Battle of the Pacific Forum : But is it really worth it?

APIA: Today, leaders of the Pacific will decide who will be the next Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), the most contentious undertaking in recent history for the regional body.

As Dame Meg Taylor ends her six years as SG, five candidates have put their hats in the ring for the role, causing a political ruckus in an otherwise uneventful Taylor tenure. Many have analyzed the various political implications of the role, which lets face it, is an understandably coveted position with the usual trappings of a high-level posting in the Pacific. The holder will steer the direction of the Forum, rub shoulders with heads of Pacific Governments and from time to time represent the region in global affairs, of course the nice house, the six figure salary, diplomatic protection and black cruiser is also a nice addition.

The contenders, Marshall Islands UN ambassador Gerald Zackios, former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, Tongan international civil servant Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua, former Fiji foreign minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola and Solomon Islander Former DG of SPC Dr. Jimmie Rodgers.

All contenders are leaders and respected experts in their fields supported by their respective sub-regions. Their merits have been the focus of many articles on this issue, but there’s been little focus on the actual effectiveness of the role in making meaningful change in a region which has become the most recent landscape for political power plays by the likes of China, US and the United Kingdom.

The Micronesian nations have threatened departure of their five member countries if their candidate Zackios is not appointed to the role. Many have pointed to the risk this would be for the stability of the region and the solidarity among Pacific nations. But the threat, although only time will tell if they follow through, is worth noting. If they depart, what do they actually stand to lose?

It’s often argued that PIFS is the premier regional body of the Pacific and that it therefore automatically holds a valuable place in the governance and peaceful workings of the region. But, PIF has not added value to regional governance for a long time. It has added narrative to be certain, and has paid lip service to the collective will of the Pacific islands, but as an entity it has failed to constructively contribute to regionalism and represent the Pacific in a meaningful manner on a number of issues at the global front. Any efforts on environment, health, agriculture and other development issues, have fallen squarely on the shoulders of the council of regional organizations of the Pacific (CROP).

So for the Micronesian nations threatening to leave, the move may not necessarily have a negative impact on them, apart from the natural political ego bruises that come with such a move. PIF does note offer specific funding streams, regional programmatic presence, a voting bloc at major conventions or any notable technical support for these five nations that they cannot get elsewhere.

The five Micronesian nations will continue to benefit from the technical and substantive support of CROP agencies as they continue to be members of SPREP, SPC, FFA and others. As such, the benefits derived from these regional organizations will continue irrespective of Forum membership.

So, as the Leaders vote for the PIF SG today, one has to wonder, is the battle truly worth it, when the battleground leaves a lot to be desired.

Justin Fa’afia

Political Correspondent, Pacific Environment Weekly

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