Fiji Sun - - Feature - Joseph Ver­amu ■ Joseph Ver­amu, is an aca­demic and pol­icy an­a­lyst.

On the Air New Zealand plane back to Fiji from Welling­ton in Fe­bru­ary 2019, af­ter I at­tended a week-long work­shop on gov­er­nance and the role of non­state agen­cies in the Pa­cific anti-cor­rup­tion space, I re­flected crit­i­cally on the Pa­cific and the de­vel­op­ment aid that was poured into it. The work­shop had been funded by the New Zealand Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade (NZMFAT) and fa­cil­i­tated by Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional New Zealand (TINZ).

This ar­ti­cle re­flects on how cur­rent pro­gres­sive poli­cies are proac­tively shap­ing Pa­cific pol­icy nar­ra­tives and space.

New Zealand’s Pro­gres­sive Poli­cies

On Fe­bru­ary 27, 2018, New Zealand’s Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern in her for­eign pol­icy ad­dress in­di­cated a ma­jor shift in terms of in­creased sup­port for Pa­cific na­tions.

For Pa­cific islanders used to lead­ers at­tired in power suits and mouthing pol­icy lines on in­creased GDP and trade, she was like a grace­ful dol­phin mov­ing sym­bi­ot­i­cally in its habi­tat.

In line with her pro­gres­sive world view, her speech delved more on New Zealand val­ues of good gov­er­nance, trans­parency, sus­tain­abil­ity and so­ci­etal em­pow­er­ment. While eco­nomic sus­tain­abil­ity and in­creased trade were still im­por­tant, she made clear that they needed to be un­der­pinned by af­firm­ing val­ues so that or­di­nary grass­roots peo­ple in­clud­ing chil­dren (rather than just the rich) would share in the ben­e­fits too. With the benev­o­lent de­meanour of Mother Teresa and the in­ner strength of Joan of Arc, the Pa­cific was in­tro­duced to pro­gres­sive poli­cies that is very much akin to the Pa­cific way of shar­ing and car­ing.

Ms Ardern was quoted by NewsHub in 2018 on New Zealand’s “in­de­pen­dent for­eign pol­icy”.

Al­lud­ing to United States for­eign pol­icy she said: “We’re al­ways re­spect­ful re­gard­less of whether we agree with others.

“But we have our view of whether or not we’re in align­ment on (US) cur­rent ap­proach to for­eign af­fairs.”

Per­haps show­ing that New Zealand was go­ing in a par­al­lel tra­jec­tory to Aus­tralia, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Peters in his Syd­ney ad­dress at the Lowy In­sti­tute on March 1, 2018 re­it­er­ated New Zealand’s new pro­gres­sive think­ing.

He spelt out the for­eign pol­icy ob­jec­tives un­der­pin­ning this huge shift to­wards the Pa­cific.

Mr Peters em­pha­sised that New Zealand was an in­te­gral part of the Pa­cific due to its lo­ca­tion, its very large Pa­cific de­mog­ra­phy, and a “shared Pa­cific des­tiny”.

The nu­ance was not lost that New Zealand would stand with the Pa­cific on is­sues dear to their hearts. Mr Peter said that New Zealand’s for­eign pol­icy was sup­ported by the guid­ing prin­ci­ples of un­der­stand­ing, friend­ship, mu­tual ben­e­fit, col­lec­tive am­bi­tion, and sus­tain­abil­ity.

Although this is stat­ing the ob­vi­ous, Mr Peters re-em­pha­sised it be­cause there had been a view that New Zealand and Aus­tralia should be treated as de­vel­op­ment partners in the Pa­cific Fo­rum.

At the Pa­cific Is­lands Fo­rum lead­ers meet­ing in Tu­valu in Au­gust 2019, Ms Ardern said (dur­ing tense dis­cus­sions on cli­mate change is­sues) that she agreed with Pa­cific lead­ers that Aus­tralia should take cli­mate change is­sues se­ri­ously although she re­spected that its re­liance on coal was an in­ter­nal mat­ter that Aus­tralians would need to proac­tively deal with.

Her stance was in line with New Zealand en­vi­ron­men­tal poli­cies that ban new off­shore oil and gas ex­plo­ration and aims to gen­er­ate 100 per cent of en­ergy from re­new­ables by 2050.

Ms Ardern’s de­ci­sion to side with Pa­cific is­land lead­ers (rather than Aus­tralia) with an en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sue that is very dear to their hearts caused a stir in some me­dia cir­cles in Aus­tralia.

The Pa­cific De­vel­op­ment Aid Land­scape

Hav­ing worked for a New Zealand gov­ern­ment funded pro­ject on civic ed­u­ca­tion for United Na­tion De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme and trav­el­ling around the Pa­cific, I was con­fronted with an un­com­fort­able truth.

The small is­land na­tions of the Pa­cific are com­plex places for ef­fec­tively un­der­tak­ing de­vel­op­ment aid pro­jects. It can be ex­as­per­at­ing if the fund­ing mod­els are not adapted to is­land con­di­tions. In many is­land com­mu­ni­ties, it is frowned upon to dis­agree with guests (es­pe­cially those who have pro­vided funds for com­mu­nity pro­jects).

This means that re­cip­i­ents of aid say things they feel the vis­i­tors want to hear rather than be­ing hon­est and an­a­lyt­i­cal.

I re­mem­ber a pro­ject in a Fi­jian com­mu­nity where flush toi­lets were built for a school. A year later the toi­let block re­mained in its pris­tine con­di­tion used mainly by vis­i­tors. The re­cip­i­ents sensed that there would be a fol­low-up visit and wanted to show that the donor funded pro­ject still looked as good as new! Many such sto­ries abound in the Pa­cific. This brings me to my point about New Zealand di­plo­matic staff in­hab­it­ing the Pa­cific de­vel­op­ment aid space.

Com­pared to em­bassy/high com­mis­sion staff of three other na­tions I am fa­mil­iar with, I would rate New Zealand very high in in­ter­per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions.

They have the ta­lent for small talk, self-dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour and af­firm­ing in­ter-per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions. This is very im­por­tant given that it is a way of for­ma­tively mon­i­tor­ing pro­jects.

They move around Pa­cific com­mu­ni­ties, find out what the chal­lenges are and deal proac­tively with it on the spot.

They can be friendly, but also blunt in a re­spect­ful way. They do this with ease be­cause they are con­sid­ered part of the Pa­cific fam­ily. I have a sense talk­ing to United Na­tions and non-state agen­cies that re­ceive NZMFAT fund­ing that there will be closer scru­tiny of how New Zealand tax­payer funds are con­tribut­ing to the over­all im­prove­ment in the lives of or­di­nary cit­i­zens in terms of demo­cratic gov­er­nance, health care, Small and Medium En­ter­prises and ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties. One of the NZMFAT strate­gies em­pha­sises the “de­liver(y) of the best achiev­able out­comes from the re­sources in­vested in it.” There is a move to­wards an in­te­grated ap­proach so that a pro­ject, say on com­mu­nity health, will in­te­grate cli­mate change mit­i­ga­tion, civic ed­u­ca­tion and good gov­er­nance with the pro­viso that it “sus­tains healthy and high per­form­ing com­mu­ni­ties.”

This im­plies that mul­ti­lat­eral agen­cies, for ex­am­ple, do not concentrat­e all their en­er­gies on Gov­ern­ment Min­istries but also carry out for­ma­tive Mon­i­tor­ing and Eval­u­a­tion on tar­geted com­mu­ni­ties.

There is also a feel­ing that dur­ing the NZMFAT Strate­gic In­ten­tions Pe­riod (2018-2022), there will be some role for non-state agen­cies with links to civil so­ci­ety given their low over­head costs and their ex­pe­ri­ence in grass­roots em­pow­er­ment.

One NZMFAT strat­egy stresses the im­por­tance of “en­able(ing) ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient de­liv­ery through fit for pur­pose and re­silient net­work, sys­tems and ser­vices.” There is a never-end­ing de­bate on whether NZ and Pa­cific-based non-state agen­cies might have more pos­i­tive im­pact and get pre­mium re­turns with New Zealand aid funds than Euro­pean-based ex­perts in mul­ti­lat­eral agen­cies, at­tired in Ver­sace dresses and Hugo Boss blaz­ers pre­sent­ing glossy pub­li­ca­tions with all the right KPI boxes ticked while the prob­lems re­main un­changed in the tar­geted com­mu­ni­ties.

Pro­gres­sive model for the Pa­cific

Ms Ardern has brought a breath of fresh air into the Pa­cific mixed with a gen­er­ous dose of pro­gres­sive poli­cies.

These poli­cies af­firm or­di­nary cit­i­zens to earn a de­cent liv­ing, have ac­cess to hous­ing and strengthen so­cial safety nets.

The strate­gies aim to dras­ti­cally re­duce the inequaliti­es that ex­ist be­tween the rich and the masses. Ms Ardern’s gov­ern­ment has also in­tro­duced paid parental leave that will go up to 26 weeks by 2020.

Fam­i­lies with ba­bies get $40 a week in the child’s first year. Fiji has also in­tro­duced a sim­i­lar pol­icy with ba­bies re­ceiv­ing $1000. A newly-en­acted New Zealand law al­lows vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence to get up to 10 days paid leave (dif­fer­ent from an­nual leave and sick leave).

Pa­cific pol­i­tics tends to be dom­i­nated by as­sertive men who think in terms of money, power and priv­i­lege. In her pol­icy speech to the UN in Oc­to­ber, 2018, Ms Ardern called for kind­ness and co-op­er­a­tion from world lead­ers and said that New Zealand would be “a kind and eq­ui­table na­tion where chil­dren thrive, and suc­cess is mea­sured not only by the na­tion’s GDP, but by bet­ter lives lived by its peo­ple.”

I was pleas­antly sur­prised while on a taxi from Welling­ton Air­port, to have the driver point out Ms Ardern be­ing driven in a sedan without a mo­tor­cade. I gath­ered that she does her own­ing shop­ping.

This kind of hu­mil­ity from state lead­ers who prac­tice what they preach sits very well in Pa­cific com­mu­ni­ties.

New Zealand Pa­cific “Reset” Pol­icy

Mr Peters’ for­eign pol­icy speech in Syd­ney was framed in the re­gional main­stream me­dia as a strat­egy for main­tain­ing in­flu­ence amongst its Al­lies in the Pa­cific and keep­ing China at bay. Some­times the me­dia goes off on a dif­fer­ent tan­gent to what is orig­i­nally in­tended.

What should be noted is that there are com­pet­ing for­eign pol­icy ar­chi­tec­tures in the Pa­cific.

There are sim­mer­ing un­der­cur­rents of com­pe­ti­tion be­tween PNG and Fiji who both see them­selves as be­ing the hub of the Pa­cific, and by ex­ten­sion, dy­namic lead­ers who speak on be­half of the Pa­cific on the global stage.

In Fiji’s case, it’s years in the po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness os­tracised by the Pa­cific Fo­rum, Aus­tralia and New Zealand (due to up­heavals) made it cast its net to­wards non-tra­di­tional power sources.

These valu­able friends were help­ful in Fiji get­ting the Pres­i­dency Po­si­tion of the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly in 2016 and the Pres­i­dency of COP23 in 2017.

Fiji also re­ceived a hefty grant from the Global Cli­mate Fund.

In 2018, Fiji was elected into the United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Coun­cil gar­ner­ing the sec­ond-high­est num­ber of votes among all can­di­dates.

Vir­tu­ally all ma­jor United Na­tions, re­gional and in­ter­na­tional agen­cies have their of­fices in Suva.

Per­haps recog­nis­ing that one of Fiji’s mo­ti­va­tions in tak­ing up these po­si­tions is eco­nom­i­cal, past New Zealand gov­ern­ments pro­moted mer­can­tile poli­cies that em­pha­sised trade links. This worked well with Fiji. Past New Zealand gov­ern­ments had their re­deem­ing qual­i­ties and worked well to ex­pe­dite aid de­vel­op­ment pro­jects and trade. My per­sonal favourite is for­mer Min­is­ter of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade Murray McCully. He had a long in­sti­tu­tional mem­ory cou­pled with a hands-on ap­proach that kept ev­ery­one on their toes. He had the ta­lent of sens­ing what would work and what wouldn’t.

In Fiji, he came into promi­nence dur­ing the very chal­leng­ing days of Cy­clone Win­ston when red tape had to be done away with for relief and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion work to be car­ried out ef­fec­tively. In July 2019 he re­ceived the Or­der of Fiji.

Ms Ardern’s soft power ap­proach with Fiji has worked well for both coun­tries.

She has im­plied that New Zealand has no am­bi­tions of be­ing the hub of the Pa­cific or of treat­ing the Pa­cific as its “patch”. It wants to in­still Kiwi val­ues of good gov­er­nance, trans­parency, rule of law and democ­racy which is just fine with Fiji.

For his part, Mr Min­is­ter Bain­i­marama has spo­ken up for Ms Ardern on two oc­ca­sions. The af­firm­ing rap­port should au­gur well for Pa­cific re­gion­al­ism.

China and New Zealand

China is an­other im­por­tant fo­cal point in the Pa­cific and its star has risen significan­tly af­ter Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son’s lack­lus­tre per­for­mance in Tu­valu. Pa­cific coun­tries have found as­sertive voices be­cause of China’s sup­port. Coun­tries like Fiji, Samoa and Van­u­atu go out of their way to ac­tively speak up for China in the re­gional and global press. Samoan Prime Min­is­ter even told TVNZ that “Their en­e­mies (Aus­tralia and its al­lies) are not our en­e­mies”.

Van­u­atu has even gone as far as to recog­nise China’s rights to the South China Sea.

With the largest wharf fa­cil­ity in the Pa­cific (be­ing looked at with very keen in­ter­est) and their fa­cil­i­ta­tion of West Pa­pua go­ing very well through UN pro­cesses, they also fancy their chances of be­ing the cradle of Me­lane­sian civil­i­sa­tion, and by ex­ten­sion, the true hub of the Pa­cific.

Per­haps the big­gest loser in the re­gional power play has been In­done­sia. In the 2018 Fo­rum Meet­ing in Nauru, In­done­sian di­plo­matic sources ap­peared to side with Nauru in the spat against Chi­nese diplo­mats. Pres­i­dent Baron Waqa like the au­thor­i­tar­ian villain “Scar” in Lion King is “yes­ter­day’s mes­sage” hav­ing lost his par­lia­men­tary seat. West Pa­pua was dis­cussed at the Tu­valu Pa­cific Fo­rum meet­ing and this dis­pleased In­done­sia.

Since tak­ing of­fice Ms Ardern has tended to go with the strat­egy of con­struc­tive en­gage­ment with China. In her China Sum­mit Speech in May 2018 she ad­mit­ted that, “nat­u­rally, there are ar­eas where we do not see eye to eye with China”.

This is nor­mal and to be ex­pected with any coun­try, es­pe­cially where we have dif­fer­ent his­to­ries and dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal sys­tems. We can do this be­cause we have a strong and a ma­ture re­la­tion­ship - a re­la­tion­ship built on mu­tual re­spect; and a re­la­tion­ship that is re­silient enough for us to raise dif­fer­ences of view, in a re­spect­ful way. This is a sign of the strength and ma­tu­rity of our re­la­tion­ship.


New Zealand’s for­eign pol­icy strength boils down to Mr Ardern’s per­cep­tion of her po­si­tion. She is not over­whelmed by the power and trap­pings of be­ing Prime Min­is­ter. In Jan­uary 2019 she was asked by for­mer US Vice-Pres­i­dent Al Gore what she would say to world lead­ers who didn’t be­lieve that cli­mate cri­sis is real.

“You don’t have to cede power by act­ing on cli­mate change. There’s noth­ing to fear about your in­di­vid­ual sta­tus ... This is about be­ing on the right side of his­tory.

“Do you want to be a leader that looks back in time and say that you were on the wrong side of the ar­gu­ment when the world was cry­ing out for a so­lu­tion? It’s as sim­ple as that.” The soft power ap­proach that moves away from mea­sur­ing eco­nomic growth mainly in terms of GDP to­wards a “well­be­ing bud­get” that looks holis­ti­cally at the health of or­di­nary peo­ple and their en­vi­ron­ment should auger well for the Pa­cific con­cerned about the ur­gency of pro­mot­ing pro­gres­sive poli­cies on sus­tain­abil­ity.

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