Another Pacific plan, really?

2019 Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting, Tuvalu
2019 Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting, Tuvalu (ABC News/Melissa Clarke)

The Pacific Plan was suggested by an Eminent Persons Group in 2003 to provide “an overarching strategy for the region”. It was agreed via the Auckland Declaration at a 2004 special Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) meeting and adopted a year later by PIF leaders. Its aim of “peace, harmony, security and economic prosperity” for all of the Pacific people was to be pursued by initiatives grouped under four pillars: economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security.

The Pacific Plan failed to live up to its expectations. Almost a decade later, the findings of the Pacific Plan Review were presented to leaders at the 2013 Majuro Forum. As highlighted by this 2013 Devpolicy blog, the review, led by former PNG PM Sir Mekere Morauta, was politely scathing. The review said that the region needed regionalism more than ever, but that the Pacific Plan had gone about it the wrong way: it was too technocratic and lacked political support. This led to the May 2014 Special Forum Leaders Retreat and the new Framework for Pacific Regionalism.

The new Framework aimed to streamline the regional agenda and ensure leaders had “high level, political conversations on the Pacific’s regional priorities”. Accordingly, it set up a new process for the identification of priorities and their endorsement by leaders.

In line with this new approach, prior to the 2015 Leaders meeting, the Forum Secretariat issued a public call for  submissions for proposed regional initiatives. 68 were received. Proposed initiatives were then assessed by a specialist sub-committee on regionalism and five were put forward to leaders. These were: increased economic returns from fisheries and maritime surveillance; climate change and disaster risk management; information and communication technology; West Papua; and cervical cancer. All were considered by leaders, some more enthusiastically than others.

Another three initiatives were endorsed in 2016, relating to: persons with disabilities; oceans; and regional mobility and harmonisation of business practices. In 2016, discussion of these eight initiatives consumed paragraphs 4 to 27 of a 46-paragraph communiqué, so the Framework was definitely front and centre.

So far, so good, but thereafter the Framework for Pacific Regionalism quickly lost momentum. By 2017, the “Blue Pacific” narrative was gaining traction, there was no further mention of any specific Framework initiatives, and only three of its original eight initiatives were discussed (fisheries, West Papua and climate change). In 2018 and 2019, the Framework hardly rated a mention in the leaders’ communiqué.

The 2019 leaders meeting also agreed to a new “2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent”, which would include both “a long-term vision” and “a carefully considered regionalism strategy” (paragraph 5 of the 2019 communiqué).

The 2050 Strategy was meant to be ready for consideration by leaders last year, but there was no Forum leaders meeting in 2020. When the 2050 Strategy will be ready is uncertain, but the more fundamental question is why it is needed. The harsh reality is that neither the Pacific Plan nor the Framework for Pacific Regionalism had traction. Both were adopted with great fanfare and then quickly lost momentum. Why will the 2050 Strategy be any different?

Plans are only useful if they drive real change. Is a new plan or “carefully considered regionalism strategy” really needed now, given that previous efforts have delivered so little? A greater focus on learning the lessons of the past, and on meaningful implementation, would be more likely to improve the lives of people across the Pacific.

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Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is the Director of the Development Policy Centre and a Professor of Economics at the Crawford School.

Sadhana Sen

Sadhana Sen is the Regional Communications Adviser at the Development Policy Centre.

5 Comments

  • It’s good to think ahead, as we are often told. Strategy 2050 makes one think that in a rapidly changing world, how far ahead should we think? Is there such a thing as thinking too far ahead?

  • Key benefits of multilateral organisations are that they provide opportunities to build communities among their members and for members to exchange views and learn from each other. All such organisations, however, struggle with the detail of how to construct opportunities for these benefits to occur. Rather than look at the limited outcomes of these efforts, it might be more interesting to look at the benefits of the processes and the underlying convergences they can build, which are particularly important for small isolated island states. Are there better processes tied to more specific outcomes that can be built? There probably are, although I’m a bit sceptical of always seeking very specific outcomes for every long term strategic discussion. Driving towards specific outcomes is a different sort of discussion and process.

    • It’s a vexed problem isn’t it!

      We all have an innate desire to form groups and plan together, but from the footy club to the UN it’s another thing entirely to follow through without being distracted by the next big thing. The way ahead needs to be grounded and to appear sufficiently achievable if it is going to work out. But the best plans will also have a measure of inspiration.

      When I read this article yesterday I was frustrated that it seemed to be saying ‘why bother’? Looking again today I think that its intention is to be more constructive than that, saying that any plan needs to get practical. I agree, but I think that the article misses the importance of inspiration.

      The Pacific Plan has been criticised as being overly technocratic. The Framework for Pacific Regionalism seems to have been overtaken. It implemented some tantalising consultation processes but may have lacked both inspiration and a plan for grounded implementation.

      Perhaps the Blue Pacific has that inspirational component that the others lacked, which is why it has shouldered the Framework to one side. The Pacific as the Ocean Continent speaks to Pacific identities and values in ways that the earlier initiatives did not, which may create stronger imperatives for longer term collaboration and the survival of the idea.

      It is interesting to read the piece by Eerishika Pankaj that was published on the Lowy Institute blog this week (https://t.co/E4bp5hWxsX) which explores the relationship between the Blue Pacific and the ‘Quad’. It’s a useful indication of the weight that the Blue Pacific concept can have, both in the region and beyond. Hopefully that can transcend the shortcomings of any individual strategy. The Blue Pacific is too compelling an idea.

  • I totally agree with your commentary.

    PNG is a typical case where government rushes to draw up new policy & plans but never implement them.

    It ‘s good to raise awareness to these domestic and regional failures. It would be good to involve the private sector more in these debates as policies and development plans affect investment etc.

    • Hi Bernard, Thanks for your comment. PNG famously produced its Vision 2050. You can debate the value of that, but at least it didn’t try to produce a Strategy 2050 – which is what the Pacific Islands Forum is now trying to do. It is really hard to see the value of that – especially at this current time of great uncertainty.

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