This week it was my pleasure to welcome delegates to the 50th meeting of the Committee of Representatives of Governments and Administrations (CRGA), and our very first virtual session.
Virtual meetings are obviously not the same as an in-person talanoa but we were able to work through small technical issues and had engaging discussion on the many pressing subjects currently unfolding in Pacific countries.
This was my inaugural CRGA as the Pacific Community’s Director-General. When I took up this role earlier this year, I expected there would be challenges. However, I think it is safe to say that the impact of COVID-19 in our region has reshaped the work of SPC in ways that that none of us could have imagined.
I would like to acknowledge the enormous support I have received from three people in particular. SPC’s DD-Gs Audrey and Cameron have assisted and supported me this year with full professionalism and commitment. I must also thank Efi Rex who quietly carries most of SPC’s corporate knowledge in her well-ordered brain. Efi has looked after many Directors-General over the years, and I benefit from her wisdom every day.
The Pacific today is in the midst of possibly the greatest crisis to hit the world since the second world war. It is also a time where the carrying capacity of the earth is perched at a dangerous tipping point due to climate change. The criticality of our decision making is greater than ever, and the need for evidence based data and evidence has never been higher. There are many serious challenges still unfolding and the voices and guidance of our members is of utmost importance to SPC.
Despite the challenges and complications, I am very pleased to say that the Pacific spirit of cooperation, consensus and community has remained strong. I want to express my thanks to our members, partners, and staff for their continued dedication to this organization - and to the people of the Pacific.
Of course, this commitment and dedication should not come as a surprise to anyone. It is merely the latest example of how our community rises up to meet common challenges. SPC’s history is testament to this.
Reflecting on our 73-year history, SPC’s evolution has been shaped and influenced by a number of very significant global and regional events:
- The end of the second world war saw the strengthening of cooperation and collaboration between partners and the distinct cultural geographical gems of the Pacific – Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia
- The maturing democracies of island countries and territories over the last 60 years – gaining independence and becoming more self-reliant over time and developing significant collective political influence
- Growth of multilateralism and geopolitics through the birth of multiple regional agencies
- The realisation of climate change and its implications on our resources, islands and people
- A number of cyclic global food, fuel and economic crises
At its very inception, SPC recognized that the region’s future would depend on strengthening the skills and opportunities for its island inhabitants (then ~3 million people). This meant supporting social and economic development across the region with a specific focus on: capacity building, healthcare, agriculture, fisheries, good governance, as well as strengthening shipping services that form the backbone of the Pacific economy and cultural connections.
Throughout the years there have been fundamental changes across the Pacific, most notably: the independence and maturing of Pacific nations and territories; growing infrastructure for trade and telecommunications; growth in populations and urbanisation; new development opportunities like tourism; and the expanse of multilaterals and regionalism.
But our core work has remained consistent—investing in the region’s people: health, education, culture, social development, resilience, livelihoods, natural resources and sustainability.
This investment in the fundamentals of people-centred development, data and information, is the common strand across the tapa of our past, and will continue to serve as our guide towards the future.
COVID-19 is an unprecedented global crisis, heavily impacting on us all and will no doubt continue to do so for many years into the future. We are also cognisant that this crisis sits atop a few very serious slow burns including: the status of the health of our people, climate change and a growing economic and environmental debt.
But thanks to the Pacific’s long tradition of cooperation, our region is uniquely placed to take on the challenge successfully. Together with our founding members, sister CROP agencies, invaluable partners such as the European Union, United Nations, and many other regional and international development partners, we are doing our best to track, understand and respond to these multifaceted impacts on all our Pacific countries and territories.
The leadership demonstrated by this region in response to COVID-19 has been impressive. Pacific leaders have been trusting in science and medical expertise to ensure that the safety and wellbeing of their people has been the top priority. While we cannot ignore the current economic challenges, the number of infections and fatalities in our region has been minimal, and as a result, the region will be ready to rapidly scale up once this crisis has passed.
Every global financial crisis is followed by pressure for an economic recovery, even if that means taking on increased debt. In the Pacific however, we know that debt comes in many forms, financial, environmental and social. Focusing on one of these at the expense of the others is not a sustainable path to the future.
That is why SPC’s post-COVID-19 recovery plan will continue to emphasise investment in climate change resilience and adaptation, the need for sustainable natural resource management and the importance of protecting our cultural heritage.
We believe that the long-term investments in SPC’s science, data and information systems are paying dividends today. We have strong regional public goods, such as the public health surveillance system, statistical collections, our plant genetic resources and fisheries monitoring capacities. This is helping to inform our decisions and actions going forward and ensure a responsible recovery and targeted transformation.
It is also timely that our region’s leaders have laid down a clear call to action and highlighted the need for strengthened regionalism through the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. We are fully engaged in and supportive of this work which will help to strengthen our regional architecture required for its successful implementation. We have been working closely with Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and other CROP agencies in this regard.
The CRGA today includes the voices of 26 Pacific countries, islands and territories who collectively represent the largest region on earth. Our Blue Pacific Continent is rich in resources, traditions and opportunities. By continuing to invest in our people and working as a region towards our common Pacific sustainable development goals, I believe that this region can be a global model through these challenging times.
Looking back on our achievements from our previous 49 meetings, coupled with the tools, determination and partnerships we have today, positions us to help our members address these challenges and chart a sustainable pathway into the future for our people and region.