Date: 01-31-2001

HONOLULU -- Leaders of Pacific island nations grappled today with the forces of democratization and globalization that are hitting them at the same time, with some protesting the global economy and others asking for help to join it.

“Who is benefiting from this globalization?” asked Dr. Terepai Maoate, prime minister of the Cook Islands. “We’re still being used as puppets. It’s time to get ourselves together and fight.”

Leaders from 19 island nations gathered in Honolulu for the Sixth Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders sponsored by the East-West Center. The conference theme is “In an Era of Globalization: How Do We Care For and Share with Others?”

Fiji’s interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said democratic government is often incompatible with traditional government, which is based on consultation and consensus among leaders and elders. “Along comes liberal democracy and we are told it’s good for all of us and we must follow it,” said Qarase, who was appointed prime minister by the military after last year’s coup in Fiji. The validity of the interim government has been legally challenged.

The dilemma that faces many Pacific island leaders is that some democratic principles “can destroy out culture and tradition.” Qarase added that the solution to his country’s problems “lies within Fiji. What appears to be interference from the outside will probably worsen the situation.”

The premier of Niue, Sani E.L. Lakatani, leads a tiny nation that has globalized its economy, but it’s backfiring. Last Friday he learned that U.S. banks had stopped payments from international businesses that have offshore licenses in his country. Niue, Cook Islands, Marshall Islands and Nauru are included on an international black list of 15 countries suspected of failing to cooperate in the fight against money laundering.

Lakatani said his country expected to collect $1.6 million in fees this year from international businesses, a crucial income. He said his government has moved legislation to stop any possible improprieties and has helped investigators. “I feel like my own small nation was kicked in the stomach by the powers of the world. Define this globalization. Who are the beneficiaries?”

Dr. Tetaua Taitai, secretary to the cabinet of Kiribati, said globalization “goes against our cultures and traditions. Globalization seems to be a one-way street, benefiting only the economically strong.”

Leaders from Papua New Guinea, American Samoa and the Marshall Islands, however, asked for help in joining the global economy by entering more international agreements and gaining expertise from developed nations.

Robert Kiste, director of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, said Pacific island nations have the highest per capita foreign assistance in the world, most from Asia. Instead of strong economic development, however, the nations have developed “bloated bureaucracies” and too much dependence on aid. There’s new focus on government mismanagement and corruption. But islands also face great difficulties in nation-building because of the large numbers of languages and cultures within a single nation. He also noted that half of the 7.75 million people in the Pacific islands are under 16.

“Lots of us are suspicious about using the Western model of modernization as if it’s the only recipe,” Kiste said. “The new rules of globalization are being set by people who don’t care about small places.”

Gerard Finin, a Pacific islands expert at the East-West Center, said the legacies of colonial rule, lingering effects of Cold-War politics, the powerful forces of globalization and failed Pacific government policies have contributed to the problems facing the island nations. Foreign countries that remain the most engaged in the region–Australia, France, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan–have at times pursued regional policies that may have “inadvertently increased the chances of instability.” Responses to crises in Fiji and the Solomon Islands “seemed to demonstrate little understanding of regional dynamics.”

Institutions like the World Bank “have a long way to go in seeing that the Pacific region is different from Asia,” Finin said. The new “reform” agenda of economic development based on transparency, good governance and privatization has “so far shown greater concern for economic growth than it has for equity or social stability” and “stresses global economic growth rather than national development.”

Gerard Finin can be reached at 808-944-7751 or
This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center