Supporting Good Governance in the Pacific

  • photo courtesy of  Nathan Rupert
    Jul 31, 2014

    Recent developments in the Pacific Islands have shown that the region faces two contrasting political tendencies—a deep-seated attraction to democratic governance and a proclivity for disruptions to democratic stability. Given these trends, which offer at once an opportunity and a threat, it is surprising that the United States, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in particular, is not more focused on supporting good governance in the region. 

    USAID returned to the Pacific Islands in October 2011, opening a new office in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. This was an essential recognition of the region’s growing importance to the United States, and of the significant hurdles the small island states still face. The mission, which serves 12 countries, has focused on those threats seen as most severe, and in some cases existential, to the Pacific Islands—climate change adaptation, sustainable development, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and health care, especially combatting HIV/AIDS.

    The agency has paid far less attention to supporting governance in the Pacific. But the United States ignores questions of governance at its peril: states plagued by ineffective government and political turmoil are far less capable partners for U.S. development agencies. Supporting the resiliency of democratic institutions in an aid-receiving country has wide ripple effects and is always a good investment for a donor.

    The two heavyweights in the Pacific Islands—Fiji and Papua New Guinea (PNG)—offer prime examples of the struggle for democratic stability and good governance in the region. As such it is unsurprising that USAID’s only governance missions in the South Pacific are focused on these two countries.

    In PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has increasingly sought to place himself beyond the reach of the parliament and police. In two and a half years at the helm, he has regularly clashed with the legislature, courts, and other arms of government, seeking to extend the executive’s power, especially by reducing oversight and raising the threshold for ousting the executive. O’Neill is clearly worried about a repeat of his own rise to power, which sparked a months-long constitutional crisis after his election was deemed unconstitutional.

    In the most recent saga, an anticorruption unit on June 16 served O’Neill with an arrest warrant for allegedly authorizing nearly $30 million in fraudulent payments to a law firm. The prime minister responded by ordering the task force disbanded, firing the attorney general and deputy police commissioner, and adjourning the parliament for two months. The courts have since intervened, allowing the task force to resume operations, but it is unclear whether O’Neill’s arrest is still possible, since he has stacked the police leadership with loyalists willing to block any such attempt.

    If political stability in PNG appears to be eroding rapidly, developments in Fiji offer equal parts of hope and trepidation. A 2006 military coup set Fiji on a democratic backslide, which turned into international isolation when junta leader Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama refused to hold promised elections in 2009. But the country now appears on the cusp of a return to at least nominal democracy, with nationwide polls scheduled for September 17. International election observers will be on the ground to ensure the vote is free, and the international community is moving steadily toward welcoming Fiji back into its good graces.

    It is also increasingly clear that the vote will not be entirely fair. Bainimarama’s newly founded Fiji First Party had an effective head start in campaigning and enjoys the advantage of media saturation and thinly veiled official support. Opposition parties, meanwhile, were subject to steep financial and logistical hurdles to registration and found their leaders harassed, including former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who so far remains banned from contesting the elections.

    The democratic travails of PNG and Fiji clearly need the United States’ attention. But the rest of the region cannot be overlooked. And in an era of fiscal constraints, USAID should be looking at those small island states where relatively meager investments could offer outsized returns.

    Vanuatu, for instance, has gone through three prime ministers since its last elections in 2012, making it something of a poster child for political instability. Current prime minister Joe Natuman took office on May 15 and is already fending off opposition attempts to bring a no-confidence motion against him. He has little room for complaint, having brought one unsuccessful confidence vote after another to the floor of the parliament during the brief 14-month tenure of his predecessor, Moana Carcasses, before finally ousting him.

    The incessant intramural squabbles at the top echo throughout Vanuatu’s government, where retaliatory firings, poor transparency, and rapid bureaucratic turnover have led to sometimes shocking lapses in governance. A prime example is the Health Ministry, which has inexplicably allowed the Port Vila Central Hospital, the country’s main health facility, to burn through its entire 2014 budget in just six months.

    Similarly, the Cook Islands appears to be gearing up for a protracted political battle following elections on July 9. Initial counts from the polls signaled a convincing opposition victory until the late addition of hundreds of votes turned the tide in a few key electorates, including by saving the seat of Prime Minister Henry Puna and ousting opposition leader Wilkie Rasmussen. Given the small size of most constituencies in the Cook Islands (Tamarua has only 60 registered voters), vote tampering, or buying, is relatively easy to accomplish but should also be easy to prevent through effective monitoring and greater transparency.  

    And these are only the most pressing examples. Opportunities to give much-needed governance support are ripe throughout the Pacific—from the Solomon Islands where an Australian-led regional assistance mission is coming to an end more than a decade after ending a civil war, to Tonga where the parliament has struggled to create a much-needed effective corruption watchdog more than six years after passing an Anti-Corruption Commissioner Act. For a relative pittance, USAID could establish programs to bolster democracy and governance in the Pacific’s small island developing states and by doing so reap benefits in other key areas, from climate change adaptation to sustainable development and improved health care.

    (This Commentary originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

    Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.