Swept under the pandanus mat: the Review of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat needs to be taken seriously

The Leaders’ Meeting of the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum was held in the Cook Islands in late-August. The event was attended by delegates from over 60 countries, including high level dignitaries such as Hillary Clinton (first time for a US Secretary of State), and resulted in new donor funding in a range of areas, especially gender initiatives. Widespread media coverage highlighted the continued importance of the event.

Largely ignored by the meeting was a damning review of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), the premier regional organisation that supports the Forum, is responsible for implementation of the Pacific Plan, and is the permanent chair of the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific (CROP).

The Review of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat was commissioned by the Forum Officials’ Committee, which oversees the activities of PIFS, and conducted by well-respected individuals in the region. Tessie Lambourne is the Foreign Affairs and Immigration Secretary for the Government of Kiribati and a longstanding member of the Forum Officials’ Committee;  Kolone Vaai is the former Financial Secretary for the Government of Samoa; and Peter Winder has considerable experience in public service management in New Zealand. The range of people interviewed for the review was extensive and included PIFS management and staff.

The review made a number of criticisms of PIFS, four of the most important being that:

  • PIFS lacks ownership by and engagement with member states: reflected in its reliance on donor funding and the failure of some members to send delegates to Forum Officials’ meetings or to ratify the 2005 Agreement Establishing the Pacific Islands Forum.
  • Priority setting is weak and the budget is allocated ineffectively across many different programs. This criticism extends to the Pacific Plan, described as having an “absence of clear priorities or a robust prioritisation framework”.
  • Funding is uncertain: only 18 per cent of revenue has any year-to-year certainty (i.e., regular budget) creating operational difficulties.
  • Institutional overlap occurs between PIFS and other CROP agencies: climate change is designated an area of particular concern in this regard.

Underlying many of these criticisms are “quite significant management capacity and operational issues”. Substantial reforms are recommended to address these matters, including better reporting lines and country input into the prioritisation of activities (which would also improve engagement with member states).

So far, responses to the report have been muted. The Forum Communique [pdf] states that the review’s key recommendations will not be considered until the conclusion of a review of the Pacific Plan in late 2013. It uses the following language:

“Leaders considered the Review Report of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and agreed that in light of the imminent review of the Pacific Plan in 2013, that the recommendations of the Review Report, in particular the restatement of the core business of the Secretariat and its senior management structure be considered as part of the review of the Pacific Plan. Leaders also urged the Secretariat to take into account the Review Report in its ongoing corporate and budget reform efforts.”

This justification for delaying consideration of the review’s most important recommendations is weak at best. The recommendations regarding PIFS core business and senior management structure are broader than the Pacific Plan. They include: a new management structure (expanding the number of Deputy Secretary positions); reaffirming the position of PIFS as permanent chair of the CROP; a role for PIFS in areas outside its core mandate to facilitate coordination of funding from donors; and stronger prioritisation mechanisms involving member states. There is no good reason for tying recommendations to improve the effectiveness of PIFS to a review of the Pacific Plan.

At the same time, PIFS has failed to make the report public, despite a draft being leaked by the masalai blog (available here). Taken together, these responses suggest that the recommendations have not been welcomed.

More strident hostility towards the review was visible in recent comments made by the Prime Minister of Samoa, Tuilaepa Sailele. Prime Minister Sailele labelled suggestions that PIFS does not adequately represent or meet the needs of member states as “stupid” and “arrogant” (comments available here). His comments, although not targeted directly at the review, touch upon its recommendations. The review does not directly state that PIFS has failed to represent or meet the needs of island states, but it comes close in arguing that “the level of engagement between the Secretariat and member states is weak in both directions”, and that “one of the challenges for the Forum, and for the Forum Secretariat, is to be relevant to each individual member state”.

The response of Forum Leaders and PIFS to the review is unfortunate. The report explicitly highlights the strength of PIFS and its unique ability to bring together leaders from across the diverse Pacific Islands region. Also, the criticisms raised by the review are hardly new. There is a widespread view that the regional architecture (including PIFS and the Pacific Plan) is ineffective due to institutional overlap and a diffusion of effort across many areas.

The Review of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat is an attempt by serious people with considerable experience in PIFS to investigate whether such views have substance. Their recommendations need to be seriously considered, not just swept under the pandanus mat.

Matthew Dornan is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre.


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Matthew Dornan

Matthew Dornan was formerly Deputy Director at the Development Policy Centre and is currently a senior economist at the World Bank.


  • I would suggest that the review of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat is a particularly sensitive document in the context of the upcoming review of Pacific Plan (to be undertaken in 2013).

    The draft review of the Forum Secretariat argues that the Pacific Islands Forum should develop a ‘second generation Pacific Plan’. The review’s authors argue however that Forum member states need to take greater responsibility for the Plan and that one practical way this might be done is to establish a new ministerial level group to oversee the Plan’s implementation (in addition to the annual leaders’ meeting). They suggest such a ministerial group could meet in conjunction with the existing annual Forum Economic Ministers’ Meeting and that this would help to ensure that regional initiatives are better reflected in the national priorities of Pacific governments (and vice-versa).

    Whether these recommendations will be supported by Pacific governments remains to be seen. I think it’s fair to say that political commitment to the Pacific Plan has been tested in recent years. The diplomatic stoush between Fiji and Australia and NZ has drawn away some of the oxygen from Forum-wide initiatives, and the ‘gains’ to island countries from regional trade negotiations have been less-than-inspirational so far. Political energy has also been put into ‘subregional’ initiatives – like the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Polynesian Leaders Group – and Forum consensus is being tested by how the region deals with non-independent territories (New Caledonia and French Polynesia for example).

    It’s good to see that public consultations about a ‘second generation’ Pacific Plan are planned, and that public submissions can be made directly online. The next couple of years will be very interesting with regard to the future of Pacific regionalism, and the future role of the Forum Secretariat is likely to be up for discussion for some time yet.

  • Seini and Pacific Watcher

    Thank you both for your intriguing “insider” perspectives on the Review.

    I’m still unclear why the Review has not been made public though. Regardless of its quality or the decision to postpone its consideration, I would have thought public disclosure (together with a response – possibly from FoC?) would pre-empt comments that the Review is simply being ignored. On that matter, I’d be interested in finding out whether it is a simple matter of a delay, or whether a decision been made to actually keep it confidential.

    • Hi Matthew,

      As I noted in my earlier comment, the public attention given to the Review by Leaders in their communiqué, and by the Secretary General in his recent media release, are responses in the public domain that indicate the Review report isn’t being ignored.

      The Review was commissioned by Forum Secretariat Members, and accordingly it is a matter for the Members to decide whether to make the report from the Review publicly available (or direct the Secretariat to do so). I can’t speak to their positions, so you may wish to contact the Governments involved to seek their informed views.


  • Hi Mathew,

    It’s great that you took this opportunity to look beyond the excitement of Clinton’s visit to consider other highlights of the recent Leaders’ Forum in Rarotonga. Your post touches on two important review processes that were discussed at the Forum—one completed earlier this year (the Review of the Forum Secretariat), and one just beginning (the Pacific Plan Review). It’s also important to encourage discussion of these Reviews from an informed position, and on that basis I feel the need to comment and address a few of the inaccuracies in your article.

    Firstly, it is incorrect that the Review of the Forum Secretariat was largely ignored by Leaders at the Forum. There were many pressing (and competing) issues that could have been considered in Rarotonga; not all could be covered, yet the Review of the Forum Secretariat featured on the agenda of several of the meetings held. And as you noted, that Review had a special mention in the Leaders’ Communiqué, which captures the issues Leaders felt most important to comment on.

    Nor has the Review been largely ignored by the Forum Secretariat. Prior to the Leaders’ meeting, the report from the Review was discussed in depth by the Forum Officials’ Committee, which considered each of the recommendations in turn, and agreed with Forum Secretariat on a path forward. As the Secretary General noted in a recent media release, he has committed to “press ahead with on-going reforms of our corporate and budgets systems in-line with the recommendations of the recent organisational review”. He emphasised that “Reform and improvement of the Secretariat is ongoing business; and the Secretariat is moving ahead with many of the recommendations of its review”. The report hasn’t been swept under the mat—it is being seriously considered. I will leave it to other readers to follow the link you provided and determine if your assessment of the Review report’s content is fair.

    You also asserted that “There is no good reason for tying recommendations to improve the effectiveness of PIFS to a review of the Pacific Plan”. Actually, I agree with the Leaders of the region that there is a good reason for holding off on a few of the suggested changes until we know the outcome of the Pacific Plan Review. The Review will be a comprehensive evaluation of the Plan’s success thus far and an assessment of where it should lead. The Review may lead to revisions to the Plan that have implications for the strategic direction of the Forum Secretariat (perhaps even for our regional architecture as a whole). Doesn’t it make sense to have an up-to-date and robust regional strategy clear before deciding that indeed the Secretariat needs three Deputy Secretary Generals, for instance, instead of the current two (a recommendation that would have obvious costs but as yet uncertain benefits)?

    The good news is that we will not have long to wait until the outcomes of the Pacific Plan Review are on the table. The first stages of the Review process have already begun, and it will be completed by the time of the Leaders’ meeting next year. It is planned to be a much more consultative process than the Review of the Forum Secretariat, involving visits to all countries in the region to talk not only with officials but with a range of non-state actors and other regional agencies. And there will be an online portal to allow public submissions and enable people to follow the progress of the Review team. There are opportunities for us all to get involved in the weaving of future Pacific strategies, which in turn may determine the future patterns of our region’s institutions.


    These are exciting times for the Pacific—and not just because important dignitaries have been visiting and donor pledges have been made – but also because genuine efforts are underway, through an open and consultative process, to review the strategic underpinnings of regional cooperation. Both the past Review of the Forum Secretariat and the upcoming Pacific Plan Review will play a role in what lies ahead.


    (Disclaimer: I am currently employed as the Pacific Plan Adviser at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, but am commenting here as an individual, not as a representative of other Secretariat staff or Forum members).

  • Those with experience in Pacific politics know that nothing – NOTHING – is ever as it seems on the surface. There are very good reasons why very few in the region are taking this report seriously. Perhaps you need to do some investigation into Peter Winder’s relationship to Murray McCully, particularly his role in the reorganisation of MFAT/NZAID, and do a bit of research into how the report was written. Then you may find the reason why eminent, highly knowledgeable people are responding in a way you feel is “unfortunate.”

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