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Fiji's Long Shadow

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In Brief

Fiji may not have been invited to this week’s Pacific Islands Forum Meeting in Cairns, but its presence will be felt nonetheless.

Regional leaders expelled Fiji from the Forum back in May, because they were not persuaded that Commodore Bainimarama planned to restore democratic rule in the near future. Far from getting Fiji off the agenda, its expulsion has intensified the dilemma facing Forum members – as recent public displays of their differing opinions on the treatment of Fiji demonstrate.

Australia’s political leaders are anxious to ensure that the issue of Fiji does not overshadow this week’s meeting in Cairns. Instead, Australia’s foreign minister, Stephen Smith, is insisting that leaders throughout the region are keen to focus on the ‘real work at hand’.

Rightly so. The Pacific Islands are now facing unprecedented challenges to their economic development, thanks to the global financial crisis and climate change.

For these challenges to be tackled effectively, the Forum must agree on regional responses to them. The important role that Fiji has to play in those responses is inescapable.


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Recent analysis by the Asian Development Bank suggests that the Pacific Islands will be hit particularly hard by the global financial crisis in the coming year.

Most of these countries depend on a very few industries to generate their foreign exchange, among which tourism and work by diaspora communities are prevalent. The flow-on effects of the GFC-induced recession in the developed world are far fewer tourists going to the Pacific Islands, and a dramatic drop in remittances from Pacific Islanders abroad.

What the Pacific urgently needs is to expand livelihood opportunities. Regional programmes to improve agricultural productivity, develop local fisheries industries and finance micro-enterprises will be important. Regional progress on trade capacity development, investment promotion and the movement of labour will also be vital.

Fiji’s absence from Forum meetings does not diminish the depth of its interconnection with the regional economy and bureaucratic cadre. As the economic centre and trade hub of the Pacific Islands, the state of Fiji’s economy is critical to the expansion of livelihood opportunities in the region. And Fiji’s officials typically have critical contributions to make to the progress of regional trade initiatives.

With respect to climate change, reports released last month by the Australia Institute and Oxfam Australia have highlighted the enormous detriment that it is beginning to impose on the Pacific Islands.

With climate change and rising sea levels, it becomes more difficult and costly for Pacific Islanders to obtain drinking water, grow food, sustain fisheries, protect homes, preserve coral reefs and maintain physical – including tourist – infrastructure. The increase in extreme weather events predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will also mean more frequent and more devastating cyclones, floods and droughts in the region.

By far the most effective way for the Pacific Islands to mitigate and adapt to the impact of climate change is collectively. Development resources can be pooled and research findings shared. Warning systems can be established jointly, and new technology and practices rolled out across the region from a single source.

Here again, the significance of Fiji is apparent. Home to key regional institutions that need to lead the mitigation and adaptation programmes, its government also has some of the region’s best scientific and meteorological facilities and people.

For as long as Fiji remains beyond the pale, astute and innovative thinking will be needed on the part of the region’s leaders, to ensure that Fiji’s exclusion from the Forum does not hold back region-wide cooperation and collective action.
In this respect, maintaining collaboration with Fiji at the level of officials and the judicious use of non-political regional institutions – where Fiji retains full participation – would be invaluable.

Rather than leaving Fiji as the elephant in the room at the Forum this week, the practical consequences of its exclusion must be dealt with explicitly, to enable the region to move forward on the key development challenges it now faces.

Virginia Horscroft has worked extensively on trade and development issues in the Pacific Islands for both government and regional organisations, and has a doctorate in development studies from the University of Oxford.

One response to “Fiji’s Long Shadow”

  1. Thanks Virginia for the interesting post.

    There is indeed much ‘real work’ on hand to do in the region and the problems with the current Fiji regime ensure that it will be much harder than it really should be for the region and nation’s outside the region to make a constructive input when the status of the current regime in Fiji is the minds of everyone at the ministerial and official level.

    There is unfortunately no fence sitting when it comes to Fiji. The regime is either has to be on the ‘out’ or has to be allowed back ‘in’ to be a participant. The Commodore is an astute observer of the international confusion at the moment and is making the best of the opportunity. The previous few weeks have seen him undertake a whole range of soft interviews to push his message that his role is to clean up Fiji and give the country the new start that it requires.

    This makes only sense to those that take the Commodore promises at face value but after nearly 3 years the ‘power and fruits’ of office only get more attractive to hold onto. The upcoming appointment of a new President should again display that it is more of the same approach as in previous coups – jobs and gifts for friends and the full weight of the military and police for their enemies.

    It is wrong and simplistic if anyone expects the current situation in Fiji to somehow miraculously change because there is a People’s Charter, or a new constitution or even a new set of military approved leaders. While not supporting any violent change for Fiji, the answer does remain with the people and their choice of a future must be made without the military breathing down their necks. Democracy is imperfect but dictatorship can only end in more corruption and fewer economic opportunities for Fiji.

    Although friends of the current regime like to draw our attention to successful periods of ‘guided’ democracy in Asia and Africa, the signs of failure are too many and the nature of the current changes by the regime are out of context for the approach that Pacific Islanders have traditional taken.

    The region needs to get to work on a response to the GFC, climate change and important trade issues and this requires a firm approach to Fiji. The importance of Fiji as a regional economic and trade hub requires more pressure on the current regime and not less. The flip-flopping of apologist can only assist those that seek to remain illegally in power. While it is unfortunate, the measures against Fiji should increase and this will result in additional pain for the people –however – until the military is removed from politics and becomes an active part of the process of law and order there will not be any real change when it is attempted by issuing a new policy or establishing a new body.

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