Parliament Buildings, 9 August 2007. Neil Plimmer, Chairman, Pacific Cooperation Foundation

The first thought that came to mind on this subject, curiously perhaps,  was something I learned more than 40 years ago at university, as I am sure many of you did – Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

I have checked with a couple of authorities in recent days and been assured that it is still held in good regard. Since they seem to  lie at the heart of any sense of individual human security, it is worth recounting his pyramid with its five layers:

        at the bottom, basic physiological needs – water, food, sleep, exercise 
        the next rung up, safety needs – physical security, economic security, freedom from threats 
        then, social needs – sense of belonging, identification with a group, community or team, love
        then, esteem needs – self-esteem, recognition, status
        and at the top, self-actualisation – challenging projects, opportunities for creativity

The academic debate in recent years has focused on the hierarchical aspects of Maslow's work, proposing the five categories of needs interact differently and don't necessarily have the sequential layering that he attributed to them.

Of course there have been many variants since – the UNDP promoted a list of seven components of human security in 1994, essentially a reworking of Maslow but which placed an emphasis on health security (relative freedom from disease and infection) that he had omitted.

The guest speaker Ambassador Choudry has identified the current version in United Nations usage.

They all have key principles in common, about the requirement to provide for basic human needs if security is to be assured.

The point to explore here is whether the Pacific – in New Zealand terms, the Pacific Forum countries – has a different set of needs.

I suggest this approach – that the basic needs of human security are the same as elsewhere and are common to humanity, and that what may be different about the Pacific is the way one goes about achieving them.

There seem to me to be two overarching conditions about the Pacific that are relevant to this. One is the tiny size and isolation of most Pacific Island countries, and the other is the nature and strength of traditional cultures.

An example that flows from the first of these, the small scale and vast distances, is this. There would presumably be agreement that a route to establishing the conditions of human security would be to eliminate poverty and to have some standard of economic well-being. A condition like  this, of some affluence, would improve performance in meeting any and all of these needs that underpin human security.

Now a standard approach to achieving growth and poverty elimination in most of the literature is to open an economy to trade. This week's Economist contains a review of yet another new book, this time by a British economics professor, about how to tackle the problems of the world's poorest countries, especially in Africa. The rich world should concentrate, he says, not on aid but, (and I'm quoting the Economist) “on taking measures to encourage growth, above all through improving trade.”

So, to improve human security in the Pacific, do we simply apply the trade liberalisation formula? Well, I suggest that the answer is something like, “not without serious thought to the local conditions.” I do not contest the overwhelming evidence that open economies grow faster than closed ones, but the devil is in the detail, and we need to look seriously at the detail of the Pacific region. There are tiny domestic markets, at best embryonic manufacturing capacity, serious skill shortages, huge transport problems to get products to markets, and so on. The case for a focus on some protection, to build capability as a precondition, is surely worth examining.  

Then there is the matter of traditional culture and customary practices. The impact of this on the application of universal human security objectives is also complex. On the surface, the case can be made that some customary practices may be contrary to their achievement, for example by restricting the rights and freedoms of women. It is likely that some of the needs, such as the social need to identify with a strong group, would be well provided for by Pacific Island cultures but that others relating to (in Maslow's language) esteem and self-actualisation needs might be more unevenly provided for.

However, even if this were established, the need for balance in addressing cultural change is evident. Some social anthropologists and others argue that the transition from a kinship-based society to a modern democracy is the most difficult transition of any for a society to make, and that we – New Zealanders and others promoting that transition -  are expecting Pacific Island countries to do in a generation or two what it took Europeans the best part of a thousand years or more to achieve.

The Pacific Cooperation Foundation has become interested in recent deliberations around frameworks for acceptable change. Last year the New Zealand Law Commission produced an intriguing report exploring the compatibilities between Pacific customary law and western concepts of human rights, and we are aware of university research, particularly in Australia, of potential "hybrid” systems in the Pacific. These need to be encouraged and their conclusions absorbed.

So the point I leave is that how we go about improving human security in the Pacific needs to be carefully modulated, and while the end objective may be common to all humanity, the means of achievement are likely to be most productive when adaptated to the Pacific's unique environment.

I add only that we need to listen very carefully to the voices and views of the Pacific Island people themselves on these issues.

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