This item was first published on The Interpreter on June 20th, 2014

At their forthcoming meeting in Palau, the leaders of the Pacific Island Forum will appoint a successor to Tuiloma Neroni Slade, the Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS).

This is the most senior and high profile regional bureaucratic office, and strictly speaking it is the ‘turn’ of the Micronesian countries to have one of their own take on the role. But they have indicated a willingness to cede in favour of a candidate from a Melanesian country. This seems to reflect what Wadan Narsey has termed a tilt in economic and political power to the west of the region.

Three candidates have emerged. Fiji has nominated Ambassador Kaliopate Tavola, Solomon Islands has endorsed Dr Jimmie Rogers and PNG’s recommendation is Dame Meg Taylor. There has been some disappointment but no real surprise about the fact that the Melanesian countries could not come together to identify a preferred candidate. PNG’s foreign minister has campaigned for Dame Meg among other Melanesian countries, but it is not easy to see who, other than possibly Vanuatu, is likely to be open to that type of lobbying.

So, who are these people?

Kaliopate Tavola has had a long and varied career comprising work in the private sector, many years of experience as a senior diplomat and a minister in the Fiji government between 2000 and 2006. More recently he led the eminent persons’ review of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Dr Jimmie Rodgers recently completed his tenure as Director General of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). He originally qualified as a medical practitioner and served in senior public service positions in Solomon Islands before moving to SPC as a senior administrator. Dame Meg Taylor DBE was appointed Vice President and Compliance Advisor Ombudsman for the International Finance Corporation and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency of the World Bank Group in 1999. She is a lawyer by training and has extensive experience as a diplomat for her country.

They are all good candidates. The prospect of a female SG has certain attractions, although the PIFS is no stranger to having women in senior positions, with both of the Deputy Secretary General posts currently occupied by women (Andie Fong Toy and Cristelle Pratt). For many, it is hoped that a change in leadership will create a critical juncture that facilitates the secretariat becoming more accessible, engaged and responsive.

And what does the next three years hold for whoever takes on this role — is it a golden opportunity or a poisoned chalice? There are a number of key matters on the agenda for the new SG. Further to the review of the Pacific Plan undertaken during 2013, the PIFS will be guiding the development and (presumed) implementation of a new framework for Pacific regionalism. Possibly more contentiously, further to the review of the Pacific Plan, will we now see the official publication of the 2012 review of the PIFS, and will we see the PIFS address the trenchant criticisms it contains?

The PIFS finds itself caught up in a somewhat turbulent period for regional architecture (although that depends on what sort of timeframe you adopt). The Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) has its second annual meeting this week in Nadi, which indicates that as a regional player it intends to stay. This Forum evolved from Fiji’s ‘Engaging the Pacific’ dialogues that were instigated by the interim government in Suva after its suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum in 2009. While it is not expected to pose a major threat to the Pacific Islands Forum, there is no doubt that the two secretariats are going to have to work out some sort of accommodation, not least because they are both domiciled in Suva.

Meanwhile, the Melanesian Spearhead Group is leading the rise and rise of sub-regionalism. Its members (and other sub-regional groupings, whether already in existence or yet to emerge) will come together around policy issues that are meaningful to them. Rhetorically, the review of the Pacific Plan embraces sub-regionalism. However, the current draft of the framework for Pacific regionalism (prepared by the PIFS and currently being revised, further to consultation with member countries) suggests a technocratic process for selecting activities to be progressed (eg. in relation to pooled service delivery). This is not a threat to sub-regional activity as such, but the political realities are that countries that wish to work together on a given issue will do so without reference to a PIFS-centric process such as this. This is part of the changing nature of cooperation and collaboration in the region; countries will exercise choice as to whether they want to work in a sub-regional or regional grouping depending on the nature and political relevance of a given policy issue.

And then of course there is Fiji. The interim prime minister has advised that, should he retain power after the 17 September election, he does not see Fiji rejoining the Pacific Islands Forum unless Australia and New Zealand leave and/or there are dramatic changes to how the Forum and its secretariat are structured and organised.
So, whoever becomes the new SG will have plenty to do in their three-year tenure. To succeed, they will need many qualities, including a healthy measure of good luck.


About Tess Newton Cain

With more than 20 years’ experience of living and working in the Pacific, I understand its needs, local customs, issues and challenges, and have built strong networks and productive relationships with policy makers, opinion formers, key institutions, private sector operators and development partners. If you are a development agency or NGO needing more and better information about the Pacific context for your work or a business looking to enter a new and unfamiliar Pacific market, I can provide you with the research, analysis and strategy you will need.

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