Governance and the Survival of the Pacific Islands

Following the COP21 in December 2015, the Pacific islands have a chance at survival in the face of an increasingly changing climate. Along with other small islands and highly vulnerable states, Pacific island advocacy achieved concessions to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius in the outcome document, the Paris Agreement. It is a huge win for all countries in the region.  

Ideally, the major emitters of greenhouse gases will bear the brunt of the work that needs to be done to ensure that that target is achieved, but in reality, the Pacific islands will need to continue to lead to hold signatories to the Paris Agreement accountable to the targets agreed, as well as lead in terms of adaptation, risk managment and sustainable development. It is not a time to rest on the happy achievements of December, and it is not just climate change that the Pacific islands must address, but the Sustainable Development Goals as a whole, and the significant work to be done to achieve resilient, sustainable communities.

Governance will be the hinge upon which success on all points related to the SDGs and climate change turns. Governance – planning, budgeting, implementation, monitoring, reporting, accounatbility and transparency in all government work – is absolutely necessary for sustainable development and resilient communities – from the community level through to national government; for both elected officials and civil servants. Poor governance was one of the primary reasons that only five of the countries in the Pacific achieved more than half of the MDGs, with three (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Kiribaiti) achieving non at all. However, this is unsurprising if you follow developments on governance and transparency (and accountability) in the Pacific.

In November 2015, the foundations of governance in Vanuatu were shaken as the Speaker of the Parliament (and Acting President while the president was on a state visit to Samoa) pardoned himself and 13 other Members of Parliament on charges of corruption for which they had been found guilty one day earlier. It would have been laughable if it wasn’t so demoralizing. But it was, because the idea that there are standards of good behaviour dissipated.

And then in early January, the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands flew in the face of governance by handing out three million Solomon Islands dollars to former combatants of a conflict that ended in 2003. Part of the demobilization amd reintegration process, he said. Again, 2003. And it was only to combatants from one side of the conflict with promises of money to others ‘sometime this year’. Let’s not hold our collective breaths. This incident simply reinforced that Solomon Islands doesn’t have government so much as it has keepers of the bank book.

These two incidents were bad enough, until a report was released this month about drought relief in Papua New Guinea. In a country that has incurred disastrous impacts from El Nino, the findings of the report were damning at best. If put under the spotlight of international humanitarian law, because it should be categorized as a humanitarian crisis, the actions of government border on criminal. Funds for drought relief go through local government committees chaired by elected officials and stacked with political appointees. Evidence suggests that the funds are directed to villages that supported the MP during the election, while other villages are resigned to fending for themselves.

Patronage politics is by no means rare in the Pacific, or most countries to be fair. But recently it seems to moving to a new level – as in a complete disregard for even pretending to things like checks and balances (and the rule of law). I would go for it and simply blame greed and corruption, but there is more to it than that.

These are countries which regularly experience votes of no confidence and changes in government. For example, there have been 19 prime ministers in the past 24 years in Vanuatu. In Solomon Islands, there have been 16 Prime Ministers (that is, the Prime Minister’s office has changed hands 16 times since independence in 1978). Papua New Guinea has a slightly better record. People have gotten so used to changes in government that elections become more about ‘what can I get out of it’ than a real concern for policies and the direction of the country. ‘Vote with your stomach’ is a popular refrain in the region.

Pacific islanders have also, for generations, been reliant on community rather than central government given the remotness of many islands and communities from the seat of national government. Communication and transportation options are often limited and unreliable, so expecting government to resolve problems is unrealistic, particularly if the situation is urgent. The resilience and self-reliance of communities impacted by Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu is case in point – some communities only received visits from their elected officials, with token supplies of a few bags of rice, more than a month after the cyclone hit. In the mean time, the community had already set to work clearing roads and rebuilding houses.

There is also the issue of having become over-reliant on the handouts from elected officials in exchange for votes. The state of affairs is so dire in some places that one wonders how communities can continue to survive or have dreams for the future. In one small island province in Solomon Islands, there are no shops – not even kiosks selling cigarettes and soda. Kitchen gardens are absent as well. The entire community is reliant upon packages of food from elected officials sent by plane twice a week to various households – some one week, some another. When the plane lands, the entire community descends to see who is getting food. And maybe cigarettes. The community is so reliant on elected officials for food and other necessities that as long as the politicians keep sending stuff, the people will keep voting for them.

In all communities, the church and village elders are the primary forms of local governance (versus government). Customary traditions and governance (locally known as Kastom or Kustom) are not necessarily incompatible with more formal, Westminster-style approaches to governance (read more here, here and here) but given the often very low capacity of local government to deliver services and promote sustainable developmemt, it is churches and elders who fill the gap. People expect little from the government beyond handouts or money in exchange for votes, caring little for the corruption that takes place at upper levels as long as they continue to benefit. Which leaves elected officials basically free to do what they want without too much worry of the ballot box ‘checks and balances’, until they come up against the High Courts or a vote of no confidence. And then it’s the other side’s turn.

It highlights the root of poor governance in the Pacific, in particular the countries mentioned above. When you effectively have parallel systems of government at the level of governance that matters most – the local level – and the general population has little concern about the actions of elected officials at the national level, you have a big problem. When you trace it back, you see that voter awareness of what elected officials are supposed to do, and understanding of what types of services government should be providing, is lacking. When a governance system relies so heavily on ballot-box accountability but the voters are not aware of or educated about how important their role at the ballot box is in the long term regarding the resilience amd overall survival of their community, the entire system is at risk. Look at Papua New Guinea, where patronage politics is causing unnecessary deaths, and in Solomon Islamds where it has become so severe one could reasonably tick off the first box on the slide to failed state status. In Vanuatu, there was better news, with the return of the President seeing the pardon vetoed and the errant MPs sentenced for their corruption crimes. There, at least, the legal system is strong. But with that many MPs now in prison, a general election had to be called. And so yet another change in government.

In theory, in a democracy, elections hold government accountable to the will of the people. But when the election process becomes corrupted by politicians taking advantage of a lack of voter awarenes, then corruption becomes the basis of government and governance is in question.

Pacific islanders know that their very survival is at stake. Food insecurity, rising water levels, new diseases – all are issues that communities cannot deal with alone no matter how much we, as the international community, push the idea of risk management and community resilience. In theory, with the SDG framework in hand, and opportunities to utilize the framework to their benefit, communities in the Pacific can both survive and thrive. In practice, however, much relies on the capacity and behaviour of elected officials to ensure that the money and resources needed to meet these goals is equitably disbursed, and accountably managed. So much relies on the quality of governance and adherence to the rule of law at all levels of government that it is a priority the ensure that voters are made aware of this as well. Voter education is needed on how elected officials should be providing opportunities and not just handouts if we are to see the successful implememtation of the SDGs and an effective response to the Paris Agreement. We need to ensure that governance accomodates Kustom, while simultanteously educating against the perils of extreme partronage politics – and patronage voting. The survival of Pacific communities depends upon it.

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