2015 will go down as a tumultuous year for the people of the Pacific.
The massive destruction caused by Cyclone Pam in March left the nation of Vanuatu traumatised. Nine months later, the physical and emotional scars remain visible, and the recovery effort crippled by a lack of funds (only ten per cent of what was required to rebuild was pledged by donors and international NGOs) and compounded by persistent El Nino weather conditions.
Evaluation after evaluation of previous disasters point to all the same issues experienced during the Pam response. The need for better coordination. The need to tailor international response plans to the local context (especially relevant for logistical exercises in a country spread over so many islands). The need to act quickly to provide water, shelter and food (especially where the needs are readily identifiable even in the absence of hard data). The need to empower (and not undermine) national systems and national actors. It seems the lessons are logged, but not learned. As we head towards the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, we in the Pacific need to engage and help reshape the global agenda to make humanitarian action fit for future crises in our region.
Vanuatu was also the scene of the region’s most enthralling political upheaval to date. In a series of landmark court cases, 14 MPs were jailed for corruption and subsequently barred from holding public office for ten years. Parliament was dissolved, and the country heads to a general election on 22 January, 2016. The bribery case showcased the independence of the judicial sector and, in a country that is fabled for big-man, patronage politics, that no one is above the law. It also underscored the deficiencies of the prevailing parliamentary electoral system. While many commented on the minority government left after the 14 were jailed, the bigger issue is the fact that the electoral system gives rise to a minority parliament. This will likely not change without substantial reforms that focus on representation, and not just legislating for stability. As the national conversation evolves around the bribery case and the need for reform, PiPP will seek to continue its non-partisan support to strengthening the social contract between political actors and their constituents through the much acclaimed MP Face to Face programme and other citizen engagement initiatives.
Vanuatu is not alone amongst Pacific countries plagued by corruption. Renowned anti-corruption advocate Sam Koim has led a charge for this to be elevated as a matter of utmost importance for regional leaders, given the ‘prevalence of corruption is the direct cause of pervasive poverty in our region’. In Koim’s home country, Papua New Guinea, the human toll of corruption is evident with 2.8 million people living in poverty, thousands of avoidable deaths, and poor service delivery. All of this is despite (or because of?) vast mineral wealth and extraordinary government spending, which is masking a looming financial crash.
Rule of law, justice, the need for strong institutions and peaceful settlements featured prominently in the new Sustainable Development Goals that were agreed by world leaders in September. The Pacific bloc was instrumental in ensuring the new goals covered issues pertinent to our region, especially climate change and oceans management. The Pacific also supported Timor-Leste as the leading proponent for a goal promoting peaceful societies and capable institutions. For the first time the global agenda recognises the indivisible interlinkages between peace and development, and the need to focus on building state capacity to deliver essential services and manage resources. (Note to donors: this is not a green light to continue failed ‘capacity building’ efforts that simply parachute in ‘technical assistants’ through revolving door aid programmes). As the world continues to reel under the weight of extremism, we need to ensure that the goal on peace is not re-cast solely as a tool in the never-ending ‘war on terror’ or as a means to legitimise the illegitimate beliefs of some that migration is a negative force, and that peace is an issue pertaining exclusively to developing countries. Let us not forget the universal pledge that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to apply universally.
The Pacific bloc once again punched above its collective weight in international negotiations with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change reflecting the long held small-island position to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of two – a half degree that has split negotiations over the past 20 years. However not everyone was gushing with praise for the Paris outcome, with concerns that the deal does not go far enough to hold countries to account or to deliver the international financing required.
While our UN diplomats and negotiators should rightly celebrate their remarkable achievements of this year, we need to remember that the new global goals and the climate agreement are meaningless without effective implementation. For the SDGs we need to remain active in the discussions that will finalise the indicators for the 17 goals and the first meeting of the High level Political Forum in July 2016, which will determine the global implementation and reporting mechanisms. While we are at it, we should step up our participation in the painfully slow moving efforts to reform the archaic institutional infrastructure of the United Nations. Regionally, we need to ensure our national development priorities are aligned but not subordinate to the global goals. In short, we need to take the reigns and not let others determine our development path. Domestic and regional institutional reform will be at the heart of that as well.
Small island states also held sway when it came to appointing the new Commonwealth Secretary General. Common sense prevailed as delegates came together at the last minute to unanimously back Dominica’s candidate, Baroness Scotland, thwarting the bid to give the position to Australia’s Alexander Downer as a ‘compromise candidate’. There is every hope Baroness Scotland, the first woman to hold the post, will revitalise the floundering intergovernmental organisation. Closer to home, the first woman appointed to lead the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Dame Meg Taylor, has made a solid start reviving the once premier regional body.
Mirroring some of the key international discussions on poverty, peacekeeping and climate change, this year’s Melanesian School Debate showcased the depth of talent we have among our young people; our future leaders. Plans are unfolding to expand this highly successful initiative in future years, with the hope of including teams from the Melanesian territories of New Caledonia and West Papua. Sub-regional competitions for Polynesia and Micronesia are also being considered, with the view to holding an annual Pacific tournament.
PiPP too has had a tumultuous year. Our work programme was torn apart first by funding cuts, and then Cyclone Pam as staff scrambled to support various government, NGO and media relief efforts. As business returned to a semblance of normality we proudly assisted the government of Timor-Leste (and indirectly supported the Pacific) in the international negotiations on the new sustainable development agenda. Hosting this year’s Melanesian School Debate was a highlight for all involved, and our associates around the region continue to file insightful blogs on the issues that matter. All of this has been achieved with limited resources, which has resulted in us sadly farewelling a number of valued staff and scaling back activities. Whatever the outlook for us as an organisation, the explosion of critical thinking, innovation and passion, especially amongst the emerging generation of young Pacific leaders, suggests that the future for the region is bright. And that is what keeps us coming to work every day. But not for a few weeks. We are taking a short break to recover from the trials and tribulations of this year, and to get ready to tackle the challenges that 2016 throws up.