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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Pacific in 2007: the winners and losers [Foreign interests vs Pacific Islanders]

By: Ron Crocombe

The big trends all have positive and negative potentials and the changes will be seen as good or bad depending on one's point of view. Overall, however, the winnings look to be on the side of foreign interests and the losses to be heaviest among indigenous Pacific Islanders.

We assume there are no major calamities this year-and no major windfalls.

First, independence will shrink a little further. External involvement in the Pacific Islands is increasing. The big international organisations controlled by the major powers led by USA (World Bank, Asian Development Bank, World Trade Organisation, G8, OECD, etc) are all pushing for changes that will lead to more external control of Pacific Islands governments, economies, commerce and people. More of the big decisions are being made from abroad, though often presented as local decisions.

Second, more national responsibilities will be taken over by regional organisations that give more control to foreign governments that supply funds and staff-at a very high cost. This is a by-product of the pressures mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Third, this will lead to further centralisation on Suva to the benefit of Fiji and the further disadvantage of all other islands nations, as the main external governments continue to promote Fiji as the centre through which they manipulate the region.

Fourth, more of the available resources will be spent on centralising bureaucracy, on coercion, control through political, legal and economic processes, and educational courses legitimising the external legal and economic controls, and on high-cost, low effectiveness consultancies and contracts. Less will be available for health, education, infrastructure and other improvements to people's lives.

Fifth, influences from Asia, particularly China, Japan, Taiwan and neighbours, and possibly Indonesia, are likely to continue to increase and those from Australia, New Zealand, USA and Europe to decline relatively. This is probable in almost all fields, as the proportion of trade, investment, aid, media, diplomatic and strategic activity, education and other aspects of interaction increases from Asia relative to the West.

Western governments will expand their activity to counter that from Asia, but it will not alter the long-term trend.

Sixth, Pacific Islanders are likely to get a little poorer relative to the other countries they deal with. World Bank figures show that in the 31 years from 1965 to 1996, growth rate per person in Asia averaged 5.5%, in the "West" (USA, Europe, Australia and New Zealand) 2%, but in the Pacific Islands no growth.

Thus the average person in East Asia earning $1000 in 1965 would be earning $5547 by 1996, in the West $1885 and in the islands the same $1000. The reality is that whereas many in East Asia were poorer than the average in the islands in 1965, more are now richer. The gap continues to widen and the biggest nations of Asia (China and India) are growing at 8% to 9% or more per year.

Seventh, the rich-poor gap within the islands is likely to continue widening. All the above factors lead, or drive, in that direction. And ethnic divisions in income and other benefits seem to be widening, with those of Asians and Europeans rising and the average for Pacific Islanders static or falling, despite a very small proportion of Pacific Islanders also having high incomes, education and other advantages.

Eighth, consumerism will rise, as people are persuaded to consume more useless commercial products and services to impair their health and increase their poverty-although they will appear in the statistics as increases in income because more will be commercialised in line with the framework and philosophy being imposed from the now dominant world bodies, and from many aid agencies.

Two recent minor examples are the aggressive advertising of Milo as creating super-humans to addict children to sugar, worsen their health, lower their parents' incomes and welfare, but increase the wealth of foreign businesses.

Likewise some foreign banks are vigorously promoting loans up to $2000 to low income people at exorbitant interest rates to entice them to take trips and trivialities they cannot afford. They are small examples of widespread patterns.

Ninth, these factors will almost inevitably increase crime and dependence as gaps widen, more people lose confidence in the ethics of the system, and give up trying to reach the unreachable. More Australian or other (including Fijian) soldiers and police, and more lectures about governance, will not overcome the basic problems.

Tenth, non-replaceable resources will be further depleted. Timber exploitation is far above sustainable levels. Serious attempts are being made to preserve fish stocks at sustainable levels, but it is a hard battle. All will wish those fighting for long-term sustainability the very best in their efforts. Some minerals are in ample supply, but the important issue is to ensure Pacific Islands peoples and their governments obtain a more equitable share of the benefits from them.

Eleventh, the new Cold War lines are likely to continue to tighten with Australia rallying the Western nations to support its management of the region, while China competes to replace the dominance of the region by present and former colonial powers.

Both sides are driven primarily by their own self-interests, which both claim to be that of Pacific Islanders. There will be some wins for Pacific Islanders (in extra payouts and concessions from both sides) and some losses (in shrinking sovereignty and independence), and the danger that in the competition between the elephants some of the grass gets crushed.

Twelveth, Polynesians and Micronesians will continue to emigrate to Pacific Rim nations, and Asians to immigrate to the Islands. Of the Pacific Islanders who leave, a small but growing number go to Asia. Islanders in Asia have done very well in a variety of professions, but the scope is limited.

Melanesian people have few outlets and their populations are growing fast. Without effective population control and employment opportunities, their chances of even maintaining their present low levels of income, education, health and infrastructure, are not encouraging.

The proportion of Europeans in Pacific Islands populations is declining and that of Asians increasing. This is true of new citizens, business operators, workers, residents and tourists.

Already nearly 90 percent of tourists to the Micronesian countries and territories are Asians. The proportion is growing in the South Pacific and will surge as the new tourism arrangements with China are set in motion.


2007 promises to be an exciting year. Hopefully the military dictatorship in Fiji will be overcome. The military will keep the people poor by insisting on a much larger, more expensive force than needed, which the people have to pay for, and the military is likely to demand a veto over actions by any elected government.

There is a danger of a similar effect in the Solomon Islands if RAMSI continues to use the funds available on controls to suit Canberra's interests and perspectives, including lavish living for expatriates in Honiara, while the rural majority and even most of those in town are left to languish as at present.

Everyone continues to benefit from the many people of integrity and goodwill in governments, private businesses, churches, NGOs and other activities who continue to provide quality goods and services, and are prepared to think and act on the long-term needs of their communities and peoples, despite all the difficulties.

They are the hope of the Pacific for 2007.

Ron Crocombe is an Emeritus Professor who is regarded by many as the academic father figure of Pacific studies.

Source: Islands Business

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