Hope for science initiatives in Pacific Islands Forum

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Copyright: Jocelyn Carlin / Panos

Speed read

  • The 16-member Pacific Islands Forum is pushing the new regional framework
  • Stakeholders have proposed a range of initiatives on science, education and health
  • Joint research on agriculture is seen as a viable programme for implementation

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[JAKARTA] Leaders of the Pacific island nations are meeting later this month and will discuss a new framework for regional cooperation that aims to accelerate development, and which includes a range of proposals on regional science, education and health initiatives.
The Pacific Plan, a 2005 document designed to strengthen regional cooperation and cooperation, was reviewed last year and a range of improvements have been proposed to The Pacific Islands Forum, a political grouping of 16 countries in the Pacific.
The review’s recommendations — updated at a meeting in Suva, Fiji, this week (2-3 July) following country consultations — will feed into the discussions on how to advance the framework at the 45th Pacific Islands Forum and related meetings later this month (29 July to 1 August) in Koror, Palau.

“Science informs a lot of the regional work in environmental, infrastructure and health areas, and education underpins our region’s current and future human capital.”

Seini O’Connor, Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat 

Among the recommendations of the December 2013 review, which have been discussed within the countries since then, is a proposal that rather than refreshing the 2005 plan, a “New Framework for Pacific Regionalism” be produced.

Part of this should be to “investigate how to improve knowledge-sharing in the area of sustainable development” and to “develop uniquely Pacific indicators of both poverty and progress”.
A range of potential initiatives for the new framework have been proposed during the review process, including some on science, education and health.

For example, the review annex lists proposals for joint agricultural research and sharing of expertise, and an institution to advocate for, and protect, traditional knowledge and intellectual property rights.

“Science informs a lot of the regional work in environmental, infrastructure and health areas, and education underpins our region’s current and future human capital,” says Seini O’Connor, Pacific Plan adviser in the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.
Stakeholders also want a regional statistical office, a shared fibre optic network to improve regional communications and better access to medical laboratories.

“It’s quite possible that IT connectivity will be one of the first areas that is focused on as a regional priority — but if so, it will be selected on the basis of a robust cost-benefit analysis and other tests for regionalism,” says O'Connor.
The original Pacific Plan has been criticised for having too general a vision and no exact measures of progress. It has also criticised for failing to recognise the importance of science in development. And even the December 2013 review of the plan itself, did not please scientists.
“The Pacific Plan is going to be ‘reborn’ as the Framework for Pacific Regionalism,” says O’Connor.
“The framework is an updated and reshaped version to reflect the current context of our region and to help us make sure that Pacific leaders have a more focused annual agenda and can put more energy into regionalism.”
Despite a range of initiatives being proposed as part of the framework, Nick Poletti, a review panel member and an expert on public sector reform, notes that a smaller number of initiatives would make for a more focused plan.
Joint research on agriculture, he says, will most likely be included in the final framework.
“There are some things which look highly likely to be better advanced at a regional level because of the economies of scale in research,” Poletti says, citing basic agricultural research into Pacific crops as an example of such a programme.
But Matthew Dornan, a research fellow in the Development Policy Centre at Australia National University, forsees problems with the regional approach. He suggests that regional science institutions should be in the form of links between institutions in each country rather than a regional science office in just one country.
“The problem is that every government will want that institution or research agency to be established within that country. Regional universities like the University of the South Pacific have been successful because they established campuses in every single member country,” Dornan tells SciDev.Net.
Other proposals on health initiatives include adopting international health standards; regional delivery of specialist health services; flying doctor services; nurse training and dissemination of health information; improved access to medical laboratories and lab testing; access to medical services through telephone and video links; and standard health information systems. Regional bulk purchasing, storage and distribution of pharmaceuticals is also suggested.
Proposed education initiatives include: common protocols for validating overseas degrees; Pacific internship and youth exchange programmes; and expanded regional technical and vocational education training programmes.