Pacific futures: James Kember reports on the NZIIA's recent conference in Auckland.

Author:Kember, James
 
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In partnership with the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Pacific Cooperation Foundation and with support from the University of Otago, the NZIIA organised a one-day conference in October 2019 focusing on the influences and the challenges facing the Pacific region. While the institute's national conferences tend to be held in Wellington, the decision to hold this conference in Auckland allowed for a strong presence from a number of locally-based Pasifika representatives, as well as underscoring the NZIIA's role as a national institution.

By the various yardsticks of over-subscription, trending on social media, the involvement of and focus on youth and the buzz of discussion amongst delegates--government, non-government, community and business--this conference was arguably a success. Four-fifths of the speakers were from the Pacific, as were half the participants. It was also timely: as Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said in his keynote address, the challenges facing the region are the greatest in 70 years; and it was important to know who was on board to address these. Having announced back in March 2018 a 'Pacific reset', and warning that New Zealand should not be taking its relationship with the region for granted as more countries competed for influence, Peters outlined some of the changes made in the intervening months, including some recalibration of initiatives, additional, well-targeted, funding and a focus on partner-based solutions. One example was the growth in the numbers able to participate in the regional seasonal workers' scheme to around 350, which translated into $40 million of remittances to home countries in the Pacific. New Zealand, he said, had to have its eyes wide open as new security challenges and climate change had implications for the well-being of the islands states, as well as for New Zealand itself. A new generation of Pacific leaders were appearing; and they deserved the fullest encouragement.

New Zealand support, the minister commented, had not only to increase in dollar terms but also to be of a sustainable nature. Growing the New Zealand footprint in the region was part of the shift in engagement. He credited the United Kingdom with similar efforts and noted the role of Australia as a 'critical partner'. The EU and Nordic countries were also being encouraged to do more. In lifting engagement, it was necessary to bring greater understanding by the New Zealand media that far from being a 'do good' or feel good, this engagement had a far-reaching impact, including on New Zealand itself. A number of later speakers spoke in similar vein, the role of media being identified as one of the more pressing issues for change.

Reset panel

In the first panel session, on the Pacific reset and the role of partner countries, Vanuatu's Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu suggested that New Zealanders were inclined to think of the Pacific in terms of Polynesia, and to overlook Melanesia. As Vanuatu would graduate from least developed country status next year, it was important for partner engagement to focus on capacity development given that some sources of funding would stop at the point of graduation. This point was echoed later by the Cook Islands high commissioner, Elizabeth Wright-Koteka, her country similarly being poised to lose its LDC status (and access to some funding sources). The high commissioner spoke of 'swimming in a sea of initiatives' and of her country more than ever needing greater control for itself over the aid...

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