It was almost like Penang – in the early seventies, that is.
The sea was not only green-blue in colour in the distance but crystal clear near the shore, the beach was pure white, and bright stars filled the clear sky at night.
On the road along the Coral Coast to the nearest small town there was hardly any traffic. Like the small winding road in Penang’s northern coast to Batu Ferringhi, before the coming of the high-rise apartment blocks and the big hotels.
The people have a natural charm and a warmth that says they are happy with their beautiful environment and simple way of life. “Bula” is the hearty word of welcome they proclaim, their version of our Selamat Datang.
Natadola in Fiji was the wonderful tropical beach venue for a brainstorming meeting last week of a small group of leaders and thinkers about how developing countries can cooperate among themselves in the future.
Why in Fiji? Because for the first time a South Pacific island state has been elected to be leader of the Group of 77, the alliance of over 130 developing countries that operate in the United Nations and beyond.
Its government decided to host “eminent personalities of the South” to reflect on the state of the developing world and on South-South cooperation.
The theme may not be original, but the personalities discussing it were colourful, most of them being Presidents or Prime Ministers, and mainly from the South Pacific island countries.
The host, Fiji’s Prime Minister Josaia Bainimarama, dressed informally in a batik shirt and sulu (similar to a knee-length sarong), gave the rationale for the meeting.
The past decade has seen the decline of North-South cooperation, he said. Negotiations in trade, environment, and funding of development have stalled, and the rich countries are attempting to modify the principles of development cooperation and their commitments to it.
But meanwhile there has been unprecedented growth in developing countries, and new dynamism in South-South cooperation through trade, finance, technology and shared management of natural resources.
The time has thus come to rethink existing development patterns, and realise the full potential of South-South cooperation.
The chief guest, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, said he is the first Bolivian leader to visit the South Pacific and wanted to share his experiences from the other side of the Pacific.
Morales is the first indigenous person who has become a recent leader of a South American country and his passionate speech made a deep impression.
He spoke about the Bolivian respect for humanity and life, and the importance of reclaiming land and natural resources for the nation. Bolivia did this through some nationalisation of oil resources and the re-negotiation of contracts with foreign companies in order to get a bigger share of revenues from natural resources.
The greatly increased revenues have been used to fund social development, enabling poverty and child mortality to decline. Bolivia has ensured that the poor have access to essential services like water, electricity and health care. For Morales, these services are human rights that the government has to provide and they should not be privatised, a message he wants to share with the South.
He also criticised the failed model of the North, where finance and banks were given priority over people’s interests, and called for the South to collectively seek new pathways in which people are given the priority.
President Morales’ focus on getting the most out of resources resonated with the Pacific island leaders, whose countries are also resource-dependent.
Kiribati’s President Anote Tong spoke about how the region’s fishery resources were so exploited that it obtained only 5% of the revenues while the rest is taken by others.
Developed countries consume far more than their fair share of the world’s depleting resources. There is need for fair allocation, and this is made more acute by the threat of climate change.
There is need to address the ownership of resources and to rationalise the rights and use over resources; and the South should form alliances to find solutions.
Advancing the same theme, Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo of the Solomon Islands said the South was the source of raw materials used in the North, but developing countries do not have power over the prices and revenues they receive for their resources.
For example the South Pacific countries should get a fair share of revenues from tuna fish – but this requires a new world order which the South has to build.
Leonel Fernandez, until recently the President of the Dominican Republic, referring to Morales’ policies of regaining control over natural resources to fund social policies, said there has been a change from the old paradigm that the markets can regulate themselves.
Instead, an alternative model is developing in which social policies are in the centre and governments need to ensure there is a balance between the state and the market.
With the North in decline, South-South cooperation is now more important. An example of the solidarity that can underlie this is the preferential terms of oil supply that former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave to neighbouring countries that helped them cope with financial problems.
Fernandez also highlighted the role of speculators as a new element, causing high volatility of commodity prices, which is an issue that the South should collectively address.
The Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Moana Carcasses Kalosil, called for an even more fundamental change – that of lifestyles. The Pacific islands are disappearing due to climate change. The world cannot afford the growth of money, cars, and material things. It is the way of life that needs to be addressed, and this requires the South to jointly fight for.
China’s special envoy to the Pacific Islands Li Qiangmin said South-South cooperation was different from North-South aid as the South-South relations are based on equity and mutual benefit.
With the decline in aid and rising financial instability, South countries have to rely more on themselves for growth, trade and investment.
The meeting concluded with the adoption of a formal document giving proposals on how to advance South-South cooperation.
But it was the free flow of ideas and reflections of the colourful political leaders, that made the lasting impressions. Together with the paradise-island background of the meeting.
This Piece First Appeared on the Third World Network.
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