Ieremiah Tabai, Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat
South Pacific Forum: 'responding to the needs of the Member
Although an accountant by training, leremiah Tabai has never had
the opportunity to practise his profession, having pursued a successful
political career instead since 1974. In 1978, he was annointed head of
government in Kiribati and a year later he became his country's first President,
when it achieved independence. He held this position for 12 years. In 1991, he
took up the top post in one of the South Pacific's key regional bodies, the
Forum Secretariat, which is based in Suva, Fiji. During a recent Courier visit
to the region, we had the opportunity to interview the Secretary General. Our
discussion was wide-ranging, covering issues such as the Forum Secretariat's
role, the economic challenges facing the South Pacific, and the development of
regional links with Australia, New Zealand and Asia. We began by asking Mr Tabai
to outline the objectives of the organisation that he heads.
- Like many other organisations in the region, the Forum was
established essentially to try and assist the development process of the Member
States. At the time it was set up, there was already an organisation in
existence - the South Pacific Commission - which dates back to 1947. But there
was a feeling that we needed an organisation that was not just restricted to
economic issues; that could talk about other matters with a bearing on the
development of the region.
In the early years, when the organisation was called the South
Pacific Bureau for Economic Cooperation (SPEC), the focus was heavily on trying
to assist the trade and economic development of the member countries. Later, the
name was changed to the Forum Secretariat and its role evolved.
· In what way?
-It has evolved in seeking to respond to the needs of the Member
States. It started as a very small bureau essentially dealing, as I said, with
trade and economic issues. Subsequently, it moved into areas like energy, civil
aviation, maritime questions and telecommunications. It also became more
involved in political issues. We have a division which deals specifically with
1995 was a very important year in the history of the Forum. We
had a review of the organisation, looking at ways we could perform better and
taking account of the changes in the region and the world at large. The
fundamental recommendation in the report which came out of that review was that
the Secretariat should focus mainly in future on poliy-related issues, in the
areas of trade and investment, economics and international relations. This
report was discussed and endorsed at the last Forum in Madang, Papua New Guinea.
· Does this mean, in
practice, a withdrawal from project activity?
-It may. The essential focus of the work will be providing
policy advice to countries. Having said this, there should still be some project
work. For instance, we will be engaged in a programme to provide assistance for
importers, particularly in the small island countries. The idea is to help
people- who may not be familiar with all the legal requirements-to learn how to
get into the business. This will involve running a workshop and inviting people
with expertise to pass on their knowledge. So even though the focus will be on
policy issues, there will still be room for project-type activities where needed
-so long as these fit in with the policy priorities.
· You mentioned the fact
that the Forum now deals with political questions. Although the issue may now be
seen as 'water under the bridge' to what extent was the Forum Secretariat
involved in the diplomatic disagreement over French nuclear testing?
- We were very much involved from the beginning. In 1991, when
the French testing was not underground but atmospheric, the region, at a Forum
meeting, came out strongly in opposition to the tests. Right up to our last
meeting in Madang, the subject was always a major item on the agenda, and we
left France in no doubt as to the resolve of our region.
When the new President took the decision to resume testing after
a gap of several years, I was in the group from the South Pacific that went to
France to express our views to French ministers, face-to-face. Our team was led
by the then Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, who was President of the
Forum. And when the tests began again, the Chairman took a decision suspending
the dialogue and partner status of France with the Forum. So, as you see, we
have been heavily involved in the issue.
· What resources does the
Forum have at its disposal and where does the money come from?
- An important source of funds is our members' contributions.
These tend to be used to cover the operational costs of the organisation. Then
of course, there are the funds made available by our donors. The main ones are
obviously Australia and New Zealand but there are many other countries and
international organisations who provide assistance. The EU, of course, is an
important partner. There was also a private donor who funded our conference
· How many people are
employed in the Secretariat?
-Around 80, all based here in Suva. Most of these are support
· What is the current
state of relations between the Forum Secretariat and the main donors?
-I would say our relations are good. We have an extensive
mechanism for consultation with the donors. Every two years, we invite them here
for a dialogue. We talk about the key issues and discuss ways in which they can
assist us. There is also usually a dialogue associated with the Forum
(ministerial) meetings. In September this year, after the Forum meeting, we will
have more discussions with our main partners such as the EU, Canada, France,
Japan and the UK. I should mention too the close links we have with
international organisations like the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and
I think it is fair to say that the Forum Secretariat is seen as
a particularly important organisation in the region. That is why donors are
quite keen to be seen assisting us in what we do.
· What are the key
development issues facing the South Pacific nations?
- Development is quite a difficult process for our region. There
are various international reports (particularly from the World Bank) - that
describe how we have fared over the last few years. If you compare our
performance with the Caribbean countries, for example, you find that we have not
done nearly so well.
We face a number of problems. First, there is the fact that we
are so small. Small communities find it much more difficult than large ones to
achieve development. You need to have the market and the critical mass to do all
the things that are needed and we lack these. A second, related point is that
our countries are very isolated from the rest of the world. It is true that here
in Fiji, there are quite good connections, but if you go to Tuvalu, Kiribati or
Niue, you will soon discover how difficult it is to get out. And if you are so
isolated in terms of communication, how can you hope to increase your exports?
How can you airfreight your fish to Japan when there is no aircraft available-or
the one that is available is not fast enough to ensure that the product is still
fresh when it arrives?
On this question, one of the things we are increasingly
realising is the need to do more in terms of human resource development. We all
recognise that, without an educated population and workforce, it is very hard to
achieve the development that we are aiming for. To be fair, if you compare the
literacy rates here with those of many other countries, say in Africa, they are
not at all bad. Our literacy levels are quite high. But I think we have a long
way to go in acquiring problem-solving skills of the type needed to compete
internationally. We are now talking with the EU about how we can utilise funding
from the second protocol of LomV. And I suspect that human resource
development will remain high on the agenda.
· Is that view shared by
the European side?
-I think so. l have a feeling that they will support it because
it is so obvious. If you develop human skills, you are better placed when it
comes to problem-solving.
Going back to the key development issues, another point is the
lack of natural resources. This is less of a difficulty for countries like Fiji
or Papua New Guinea, but it certainly affects the small island states. It hardly
needs saying that if you don't have the resources in the first place, it is much
harder to develop.
Finally, I think there is a question of how the Pacific region
can get a better return on the resources it does have. This theme of 'managing
our resources' was discussed by the Forum in Brisbane two years ago. Fisheries
is probably the most important area here. The question is how we can earn more
from this than we are currently doing- and there is no easy answer. Likewise in
the forestry sector. We have to ensure that logging is done on a sustainable
basis. But we must also recognise that leaders of the Pacific nations are under
pressure. On the one hand, they are trying to take a lona-term view. but they
are also striving to tackle the immediate problems. In an ideal world, our
region would obtain a far better return on our resources, and that is something
that we have to work on.
Having said all this, I don't think one should be too
pessimistic. This region is still a very good place to live in. That is clearly
reflected in the number of visitors we get. The 'South Seas' still have a
special connotation that draws people here.
· You effectively have
two 'genera/' regional organisations, with overlapping memberships, covering the
South Pacific -the Forum, and the South Pacifc Commission (SPC). Do you think
there is room for bath? Do you complement each other or is there a rivalry?
-We have more than two regional organisations. We also have
SPREP (South Pacifc Regional Environment Programme), the FFA (Forum Fisheries
· Yes, but these are
specialist bodies with distinct sectoral responsibilities.
-Yes, that's true. In answer to your question, my view is that
we have no problem with things as they stand. I was very involved in the debate
some years back on the question of what we called an SRO - a single regional
organisation. There was a strong push to try and achieve an SRO. The subject was
debated for a few years and, in the end, it was possible to resolve the
· You mean it was
resolved by the idea being abandoned?
-I suppose it depends on the way you look at it. The outcome was
a decision to leave the regional organisations as they are but with the
establishment of a mechanism to ensure they work together more effectively. This
mechanism is called SPOCC-the South Pacific Organisations Coordinating
Committee. It is a meeting of heads of regional organisations which happens at
least once a year. We talk about the issues that are common to our mandate and
work out ways of doing things better. SPOCC has been operating for six or seven
years now and I think it works fairly well. There is, after all, no conflict in
our underlying objectives. So my answer here is no, I don't see any problem. I
don't see any rivalry between us. It is a question of seeing how we can work
together to achieve the goals that we share.
· In the European Union,
the fundamental goal, set out in the Treaty, is to move towards 'ever-closer
union' We have been doing this in fits and starts over the past 35 years. Do you
see the Forum perhaps taking on a similar role here-as the focus for economic,
and perhaps ultimately, political integration in the South Pacifc?
- I think it is too early to speculate. We already have a number
of sub-groups in the region like the MSG, the Melanesian Spearhead Group, whose
members are the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Fiji (admitted
last year). Further north, we have the Micronesian grouping which brings
together Nauru, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Kiribati. These groups meet
outside the Forum framework and they essentially have a common aim which is to
work more closely together. I think they feel it is easier to do it at this
level because they are closer to each other and have more in common.
As for the Forum Secretariat, you can never tell what may come
in the future. On balance, however, I think at the moment that integration is a
long way off. Having said this, you do sometimes hear people putting the idea
forward. There is, for example, something called the CER system, which stands
for 'closer economic relations' between Australia and New Zealand. There have
been suggestions that it might be possible to enlarge this grouping.
Looking at closer economic cooperation, and the general
dismantling of trade barriers, we also need to recognise the growing importance
of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) for the region. We are trying
strengthen our links with the APEC countries and in October, we will be
establishing a trade office in Japan.
· You mean a Forum
-Yes, in Tokyo. We are also talking with the Chinese and will
probably end up with an office in Beijing. This is all part of our attempt to
integrate ourselves with the Asean region.
Interview by Simon Homer
Mission statement of the Forum Secretariat
The mission of the Forum Secretariat is to enhance the economic
and social well being of the people of the South Pacific, in support of the
efforts of the national governments. The Secretariat has particular
responsibility to facilitate, develop and maintain cooperation and consultation
between member governments.
The Secretariat must pursue its mission in accordance with the
directives of the Forum and within its mandated areas of operation. it
undertakes political and economic activities, regional in nature and
complementary to the activities of the member governments. Its role requires it
to act as the secretariat to the Forum and to disseminate the Forum's views, to
coordinate activities with other regional institutions in particular through the
SPOCC process, and to represent the Forum's interests intemationally, as