, has set himself a challenging agenda. We wish him luck and will be following his progress and that of the SPC with interest in the next few years.