Review of the book Resilience in the Pacific: Addressing the Critical Issues

Editors: Brian Lynch and Graham Hassall
Published by: New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Wellington, in association with the Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, 2011, 203 pp.

The Institutes of International Affairs and Policy Studies jointly sponsored a well-attended conference on 16 and 17 February 2011, with the same title as this book, which contains the majority of the proceedings.

One might wonder at the outset why the emphasis on “resilience”? People show resilience in the face of adversity, as Londoners did during the Battle of Britain. Why is the South Pacific facing such adversity? That it is, and that it needs resilience, is underlined by the introduction of the conference co-hosts: “Most of the texts highlighted the seeming intractability of long-standing regional and local problems: weak governance, access to metropolitan markets, political patronage, population pressures on limited natural resources...climate change, cross border crime including money laundering...”  It is a long and sorry list. That the South Pacific is falling behind with attempts to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was a similar underpinning of the conference and this book.

A pervasive underlying cause of all this tragedy, of why we don’t have conferences and books about how the South Pacific is flourishing through the benefits of globalisation and technological advance and the other favourable attributes of the modern world, has been the sub-optimal (to put it mildly) political management of the difficult interfaces between traditional custom and order, colonial rule, decolonisation and the requirements of a democratic nation state. It is a deep theme, underlined interestingly in Francis Fukuyama’s recent book reviewed by Rod Alley in the last issue of this journal. In The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama recounts his experience in parts of Melanesia, when the result of a Westminster system transplanted on a tribal-based governance structure was “chaos”, leading him “to wonder how any society had ever made the transition from a tribal- to a state-level society, how modern property rights had evolved out of customary ones, and formal legal systems first made their appearance.”

In various ways some of the authors address aspects of this underlying issue. Neroni Slade argues for the maintenance of the rule of law, by which he is essentially arguing for international norms more than the retention of traditional custom. Graham Hassall notes that forms of authority based on tradition are being challenged, and apparently desirably so since such leadership appears reluctant on matters of transparency and accountability. The direction of both these contributions, in respect of managing the underlying tension between custom and modernity/democracy, seems pointed towards movement from the former to the latter, rather than an assertion of the need to retain traditional norms.

Chapters discussing governance and state capability also enlighten this wider issue. The UNDP representative described governance as a key enabler, noting “Government strategies to achieve the MDG’s can only be implemented if there is a good governance structure which is efficient, transparent and accountable.” She argues for “modernising state institutions.”

John Overton’s position seems a little different: although he argues for a capable bureaucracy in island states, he primarily seeks to develop “new ways of operating, new cultures of aid, which are firmly based appreciation of and engagement with Pacific Island cultures, environments and societies”. He seeks approaches to development which give greater substance to locally-defined and sanctioned forms of leadership and governance. Geoff Bertram too makes frequent reference to developing cultural identity, cultural cohesion, the need to recognise non-material wealth in the form of culture and  human capital, sovereignty placing a deadweight burden on Island state prosperity and to the desirability of other forms of economic activity besides trading performance or large-scale industrial development.

Many authors in the book focus on analysis of current issues and problem solving. There is an impressive range of specific ideas set out in these chapters for making better progress. Foreign aid was the focus of many contributions, which argue, variously, for fewer, more significant aid projects; for focusing aid on sectors ripe for growth, which were identified as tourism, fisheries, agriculture and horticulture; for expanding the role of business in the delivery of foreign aid; for strengthened country- not donor-led development; and for the improved co-ordination of national aid programmes.

On this last matter there was concern that China, now a major player in the South Pacific through trade, aid and other activities, was not represented at the conference and has stayed aside from participation in aid co-ordination activity.

Another focus was on connectivity, both within the region – such as intra-regional trade and even the integration of island economies – and with the outside world, through improved transport links, communications technology, infrastructure development, services including financial services, and labour mobility.

This list is not comprehensive. From enabling women to developing economic enablers such as efficient energy supplies, this volume is a rich lodestone of proposals and references for developing resilience in the island countries of the South Pacific.

Neil Plimmer
Past Chairman, Pacific Cooperation Foundation


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