Pacific Island Nations are Vital, Valued and Increasingly Connected

Hon. Lotoala Metia,
Minister of Finance & Economic Development, Tuvalu,

Hon. Tom Murdoch,
Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Kiribati

H.E. Ratu Meli Bainimarama,
High Commissioner of Fiji to Malaysia and Perm. Rep. to ESCAP

Excellencies,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Introduction

The poet John Donne once wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. Donne’s message was that we are all connected. Shared prosperity requires shared responsibility.

The Pacific Island developing countries are often seen as separated by the ocean from each other and mainland Asia. We can see the Pacific as islands in an ocean of isolation, or we can choose to see it as an ocean of opportunity, with islands that are vital, valued and increasingly connected to our region and our world.

I was honoured to visit a number of our Pacific island nations with the Secretary-General last year, and to have met so many of you at the Pacific Island Forum. It therefore gives me great pleasure to welcome you to Bangkok, to ESCAP, and this meeting of the Special Body on Pacific Island Developing Countries.

This forum provides the Commission with an opportunity to discuss the important regional contribution of our Pacific member States, and particularly the challenges facing Pacific island countries in the pursuit of inclusive, sustainable, and resilient development.

The timing of this meeting couldn’t be more important. Expo 2012, in Yeosu, Korea, is already well under way – exploring the theme of ‘The Living Ocean and Coast’. And in just over a month, the world will meet in Brazil for the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – which will also examine the ocean economy as a major building block in our path to a more sustainable future.

Excellencies, distinguished delegates,

Pacific Economic Resilience

One area of Pacific wisdom has always been the ability to weather rough seas and violent storms. Given the ESCAP focus this year - on growth prospects amidst global turbulence – a good starting point for our discussion is the economic outlook for the Pacific.

Benefitting from higher commodity prices, and a partial rebound in tourism in the second half of the year, the Pacific improved from a 4.6% growth rate in 2010 to 6.5% in 2011. Even excluding Papua New Guinea, subregional growth improved from 1.6% to 3.5% last year.

Our ESCAP 2012 Economic and Social Survey, launched last week in 33 locations around the world, predicts slowing growth across Asia and the Pacific in 2012. For the Pacific island developing economies, the forecast is that this year will see growth rates fall to 5.7% (from 6.5% in 2011) - mainly as a result of lower growth in Papua New Guinea, although global economic turmoil is also likely to reduce revenues from both exports and tourism across the subregion.

We know that the structural challenges faced by the Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS) heighten their vulnerability to environmental and economic shocks. Production, transport, and service delivery costs, for example, are higher in the Pacific than in any other area. The challenges of isolation, size, and small populations make establishing stronger economic bases and promoting foreign investment deeply challenging.

We also know that climate change is the single biggest threat to the Pacific – which is why it was a focus of the United Nations Secretary-General’s participation in the Pacific Island Forum last September.

While the regional price tag for natural disasters in 2011 was a massive USD 265 billion, for many smaller island nations, these risks go well beyond economic costs. For our Pacific member States, climate change threatens their existence and natural disasters would bring not just economic collapse, but total disappearance. This is why it is so critical for the Pacific voice to be loudly heard at the Rio+20 summit.

Improving the resilience of Pacific island developing economies - to weather the shocks of future economic turmoil and the impacts of climate change - is an ongoing challenge.

Excellencies, distinguished delegates,

Boosting Pacific Social Development

Another key issue for consideration today is that the strong economic performance of some Pacific island developing countries has not been accompanied by strong development gains.

We are in a race against time to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, and despite good GDP growth, Pacific progress towards the MDGs has been patchy.

The message from our latest Asia-Pacific MDG Report is that reducing disparities, especially though the narrowing of gender gaps, and creating inclusive economic and social opportunities, holds the key to a big final push to 2015 on the MDGs.

Across the Pacific, countries are facing a youth ‘bulge’, with the age group between 15 and 24 accounting for a third of the entire working age population, compared to an average of 17 per cent across Asia.

This proportion is even higher in urban areas, as young people migrate to towns and other countries in search of education and jobs – often emptying villages and even whole islands.

We must translate this bulge into a youth dividend, reaping the benefits of youth energy, enthusiasm and innovation by better engaging the talents of youth. High unemployment rates, especially among women and young job-seekers, will limit growth and threaten the social fabric if not addressed.

The 2012 ESCAP Survey makes a number of policy recommendations to support more inclusive and sustainable development. Amongst those most applicable to our Pacific discussion are:

1. Maintaining macroeconomic stability and improving fiscal positions;
2. Managing the balance between growth and inflation, so that the poorest communities are not worst affected;
3. Addressing jobless growth and unemployment - especially among women and youth, through job creation opportunities and encouraging domestic consumption to drive growth and productivity, improve working conditions and address income equality; and
4. Dealing with the risks of disasters to protect the most vulnerable people and key social and economic assets.

As our Pacific island populations become increasingly urbanised, there should also be growing recognition that urban areas can be real engines of economic growth. Pacific governments can respond to this trend with better integration of national and urban planning.

Excellencies, distinguished delegates,

Rio+20 – The Pacific Perspective

A key part of our discussion today must be the incorporation of Pacific concerns about climate change, sustainability, and collective management of the ocean economy as a common good, into our regional preparations for Rio+20.

The main theme of the Summit is “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty alleviation”, and the perspectives of the island states must be voiced by our Asia-Pacific delegations.

A clear message that we should carry with us to Rio is that, for Pacific island countries, the ‘green economy’ is very much a ‘blue economy’, given the importance of the sustainable management of the Pacific Ocean and it’s vast resources to both growth and people.

Our joint UN and Pacific Island Forum statement last year stressed that climate change and ocean acidification remain the greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific. The statement also emphasized the critical importance of sustainable development, management and conservation of the region’s oceans, coastal areas and fisheries, reaffirming the unique and particular vulnerabilities and development needs of the SIDS.

You will also recall that at, the end of the five-year review of the Mauritius Strategy for Further Implementation, the UN General Assembly agreed that the vulnerability of small island developing states remains and is increasing, but coping capacity is not. It was also agreed that the SIDS need “concrete and additional measures” and a more balanced and integrated approach if they are to achieve sustainable development.

In July 2011, the Government of Samoa hosted the Rio+20 Pacific Preparatory Meeting, co-funded and co-organized by ESCAP. In regional processes, and at the global level through the Alliance of Small Island States, the messages from Pacific SIDS have been clearly articulated, namely that:

1. The special case of Small Island Developing States, first made at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, needs to be maintained and strengthened;
2. The Pacific Ocean which, at a third of the earth’s surface is one of the greatest global commons, needs a much stronger collective commitment to its sustainable management and development;
3. Effectively addressing the climate change threat is fundamental not only to the sustainable development and survival of Pacific small islands developing States, but also to the future of the region and the planet;
4. While all the Rio principles need to be reaffirmed, one in particular need to be highlighted: the principle of common but differentiated responsibility; and
5. The need for commitments that are new, additional and concrete, including special measures or “safeguards” within the new institutional framework and architecture which ensure the implementation of the Mauritius Strategy.

Excellencies, distinguished delegates,

Conclusion: Changing the Pacific Narrative

There is no doubt that this will be the Asia-Pacific century. Let us take full advantage of our region by better connecting Asia and the Pacific.

While the challenges we face are formidable, the narrative of the Pacific islands should be defined by opportunity, not adversity.

Our Pacific nations must be seen as stewards in search of support - curators of our largest natural global assets – the oceans on which human life itself depends.

The Pacific Ocean covers a third of the Earth’s surface and provides countless ecosystem services critical to the wellbeing and survival of the whole of humanity and our planet. It is a truly regional and global resource. The health of the Pacific, and it’s effective and equitable management, is critical to Pacific island countries but is equally a regional and a global responsibility.

Returning for a moment to paraphrase the work of John Donne: if a single island is washed away by the sea, all of humanity is diminished.

Let me end by wishing you a most productive and meaningful dialogue.

Thank you.