The Economic and Political Impacts of the Regional Processing Center on Nauru – Genevieve Neilson

In 2018, Nauru celebrates 50 years as the world’s smallest independent state. To prepare for this milestone, President Baron Waqa seeks to put Nauru on a sustainable development path. However, its economic future is clouded with uncertainty because Nauru’s revenue sources are undiversified and closely tied to Australia’s immigration policy. Australia’s asylum seeker policy has garnered considerable criticism from international human rights groups, but Nauru’s perspective of hosting the Regional Processing Center (RPC) has received less attention. With a population of around 10,000 people and a rentier state economy, Nauru has faced several internal political and economic crises in the last few decades. In the short term, the RPC provides revenue sources for the government, employment opportunities for locals, supports population growth and encourages changes in institutions. While the RPC on Nauru has helped to revive the country economically, it has done so with political and social costs that stem from its rentier economy legacy with Australia and the phosphate industry. This paper examines Australia’s historical relationship with Nauru and the economic, social and political impacts of the RPC on Nauru. Rather than progressing into a new era of independence separated from a reliance on resource extraction and processing, I suggest that the RPC extends Nauru’s rentier economy status, which has consequences for the stability of its political and economic environment.

Nauru’s Rentier Economy and Dependency on Australia

Australia has a longstanding colonial history with Nauru that has evolved into a new client-state relationship. Australia administered Nauru as a United Nations Trust Territory on behalf of New Zealand and Great Britain until Nauru achieved independence in 1968. From 1909 to 1967, phosphate was extracted “for the purposes of the agricultural requirements of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand” until it was handed over to the Nauruan Local Government Council (Scobbie 1993). Katerina Teaiwa contends that the history of phosphate extraction in the Pacific reveals “Australia’s deep, organic… relationship with Pacific Islands, and the imperial structures upon which contemporary Australia-Pacific relations are built” (Teaiwa 2015, p. 375). During its administration, Australia built schools, hospitals, as well as apartment buildings and facilities for non-Nauruans who worked in the phosphate industry. Services such as roads, police force, were constructed using the Nauru Administrative Fund. The British Phosphate Commission paid for technology and infrastructure that directly supported the phosphate industry. Naurans meanwhile did not receive their own benefits, as these services were provided for all residents of the island (Pollock 2014).

Historically, wealth created by the phosphate industry was shared unequally and led to reliance on a rentier economy. A rentier economy is one in which “the larger part of state revenues typically comes from exporting natural resources…National revenues originate from outside sources, rather than from domestic productive sectors” (Luciani 1990, p. 71). In a rentier state, the financial revenues go to a “narrow elite” that controls its distribution, potentially leading to illiberal governance and corruption (Pál 2016). Dependence on one export in a rentier economy can shape social classes, regime type, institutions, and decisionmaking for policymakers (Kirkpatrick 2017, p. 4). While rich phosphate enabled Australia and New Zealand to become agricultural producers, it stripped Nauru of its arable land and sense of autonomy. Reliance on rents can “create an inertia that is hard to overcome…to create and promote new patterns of development” (Kirkpatrick 2017, p. 4). With minimal land and no tourism, a formally independent Nauru was destined to live off rents from dwindling phosphate.

Due to internal and external factors, Nauru failed to use its rentier status in a way that could create a sustainable and viable economy. From 1968, the government of Nauru retained revenues from phosphate extraction and used it to fund the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust; however in the 1990s government expenditures and declining exports eventually led to a halt in the industry. To make matters worse, Nauru’s Phosphate Royalties Trust had significant financial investments overseas property markets which went south. At one time one of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita, Nauru was now desperately seeking avenues for government revenue. Between 1999-2002, Nauru attempted to become a center for offshore banking, but a lack of controls led to alleged money laundering. Nauru was placed on an OECD blacklist and was forced to institute tighter banking sector oversight in order for a ban to be lifted (Freedom House 2001). In 2001, the country faced crippling debt and a court case with Japan over unpaid government bonds (Ballantine 2001). By 2003, Australia’s development agency placed Nauru as a priority to avoid it becoming a failed state in the Pacific. Australian Foreign Minister Alex Downer said, “We can’t just abandon Nauru.” From its perspective of colonial oversight, Australia had internal discussions on how to create a clear plan for Nauru to avoid collapse (Forbes 2003).

Offshore Detention: Extension of a Rentier Economy

In 2001, Australia created the ‘Pacific Solution’ to appease the Australian public concerned about the growing wave of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Australia’s policy promoted use of offshore processing centers to disable asylum seekers from entering Australia, thereby discouraging them from fleeing their homeland (Phillips 2012). During the program’s pause between 2008-2012, Nauru attempted to restart phosphate exports. In 2010, in the wake of the global financial crisis and instability in Myanmar and Afghanistan (including an ongoing war in which Australia is involved), Australia experienced an increase in refugee flows. Under the direction of Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, offshore processing centers were re-established by 2012 in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG). In 2013, re-elected Prime Minister Rudd and a coalition government launched Operation Sovereign Borders which determined that irregular arrivals intercepted at sea would never be settled in Australia but rather in PNG, Nauru or another third country (Refugee Council 2016). For Nauru, this meant the refugees could be transformed into a commodity central to the country’s livelihood and relationship with Australia. The detention centers became an extension of Australia’s earlier history with extractive industries, where value is placed on foreign land as part of a major economic and political policy.

Australia’s development aid to Nauru has supported its goal influencing politics and development in the South Pacific. In a speech that both announced the 2013 RPC arrangement with Nauru and detailed more than $90 million in previous aid, Prime Minister Rudd linked the RPC directly to Nauru’s economic situation: “Australia is committed to Nauru’s future development” (India Blooms New Service 2013). For Australia, its assistance to Nauru is a drop in the bucket compared to its total Pacific regional official development assistance. Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu all receive more annual financial assistance, and lack a tangible project as significant as the RPC involving Australia’s government. The peak of Nauru’s aid was in 2002, when ODA was almost 13 percent of Australia’s Pacific island assistance. In comparison, assistance to Solomon Islands reached over 53 percent of its Pacific island ODA between 2005 and 2006 (AusAID 2010). Rather than a strictly aid donor-recipient relationship, Australia relies on Nauru to support its own key domestic policy. And, for a second time, the policy to re-establish the RPC in Nauru came at a pivotal time for a Nauru government facing financial and political instability.

Despite the lack of attention to Nauru, some scholars such as Kirkpatrick (2017) suggest that Nauru has moved to a post-rentier economy. He posits how Nauru will transition to a sustainable economy in the absence of a viable phosphate export industry. This analysis focuses on phosphate processing because it is an obvious commodity and typical scenario of raw material extraction (Kirkpatrick 2017). However, more attention must be given to the centrality of its rented land to process refugees for revenues that are redistributed by a narrow elite. I suggest that Nauru has extended its rentier status with the RPC rather than transitioning to a post-rentier economy. This opens up a new method to analyze Nauru’s economy, political relationships and apply the lessons it learned from its earlier history.

President Waqa has sought to counter some traditional forces of its rentier relationship with Australia but Nauru’s lack of resources has only led to a limited ability to sway policy and take independent positions. Under Nauruan law, the RPC is owned and administered by the Nauruan government. Australia’s role is to fund the RPC and provide capacity development. The government of Nauru assesses asylum claims, and ensures security for the residents (Australia Senate 2015). In addition, Nauru also accepts refugees as settlers. Operations on Nauru cost the Australian government more than $419,425 per person per year and are growing, according to the National Audit Office. According to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “The presence of the RPC has generated substantial revenues for Nauru with a high level of employment (revenue is up from $20 million in 2010-11 to $115 million in 2015-16).” Yet, Nauru faces capacity constraints to effectively use those resources to achieve development outcomes and build resilience.

Impacts on Nauru’s Political System

Nauru’s rentier economy has consequences for its governance. Since independence in 1968, Nauru has been a democratic society that consistently holds free and fair elections, including its election of President Waqa in 2013 and 2016 (Packham 2016). For at least a period, wealth in natural resources can provide stability for all types of governments, authoritarian and democratic alike (Kirkpatrick 2017, p. 4). Yet some have challenged the Nauru government’s commitment to democratic principles in light of its rentier economy. Stewart Firth, in his 2016 article in The Journal of Pacific History, outlines multiple examples where the Waqa government has “undermined democracy.” This includes weakening the judiciary, suspension of Members of Parliament, firing high-ranking public servants and curbing freedom of speech and other civil liberties (Firth 2016). For some of these reasons, New Zealand suspended its official development assistance worth US$750,000 in 2015 (Radio NZ 2015). These examples contradict Australia’s desire to support a stable and prosperous neighbor that can effectively support vulnerable refugee populations. I agree with Firth’s consideration that Australia’s need for Nauru to host its RPC has outweighed the need to condemn or seek to restrain the Nauru government.

Several political crises in Nauru stemming from its rentier economy are complicated by intense personal rivalries. Nauru’s lack of a strong party system means that candidates often run as independents and do not follow a party ideology. Changes in allegiances within government is common. Thus, for operations funded and supported by international actors, the less change in leadership, the better (ADB 2015). Corruption is a critical issue for Nauru (Pollock 2014). In an illustration of Nauru’s political frustrations in 2014, a journalist for The Age wrote that “Politicians in Nauru are elected in the hope that they will resist abusing the privilege of office, as many have before them” (Metcalfe 2014). Allegations have surfaced that President Waqa and Justice Minister David Adeang accepted bribes from an Australian phosphate company in 2009 and 2010. During the investigation in 2013, the police commissioner was suspiciously dismissed (Freedom House 2016). Additionally, Minister Adeang’s wife burned to death and did not allow a formal investigation (Fox 2015). These examples of crises and corruption can be linked to Nauru’s rentier status and create a negative climate for its ability to process and settle refugees.

Nauru has also seen restrictions on the freedom of expression and information during the existence of the RPC. In 2015 allegedly in response to public criticism, the government removed the former manager of internet service provider Digicel and requested that they block all access to Facebook and several other sites. President Waqa maintained that the ban was first to prevent access to pornography, and later to protect Nauruans from bullying (Firth 2016; Farrell 2015). Legal changes were also made to criminalize “‘political hatred’ or any statement deemed likely to threaten public order punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment” (Firth 2016). Australia has taken advantage of Nauru’s remoteness and imposed strict rules on information gathering and release. Most foreign journalists are barred from entry, and the price of a media visa has climbed to $8,000 per application; yet there is no guarantee that the government will allow the request (Doherty 2016). Workers must sign nondisclosure contracts and whistleblowers can be prosecuted (Cohen 2016). The lack of communication has resulted in restricted access to the RPC and controlled information flows.

Major domestic legal changes required for Nauru to prepare for the RPC have centered on security and refugees. Nauru passed two sets of legislation, the Refugees Convention Act 2012 and the Asylum Seekers (Regional Processing Centre) Act 2012. These laws enabled the Nauru government to process refugees for Australia in exchange for financial support. An interim Joint Advisory Committee was established, co-chaired by officials from both governments to provide oversight (Hamburger 2013, p. 3). As part of the Pacific Police Development Program, Australia’s Attorney-General’s Department has worked with the Department of Justice and Border Control in Nauru to replace the Nauru Criminal Code of 1899 with the Crimes Act 2016, and introduce mental health legislation (DFAT 2016; Nauru Government 2016).

These new laws establish the conditions for refugees to be used as a commodity to replace phosphate and help perpetuate a rentier relationship between Australia and Nauru. Pollock (2014) claims that during phosphate mining, “Nauruan autonomy was overridden by external commercial exploitation. The economics of extracting phosphate dominated while humanitarian issues arising from imposed commercial activity were sublimated.” Because of financial, socioeconomic and political problems, Nauru has become a critical pillar of Australia’s development and security policy for the Pacific.

Impacts on Nauru’s Economy

In addition to domestic political changes, the RPC has prompted Nauru to integrate into international organizations and develop more long-term financial planning. Because of its small size, remoteness, and lack of human resources, Nauru is often neglected in international financial statistics, and has only recently become a member of international financial institutions. Statistics vary regarding the island’s GDP growth and per capita income, but it is clear that Nauru is at relatively full employment and the RPC has supported annual economic growth. In April 2016, Nauru became a member of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the organizations’ smallest member by land mass (World Bank 2016). Joining the IMF and World Bank will enable Nauru to have access to more capital and technical expertise and improve its prospects of attaining funding from climate funding mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund. At the same time, these institutions place constraints on Nauru’s policymaking.

The Nauru economy continues to expand, but sources of growth are limited and it is heavily reliant on foreign assistance. The RPC and its related revenue streams dominate, followed by phosphate exports and fishing licenses. As a percentage of GDP, Nauru receives more financial aid than any other Pacific island country (ADB 2014). In 2015-16, Australia provided $25.2 million in Official Development Assistance to Nauru, roughly 20 percent of the Nauru government’s budget. It is no surprise then that Australia is Nauru’s major development partner, along with Taiwan and Japan (DFAT 2015).

Australia’s role in transforming Nauru’s economy to support the RPC through financial assistance, payment for the RPC and technical support is evident. For example, in 2014, visa charges were the largest source of government revenue at $18 million, half of which came from asylum seeker visas paid by Australia (Flitton 2014). Australia maintains a breadth of social, security and economic programs as part of its development agency, but these have implications for Nauru’s ability to host the RPC. The Australian Federal Police run the Nauru Police Force Police Capacity Program which focuses on creating and maintaining “effective governance systems, training and the provision of critical policing resources” (DFAT 2016). Yet, the ADB has been critical of Nauru’s development progress. Education outcomes are improving but still poor. Nauru lacks sufficient residents for key public sector management roles, relying on external technical expertise. According to the ADB, “levels of noncommunicable diseases (i.e., diabetes and cancer) are among the highest in the world” (ADB 2014). Australia’s development programs and direct assistance support areas that reinforce the viability of the RPC like security and infrastructure, but less has been achieved in education and health.

If or when the RPC closes, the Nauru government is shoring up options for long-term financial sustainability. Australia helped Nauru to institute its first income tax in 2016, important for Nauru’s long-term self-sufficiency. In the last 2 years, the government created the Nauru Intergenerational Trust Fund for the people of Nauru (NTF), also with Australia’s support. Sovereign wealth funds help a country to avoid shocks to the economy driven by natural disasters, economic sources, or other uncertainties. According to the ADB, “the purpose of the NTF is to build-up a sufficient principal value that can provide a future stream of public revenue to support investments in education, health, environment and public infrastructure” (ADB 2016). The build-up phase is ongoing and started with Nauru’s $20 million deposit in January 2017.

Both Australia and the international community are concerned about the extent that Nauru relies upon the RPC for its revenues. The Asian Development Bank has warned that “If the RPC is closed, or significantly scaled down, the government could undergo a painful and potentially destabilizing fiscal adjustment. Without access to additional external financing, government spending would have to be severely curtailed” (Rajah 2016, p. 12). Nauru’s GDP has grown from $20,443,291 in 2007 to $100,457,157 in 2015. It peaked in 2014 at $117,023,941. In addition, GDP per capita has gone from slightly over $2,000 in 2007 to close to $10,000 in 2015 (World Bank). While the Nauru government appears to be planning for its future, with or without an RPC, deeper economic analysis is needed to assess long-term implications for its rentier status as it relates to Australia’s asylum seeker policy.

Future of the RPC

The future status of the RPC in Nauru is unclear, as Australia continues to refine its asylum seeker policy. In addition, the existing contractor has stated it will not renew its contract or even rebid in October 2017 (Blakkery 2017). As of March 31, 2017, there were 373 people in the Nauru RPC (Department of Border Protection & Immigration 2017). Current Australian policy precludes anyone who has attempted to travel to Australia illegally from every being allowed to settle in or visit Australia. Having an agreement with Nauru for settlement is handy to appease Australia’s domestic public because it allows the government to still ‘process’ refugees and provide a place, albeit outside of Australia, for them to live. Past practice shows that this policy could change with leadership.

The United Nations, Amnesty International and others have called for the closure of Australia’s Offshore Processing Centers. Primary concerns for critics have been the lengthy time that asylum seekers spend on Nauru to wait for processing and lack of independent security and healthcare provisions (Phillips 2012). In 2013, a major riot broke out which cost $60 million and destroyed most of the RPC buildings (ABC 2013). An official review stated it was caused by the uncertainty that migrants face about their futures and lack of information about their processing status (Hamburger 2013). Additionally, reports by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees show that the detention center on Nauru led to worsened mental health for refugees (UN News Centre 2016). This is problematic not only for the refugees but for those that place the individuals back into society (McKenzie-Murray 2016).

Refugees who settle in Nauru and asylum seekers waiting for processing can provide new economic opportunities for the local community. Currently, the government promotes and participates in events that promote local businesses like restaurants started by refugees. Refugees can provide employment, bring new cultures and a sense of stability. However to effectively be processed and settled into the community they should have sufficient access to resources to cope with their new environment and the situation they have fled.


Nauru remains a rentier economy even though it has replaced resource extraction with the processing and holding of Australia’s unwanted refugees as a primary source of income. Nauru is reliant on its relationship with Australia for RPC funding and aid in order to maintain much needed civil programs and benefits from the contributions of settled refugees. Its continued rentier status also entails problems for its economic future and the status of the country’s democracy. The contract to manage the RPC expires in October, and it is unclear who will step forward to take over the role, leaving the future of the center and Nauru uncertain. Further, the resources including money and infrastructure provided by the RPC are controlled by a small group in Nauru and benefits may not be felt by the whole population. Relatedly, the relationship provides opportunities for corruption in Nauru’s political system. There are ongoing concerns regarding Nauru’s commitment to democratic principles, transparency and press freedom. The development of a rentier economy may hinder democratic processes and promote authoritarian rule.

The RPC places pressures on the small island state to balance its commitments to Australia, international human rights and its public. Nauru shares these concerns with other small states with rentier economies, not least PNG, which also hosts an RPC for Australia. The RPC in Nauru has been established to manage populations fleeing wars, persecution, and impoverishment. We may see an increase of these types of offshore processing centers to manage precarious populations uprooted by man made and environmental disasters. Nauru is an important case study in how these facilities affect local populations.


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Genevieve Neilson is a 2016 Pacific Security Scholar at the Islands Society. She recently completed her M.A. in International Affairs from The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. She also holds a Graduate Certificate from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a B.A. (Honors) in International Relations and Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research interests include foreign policy and trade in the Asia-Pacific region, public diplomacy, and the Chinese language.

Guest commentaries and responses on the Islands Society Blog represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: Moniker via Flickr CC

Bites in Tonga: Media, Development, and Zika – Lora Vaioleti

On Feb 4, 2016, the Tongan government declared it was facing a Zika virus epidemic. At that time, Tonga had two confirmed cases and 265 suspected cases of the Zika virus. Later, three cases were also discovered in New Zealand of people recently returned from Tonga. According to the latest information from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), the practice of enhanced precautions is necessary if traveling to Tonga (or Samoa and French Polynesia) to minimize mosquito contact. However, the WHO has yet to recommend that states should issue travel and trade restrictions on Zika-active countries. The New Zealand media’s role in potentially compounding the developmental challenge of the Zika virus in Tonga is a matter of concern.

New Zealand Media Reporting

Even prior to the Tongan government’s declaration of an epidemic, New Zealand media was already suggesting that a travel advisory for Tonga. Without directly stating causal links, another report included a lone sentence on the fact that Guillan-Barré Syndrome can cause paralysis. On February 7, New Zealand media published a further report entitled ‘Teenager feared to have Zika virus after Tonga holiday’. The teen was reported to have ‘rushed home’ from Tonga and had a ‘harrowing wait’ for diagnosis on her return to New Zealand. From February 8 onwards, new reports from New Zealand media promoted headlines like ‘In Tonga, Zika cases skyrocket’ and ‘Zika epidemic declared in Tonga – travel advisory in place’.

In my opinion, sensationalized media sound-bites flowing from relatively larger nations like New Zealand could well be the ‘bites’ of highest impact for Pacific nations like Tonga. While the long-term health impacts continue to be the focus of research, Zika’s short-term symptoms of fever and headache tend to pass in 4 – 7 days. Moreover, most recent updates from the WHO and CDCP reiterated that causal links between the Zika virus and Guillan-Barré Syndrome, and between maternal infection and infant microcephaly, remain circumstantial. Admittedly, there is a growing body of clinical and epidemiological data points towards a causal role for Zika virus. Ongoing research into causal links throws the integrity of the New Zealand media into question with a report released February 4th stating that the Zika virus ‘had been linked’ to microcephaly in infants.

Tongan Development

Sensationalized media publications, often not reflective of evidence, need to be considered through a developmental lens. Tonga’s capacity to source finance for investment in internal infrastructure including health and disease response is limited. As a geographically isolated Pacific nation limited practically in its access to global markets for trade, it relies heavily on tourism for employment, direct investment and exports. In 2014, travel and tourism contributed a total of TOP 143.9m to national GDP, and directly supported approximately 2000 jobs – over 6 percent of total employment. Predictions by the World Travel and Tourism Council – prior to the Zika virus epidemic – was that tourism contributions to Tonga’s GDP will increase by nearly 6 percent annually between 2015 and 2025. In addition, visitor exports generated nearly 60 percent of the country’s total exports in 2014. Recent government efforts have been made in establishment of the Tonga Tourism Authority (TTA) and documentation of local history as the country strives to differentiate its tourism offerings from other South Pacific destinations based on culture and heritage.

The developmental position of Pacific nations like Tonga are both precarious and necessarily dependent. In the Pacific’s reliance on international perceptions for its growing tourism industry, there must be checks and balances on regional media reporting of events like the Zika epidemic. Pacific nations like Tonga lack the marketing resources and brand strength that New Zealand enjoys and fiercely protects for its own multi-billion dollar tourism industry. Enlightened consideration of regional development must include policies for the reasonable protection of- and due respect for our Pacific neighbors’ emerging brand and image for which it so heavily relies. As the challenge of the Zika virus plays out, Tonga will continue to need additional resources to manage the internal threat. As a key developmental partner, it is important that New Zealand’s media outlets not represent an additional external threat to Tonga’s capacity to overcome this public health epidemic.

Author: Lora Vaioleti is a professional consultant on climate change and development.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

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Note: Edits made to original on 3/2/16

The Full Potential of Contemporary Artists in Vanuatu – Simix Simeon

My name is Simix Simeon and I was born on the small island of Mataso in Vanuatu. I am the leader of an art collective from the Mataso community who live on the outskirts of Port Vila, the capital city of Vanuatu. We are called Awis Artis Blong Vanuatu.

In our Mataso community, there is a lot of interest in the arts. We like art and drawing. And, many of our young people would like to become artists. These young people usually have had little education though, as it is expensive for parents to send their children to school in Vanuatu.

For these young people, art is a way to communicate. We have the talent, the understanding, and the knowledge. The problem is that we don’t know how to create art. We need art materials. We need to be mentored how to use them. And, we need outsiders to help us to share our ‘kastom’ knowledge.

Our art is valuable because of the traditions it carries. It is based on our true life stories that are getting lost. As you know, our lives in the Pacific Islands are changing due to people moving away from their ancestral homes. This is mainly because of economic reasons and of course climate change.

For these reasons, I feel that it is up to our generation to make sure none of our culture gets lost. If we don’t preserve and promote our own heritage, then we will lose our ‘kastom’ and the value of our lives.

I also believe there is great potential for Pacific artists. There are so many islands. All have their own stories to tell. It would be very sad if these stories were lost forever.

My way of telling the stories from my island community is through my art. And, I am encouraging other artists in our Mataso community to do the same. This will keep our traditions alive.

To date, our Mataso art has shown in several major galleries in Australia. So, I know that there is interest in Pacific art.

We believe that our art is very valuable. And, we hope that the rest of the world will as well.

Simix Simeon is a chief of the Ohlen/Matas Village of Port Villa, Vanuatu. As an avid advocate of indigenous arts in his community, Simeon has led the creation of a successful art collective called ‘Awis Artis Blong Vanuatu’ which now includes over ten artists. With a desire to find connections between traditional and contemporary art, Simeon works towards developing his own skills. But, he is also known as a local leader promoting the international exposure of Ni-Vanuatu artists.

Guest commentaries and responses on the Islands Society Blog represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

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The Problem with Art Poverty in the Pacific – Lesley Wengembo

Every human being on this planet has their own choices to make. They can choose to live based on their passions, based on their obligations, or based on something else entirely. However, our gifts, talents, potential and abilities make this world function. That will never change.

When I was younger, I thought that being an artist was a profession. It was about making money. But, I now realize that being an artist is so much more than a profession. Artists can inspire, influence and motivate people to understand more about reality through creative expression. A few years ago, I heard another professional artist say that contemporary art is a “Voice of Change.” Now, I realize that it is so true. A piece of art can inspire many people. And, art speaks no language.

Unfortunately, not all artists recognize the value of their paintings. And, they give away their art too cheaply. Now, I must say that there are many reasons why an artist might undervalue their work. So, I don’t want to judge other artists. But, I do want to point out that this leads to Art Poverty. And, Art Poverty is a serious problem for many local communities around the world.

In Papua New Guinea, we face Art Poverty. Unfortunately, there is a complete lack of support for artists in my community. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. We can put an end to Art Poverty. But, we need the government of the day to implement strategic policies that promote art in Papua New Guinea. For example, the government could reduce the tax for major companies in exchange for supporting or promoting our artists.

Of course, there are many strategic policies that could be used to promote art in our local community. If we implement a few of them, I know that our artists will slowly start to appreciate their own work and put an end to the habit of giving away their art too cheaply. In the long-term, that will bring an end to Art Poverty in Papua New Guinea.

Lesley Wengembo is a 2015-2016 Pacific NexGen Artist. At only 17 years of age, he won second place in the 2014 Port Moresby Arts Exhibition. He was also recognised with a merit award for the exhibition’s theme Meri (Woman). After receiving coverage from the country’s biggest broadcaster (i.e., EMTVOnline), Wengembohas been able to cultivate new cultural exchanges through art, including participating in the Deutsche 1914 project.

Guest commentaries and responses on the Islands Society Blog represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: Drew Douglas via Flickr CC

Palau Can Use Public Diplomacy to Combat Illegal Fishing – Genevieve Neilson

As one of the most biodiverse sets of islands in the Pacific, Palau relies on the health of its oceans for tourism and fisheries industries, but the country is increasingly threatened by impacts of illegal fishing. Palau’s flagship program to counter overfishing and encourage sustainable development is its National Marine Sanctuary. In October 2015, Palau created one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries that covers 80 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). State revenues from fishing industry permits will decline, and Palau does not have the enforcement ships to ensure its sanctuary is protected. Therefore the government hopes to replace declining income with an increase in tourism by wealthy travelers and will need international support to maintain sovereignty over its fisheries. In this case, proactive public diplomacy can be an effective tool for a small island country like Palau to improve its security. Public diplomacy can focus attention on illegal fishing while engendering support for its culture of conservation, strengthening networks tied to the issue, and influencing behaviors of the U.S. and other regional actors.

Illegal Fishing: An International Problem

Ineffective international management of the Pacific tuna supply, strong consumer demand and weak monitoring of vessels have led to overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and bycatch. Palau can pursue policy action against illegal fishing by constructing and projecting its own strategic narratives to influence foreign audiences. Overfishing has been a significant problem for the Pacific Island region, leading to competition for depleted fish stocks. Furthermore, in some cases, operators of IUU fishing vessels disregard basic labor standards. Consumers across the globe and in Asia in particular have created a high demand for tuna and other prominent fish. Illegal fishing is not a problem that Palau has created, nor can it solve on its own.

International agreements to regulate global fisheries have been slowly implemented and lack adequate monitoring. Recently, Palau became the first Pacific Island Country to sign the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate IUU Fishing (PSMA), which blocks ships suspected of IUU fishing from entering ports. Once in effect, the agreement will build upon other global instruments. Yet, PSMA requires more than 20 more parties to ratify, and implementation necessitates adequate monitoring and enforcement mechanisms that are lacking.

Furthermore, the United States has wavered in its support for Pacific fisheries, leaving island states uncertain about their futures. In 2014, the Obama Administration’s Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood fraud released recommendations for comprehensive programs. Now, the United States is reneging on the number of fishing days purchased in the Vessel Day Scheme. This lack of commitment by the United States sends mixed signals to Australia, Japan, China, and other external actors. This should concern others in the region, especially the Compact of Free Association countries.

These issues culminate at a time when the plight of PICs has received significant attention because of climate change. Through its traditional and public diplomacy, Palau has been a leader in the region and on the world stage for small island developing states. While climate change is a central issue for Palau, illegal fishing demands the same attention utilizing public diplomacy. In this way, Palau can attain aid from the public and non-state actors to support conservation, monitoring and enforcement, or employ the public to force action upon the United States and other regional actors.

Proactive Public Diplomacy: Building on Established Campaigns and Partnerships

Public diplomacy is a transparent way for Palau to communicate with foreign and domestic publics to inform and influence. Palau can promote efforts to combat illegal fishing through digital diplomacy, cultural events and forums. Despite its small population of around 21,000 people and budget of about $83 million, Palau’s approach to illegal fishing is multi-faceted and includes partnerships with the United States government and non-government groups. The country needs to improve engagement with the global public on illegal fishing in order to create more awareness and understanding of the problems it faces and develop solutions.

Palau’s regular engagement with other states on illegal fishing can be boosted by public diplomacy.  For example, in March 2015 a group of states held a conference in Guam to discuss the increased illegal fishing in the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau; there was strong representation by U.S. embassies as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, governments of Australia, Palau and Federated States of Micronesia. More public involvement outside of government relationships and greater publicity can help showcase regional cooperation.

The Government of Palau has close relationships with private, non-state actors based in the United States made possible by public diplomacy. First, through the Global Ocean Legacy project, the Pew Charitable Trusts and its partners aid Palau to conserve and protect some of the most significant and “unspoiled” ocean environments. Second, Earthjustice, an environmental law group, supplied legal aid to Palau to enable the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act. Third, the small nonprofit SkyTruth uses software, digital maps and public data to help governments like Palau to crack down on IUU fishing. Specifically, they helped to track a Taiwanese ship that was carrying illegal caught tuna and shark fins. This year, in partnership with Google and Oceana, SkyTruth intends to launch the website Global Fishing Watch to enable anyone in the world to track illegal fishermen and empower consumers.

Palau’s active relationships with other state actors involved in illegal fishing, experience with non-government groups leave it well-placed to lead public diplomacy efforts to protect its fisheries.

Creating Effective Messaging against Illegal Fishing

By showcasing its image as a country focused on conservation and tough on illegal fishing, digital diplomacy can help Palau to shape the international policy environment. Traditionally public diplomacy may focus on nation branding, setting countries apart. For Palau, that could complicate partnerships with Pacific neighbors and strain financial and human resources. Rather, the country must balance image promotion, concentrating on the Office of the President, embassies, and local groups with expanding their digital footprint, and coordinating efforts with other PICs and larger regional actors.

Digital diplomacy is becoming an increasingly important tool, even for small countries like Palau. In particular, Twitter diplomacy is a way for Palau’s government to bypass traditional media gatekeepers. Twitter can be part of foreign policy in three stages: the government official or embassy tweets official information; a more tailored stage where officials tweet news articles; and the most personal and advanced stage, where officials engage in debates with their personal opinions. President Remengesau has a relatively new Twitter page with more than 500 followers. Compared to Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama who has more than 11,000 followers on Twitter, there is room for improvement. The Office of the President of Palau has a Facebook page with the Marine Sanctuary Act posted to the top of the page.  Social media enables the government to create discussions and engage on a personal level as opposed to distributing broadcast messages. Both Facebook and Twitter can contribute to a cohesive public diplomacy effort if daily and weekly resources are dedicated. The Digital Diplomacy Coalition illustrates that training diplomats and future leaders in this area can help enable Palau to engage with its domestic and international public to mitigate issues.

Despite moves into social media, Palau has a poor digital footprint which likely results from constraints on the country’s diplomatic resources, including its lack of embassies. The country has embassies in Washington, Manila, Tokyo and Taipei. In particular, its Washington website is outdated despite the “Ambassador” page explaining that the website is meant to be a space for finding current information. Palau’s Ambassador to Washington, Hersey Kyota, is the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps with close to 20 years in the role; with his wide networks and notoriety in Washington, his staff should work toward a better web presence. Instead, President Remengesau is leading the charge for his country, as exemplified in the many awards he has received, and remains the central focus point of the digital diplomacy strategy.

Partnering with other countries to build a strong unified voice can help gain support from the global public with the goal of bolstering the U.S. and others to act. Organizations like the Global Island Partnership, the Pacific Islands Forum and Pacific Islands Development Forum create platforms for advocacy. In particular when island countries can create a coherent message together they will have greater chance of success, such as in their efforts for greater access to climate finance.

To measure public diplomacy progress, the government of Palau can look to a number of metrics. First, it can count the number of domestic and international partnerships; by taking stock of its partnerships with organizations such as The Pew Trusts, it can analyze partners based on quality and find gaps in success. Second, it can follow mentions of illegal fishing from major country outlets to inform its own interventions into online conversations. The topic of illegal fishing may arise more often when there are international meetings or Western organizations are involved. Third, the Office of the President can keep track of its followers on Facebook and Twitter. These platforms have a conversational character and should be used for engagement over retweets, follows and likes. Finally, the government can monitor the attitudes of its citizens and Pacific neighbors.


Illegal fishing impacts the ability of the regional fisheries management organizations as well as local governments to regulate their stocks through conservation measures. If Palau is not able to stop IUU fishing in its EEZ, the new National Marine Sanctuary efforts will be compromised, a loss not restricted to Palau. Luckily, President Tommy Remengesau’s list of accomplishments and the country’s partnerships continues to grow. To complement its conservation efforts and the media attention for climate change, Palau needs international support for monitoring and enforcement of its territory, particularly the new sanctuary, and avenues of funding. Its work with The Pew Trusts and SkyTruth signal that private organizations and citizens are taking the lead; they are able to share the data captured and create best practices publicly more readily than governments. Palau should engage in a more proactive public diplomacy strategy focusing on digital diplomacy and strategic communication in collaboration with its Pacific neighbors. By engaging closely and more publicly with a global audience, Palau can shape the conversation and solutions for illegal fishing in a way that benefits its domestic and regional interests.

Genevieve Neilson is a 2016 Pacific Security Scholar at the Islands Society. She recently completed her M.A. in International Affairs from The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. She also holds a Graduate Certificate from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a B.A. (Honors) in International Relations and Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research interests include foreign policy and trade in the Asia-Pacific region, public diplomacy, and the Chinese language.

Guest commentaries and responses on the Islands Society Blog represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: US Navy via Flickr CC

Controlling The Ripple Effects of Climate Change Across the Pacific – Litia Nailatikau

The biggest security threat facing Pacific Islanders is climate change and its halo effect over other security threats across the region. Of course, climate change affects everyone. But, it has its hand in literally every aspect of life in the Pacific. And, it represents an existential threat to that life as we know it.

Climate Change Refugees

There is no doubt that climate change will eventually force certain Pacific Islanders into becoming migrants. If one accepts this claim, then we need to immediately develop more effective climate change laws to govern the movement of these people. Last year, we may have already witnessed the first climate change refugee being denied his fundamental human right to security and migration with dignity. If so, he will probably not be the last. Others will certainly attempt to migrate on the same grounds. And, they will face the same legislative challenges. If we want to confront this problem, we new new alternatives. For example, we might need to explicitly classify climate change migrants as protected refugees under the United Nations Convention on Refugees.

Climate Change Villages

That said, we shouldn’t get sidetracked by individual cases. The scale of the problem posed by climate change across the region demands that we consider higher units of analysis. Consider Vuanidogoloa on Vanua Levu. By the time that it was directly breached by rising sea levels last year, inflowing soil and increasing salinity levels had already compromised food security and water security on the island. The Government of Fiji was arguably forced to relocate its first climate change village as a result.

Along with Vuanidogoloa, four other climate change village relocations are now underway across the Fiji. And, there are even tentative plans for up to fifty more villages to relocate within the next 5-10 years. While Fiji is beginning to adapt to the many threats posed by climate change, lower-lying Pacific Island countries (e.g., Kiribati and Tuvalu) have been dealing with these issues for decades. Unfortunately, they have also become dependent on imported goods for their very survival along the way.

A Non-Traditional Security Threat

As these examples illustrate, climate change has already had a major impact on security across the region. Not only has it undermined public health and facilitated the spread of Non-Communicable Diseases by denying many communities the ability to grow fresh food crops or consume fresh natural water. It has also well on its way to undermining food security and water insecurity to such an extent that many communities will eventually be forced into migration. From a security perspective, this threatens many of unique cultures that are at the core of our shared Pacific identity.

Moreover, these negative effects force Pacific Island countries to focus their attention on climate change at the expense of many other security threats. In fact, resources and finances are increasingly redirected towards programs that are designed to familiarize islanders with the downsides of climate change. While these programs are certainly helping to raise awareness and build capacity on climate change at all levels of society, they are also leading many island communities to put other important issues on the back-burner. For example, promoting human rights in places like West Papua.

The Idea of Camps

With this in mind, let us return to the question of climate change migrants? In 2013, the island of Nauru opened a refugee camp for those who are defined and protected by the United Nations Convention on Refugees. Though this may have been merely an agreement between the governments of Australia and the Nauru to promote local employment opportunities, one has to wonder if similar camps could ever provide a policy solution for dealing with climate change refugees.

From my perspective, it remains an open question. While such camps provide obvious benefits, one has to wonder whether we should ever incentivize climate change migrants from one island communities affected by climate change to relocate en masse to a neighboring island. If we want to go down that path, then how do we manage the secondary security challenges that will inevitably arise? For example, how do we manage the problems associated with allowing climate change refugees the right to resettle for a fixed amount of time on a neighboring island where local laws would enable them to become citizens within that time? These are the questions that we need to start asking. But, for the most part, we’re still not.

At the end of the day, the idea of refugee camps as a policy solution for dealing with climate change refugees certainly warrants consideration. But, are camps really the best solution? If we want to answer this question, we first need to seriously address the secondary problems associated with this policy approach. Until we do, the jury is still out.

Adi Litia Cakobau Nailatikau is a next generation policymaker from Fiji. She is currently participating in the East West Center’s Leadership Program with Taiwan. Previously, she worked with the JET Program in Miyakojima, Okinawa, Japan. She also served as a long- term volunteer in her community in Suva, Fiji. Nailatikau earned a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) from the University of the South Pacific, majoring in Environmental and International Law. After the Leadership Program with Taiwan, she plans to continue pursuing postgraduate studies in Climate Change and International Relations.

Guest commentaries and responses on the Islands Society Blog represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: Samuel Yu (Flickr CC)

Globalization: A Major Threat for Pacific Island Countries – Melania Baba

“Globalization” is a term often associated with progress and innovation. Despite its numerous perks, it has also shown itself to be the biggest and most immediate threat for Pacific Island countries. This short piece attempts to unveil some of the effects of globalization on the region.

A Connected World

A distinctive feature of globalization is “connectedness”. This is largely made possible by communications technology. Through this connectedness, we have witnessed the rise of world cultures. This in turn has meant that the cultures of the larger and more technologically advanced countries of the world engulf those of the smaller and less technologically advanced ones. In this process, the small and less technologically advanced countries lose their distinctiveness in their cultures, languages, values and identities.

The Pacific Islands has been affected by this process. It is often packaged and sold for its white sandy beaches, friendly locals and hotels offering various activities and services promising the world a memorable experience. In many Pacific Island countries, tourism is a major contributor to economic development. For example, it is major money making industry in Fiji. It provides work for locals and has a rippling effect for other local businesses. But, it has also brought many challenges to the way of life and culture of the people. Specifically, it contributes to sex tourism, commercialization of cultures, and environmental degradation – especially along its vulnerable coastlines. This is destroying the distinctiveness of the very thing that tourists come to see.

An integral part of globalization is technological advancement. In and of itself, technological advancement undermines the cooperative communal way of life. In other words, it undermines the ways in which the community traditionally sits and works together to derive their livelihood from the land and sea resources around them. In a connected world, these ways have been replaced by a dependency on processed foods and reduced activity, which has raised the level of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). For example, a recent study by the World Bank concludes that 70-75% of deaths in the Pacific are attributable in part to NCDs.

A World of Migrants

Migration is another impact of Globalization. With the advanced system of transportation and interconnectedness, emigration is made easier. In many Polynesian islands across the Pacific (e.g., Cook Islands, Niue and Samoa), the majority of their populations are living abroad. Migration has undoubtedly brought wealth to these countries. But, the second generation of these immigrants are also beginning to lose their mother tongue. Research has shown that many of the Pacific Island languages are now at risk. Language is an essential ingredient in cultural preservation. The loss of these languages would therefore undoubtedly cause the loss of many individual cultural identities across the region.

A Policy Imperative

There are certainly many advantages of Globalization. However, there has been a tendency to ignore some of its negative effects. Across the Pacific Islands region, these negative effects are now beginning to emerge with the evolving lifestyle, the health issues as well as the deterioration of culture and diminishing languages. And, these negative effects of globalization compounded the negative effects of climate change. There is therefore a need for Pacific Island countries to reassess globalization and its impact on the various cultures across the region. If the Pacific Island countries are to fully benefit from globalization, their leaders must put in place proactive programs that ensure these negative effects are addressed immediately.

Melania Baba is a graduate in Law and Political Science at the University of the South Pacific. Currently, she is a legal officer at a local nonprofit concerned with the protection of Fiji’s environment and the promotion of sustainable resource management through law. Baba is interested in international relations and climate change with particular reference to the small pacific island states in the Pacific.

Guest commentaries and responses on the Islands Society Blog represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

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Climate Change: An Existential Security Threat in the Pacific – Tevita Motulalo

As underground water tables become poisoned with salt water intrusion, agricultural fields whither, and receding shorelines are further punctured by super cyclones and crackling droughts, the Pacific Islands are subtly moving beyond the early stages of an existential crisis. Unfortunately, climate change is just the latest in the series of non-traditional security challenges besieging Pacific Island counties, their citizens, and how they relate to the world. In aggregate, these non-traditional security challenges threaten the very survival of Pacific Island countries. Not since the Assured Destruction of the Cold War has the region faced such an existential problem.


Lack of Climate Change Finance Threatening Pacific Development – Genevieve Neilson

As storms become more frequent and intense, sea levels rise, and coral reefs are destroyed, Pacific Islanders must adapt to a changing climate or move their lives elsewhere. Pacific Islands Countries (PICs) are at the forefront of climate change impacts and in the vanguard at international climate change negotiations. Yet, they still require improved access to financing to adapt to the threats of climate change. A central problem is that the climate finance architecture is in its infancy. And, it is changing; the Green Climate Fund started its work this year, and it is unclear whether it will replace or complement existing funds. It is therefore important for PICs and international actors to learn best practices from states like Samoa, who are succeeding in accessing funding from each global climate finance mechanism.


Security Implications of Geopolitics and Governance in the Pacific – Dalton Lin

The biggest security threat facing Pacific Islanders today is the potentially gloomy ripple effects of the ongoing geopolitical reconfiguration in the Asia-Pacific region. The security of Pacific Islanders relies upon deftly dealing with a variety of daunting issues, such as sustainable economic development and rising sea levels as well as food and water shortage resulting from global warming. To effectively manage these challenges, Pacific Island countries need the capacity of good governance. Unfortunately, looming shifts in the geopolitical landscape of the Asia-Pacific region, including uncertainty in China-Taiwan relations on the horizon and contestation between Beijing and Washington for regional predominance in the longer-term, threaten to seriously undermine the governing capacity of Pacific Island countries.