The Old is Dying – The 2020 Pacific Island Forum Leaders Meeting.

Photo by Alexander Marinescu on Unsplash

In a DevPolicy post on 19 January 2021, Stephen Howes and Sadhana Sen question the need for the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific currently under development by the Pacific Islands Forum. The basis for their questioning is the failures of the previous attempts, namely the Pacific Plan and the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. Rather than a new plan, Howes and Sen argue that what is needed is to learn the lessons from the past and implement such lessons effectively.

What to make of this? Perhaps a first interpretation is to see the intervention as just another effort from ANU academics to shape the policy debate on behalf of their masters, the Australian government. Indeed, the government of Australia has been lukewarm at best on the idea of the 2050 strategy from its inception, seeing it as something desired more by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat than Forum members themselves. With the Pacific Islands Forum readying itself to appoint a new Secretary General, Howes and Sen perhaps saw the opportunity to lay the ground for the incoming boss to do away wth the development of the 2050 strategy. In this context, it would appear that the process undertaken by Forum member countries to develop the 2050 strategy has been nothing more than an attempt to bide time until the new SG arrives and the strategy can be put to rest. 

Secondly,  we can agree with Howes and Sen that we don’t need another version of the Pacific Plan or the Framework for Pacific Regionalism (FPR).  The former was simply a “Donor Aggregating Device” or “DAD” (to borrow the term “Fish Aggregating Devices” from tuna fisheries industry) set by CROP agencies and government officials. The  FPR on the other hand simply sought to put responsibility for the setting of “DADs” into the hands of Leaders while at the same time trying to give the general public a chance to influence the choice of DADs set by Leaders. In short, the FPR was a tool for the political-economic status quo – maintaining the region’s dependencies and vulnerabilities while reinforcing liberal fantasies of inclusivity and participation. Indeed, the fact that both plans ‘were adopted with much fanfare and then quickly lost momentum’ attests to the fact that their true purpose was precisely to give the illusion of change while in effect changing nothing. In this guise then, the 2050 strategy should be thoroughly rejected. 

nothing of the old system must stay.  Rather, and simply, everything must change for the Pacific if it is to secure its future.

Nonetheless, something is needed to change the development prospects for the region, particularly in the face of a global climate crisis and the financial crisis exacerbated by COVID. But what? Howes and Sen suggest that rather than a new plan the region simply needs to learn the lessons of the past. It is not clear which particular lessons they have in mind. But we should be clear that the key to our future survival lay not in the past but is oriented toward the future, no matter how vague and contested that future may be. Even more pointedly, we should demand what Sreko Horvat puts more generally and in the clearest possible terms, that nothing of the old system must stay.  Rather, and simply, everything must change for the Pacific if it is to secure its future. Therefore, what is urgently required now is not the careful deliberation of certain ‘facts’ and learning the lessons from the past but rather acts of courage grounded in nothing but the imperative for total change.

As described in an earlier post, such an act of courage was on display at the Forum Leaders’ meeting in Tuvalu in 2019 where for a moment a small group of courageous Island Leaders directly challenged Australia in the name of meaningful change, rather than the pursuit of development financing. The suspension of power relations and the opening for change created by these courageous leaders was quickly killed however, precisely as a result of the careful consideration of ‘facts’ and a desire to maintain the system of old. Since then the system of old has further entrenched itself in the region.

Tomorrow as Forum Leaders gather virtually for their deferred 2020 meeting and to choose a new Secretary General, the possibility of the end of the Forum looms in the background as a result of the threat posed by Leaders from the Micronesian Region. It will be here that further acts of courage are required. Courage from the Micronesians to keep their promise to withdrawal, and courage from other Pacific Island Leaders to let the Forum disintegrate. It will require courage to step through this opening and build alliances vertically and horizontally across the region with the aim of doing the impossible – of bringing an end once and for all to the existing power relations that perpetuate our dependencies and vulnerabilities. This is how we should action the call for a 2050 Strategy – not as developing a carefully considered plan or strategy but as a placeholder for keeping open the possibility for change, as a signifier of the death of the old world and an opening towards the new, as a call to mobilise!

This will require the courage of Leaders to step forward and lead a movement for reclaiming Oceania and its future. A movement that says a resounding “NO!” to the system of old; ”NO!” to the Pacific being used as a strategic and military outpost for US imperialism; “YES!” to our environmental sustainability by effectively accounting for our ecological value; and “YES!” to establishing the necessary infrastructure and technology that will guarantee our resilience and allow Pacific Islanders to remain on their islands.  Perhaps more controversially, this means saying “YES!” to China’s Belt and Road Initiative – that is, a collective Pacific agreement with China (just as South East Asia and Europe have already done) – whilst also saying “NO!” to China – that is, resisting shady black market banks and investors and resisting the extractive and exploitative practices that impact our people and environment on the ground. 

To quote the title of a book by Nancy Fraser, “The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born”. Let tomorrow be the birth of a new Oceania. Let everything change so that nothing remains the same.