Pacific Islands: Renaissance in Long-Overlooked Region?

Reflecting on this year's successful Pacific Forum Leaders' Summit in the idyllic island paradise of the Cook Islands, one might ask if we are witnessing a renaissance in this long-overlooked region.

The presence of leaders from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Pacific Islands and senior officials from the People's Republic of China and UN Women suggests that something is afoot. The announcement of a 10-year, $320 million Pacific Gender Initiative by the Australian government and a unique partnership between China and New Zealand to finance water supply and sanitation improvements in the Cook Islands gave further reason to think that the future may be brighter in what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to as the "half of Asia-Pacific that does not always get the attention it deserves."

Three years after the "Cairns Compact," is the situation on the ground evolving or are we just spectators at a 21st century version of Kipling's "Great Game" -- one played out over vast oceans rather than barren steppes? As such things go, the answer is slightly more nuanced than the guest list in Rarotonga might suggest.

The Pacific region is defined by its ocean, but it is also isolated by it. The cost of this isolation has been reduced rates of growth over the long-term with non-resource rich Pacific islands nations growing at around 1 percent per annum over the past decade, far less than population growth. Small land areas and isolation are also major contributors to fragility in the region. Transport, energy and communication costs in the Pacific's small islands and isolated rural regions are among the highest in the world.

The costs of providing small, disperse populations with basic health, education, energy, water supply and sanitation services are also high, and opportunities to increase government revenues seem few.

But amidst this "sea" of challenges are glimmers of hope. An election and the successful navigation of what once might have been immobilizing political challenges in Papua New Guinea are encouraging. Reforms in Fiji and recent progress in diplomatic relations with Australia and New Zealand likewise offer reasons for optimism.

We should also keep in mind that 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), an enterprise that has had a hugely positive impact on the lives of thousands of Solomon Islanders. In addition to signs of political progress, rapid advances in technology are increasingly making physical distance less of an obstacle to development. Information and communication technology, such as advances in mobile telephony and the kind of submarine fibre-optic cables soon to connect Tonga, Fiji and Solomon Islands with the rest of the world, not only reduce the limitations imposed by geography, but also change the economic landscape of the Pacific. Better connectivity could address the 'remoteness' of these nations and allow Pacific countries to explore new opportunities, and more effective means of delivering services like education and health care.

The high cost of power generation has hobbled development, but astonishing advances in renewable energy technology hold promise for the Pacific, where the effects of climate change are profoundly felt and renewable energy has been adopted at a remarkable pace in recent years.

But merely recognizing these opportunities is not enough. Pacific leaders must focus on three key areas to turn potential into advantage.

Strengthening human resource development is essential. The University of the South Pacific (USP) is taking the lead in this area, pairing advances in technology with a sharpened focus on technical and vocational education and training. USP will spend $19 million over the next few years to ensure students can surmount the region's geographic challenges and build their skills.

Pacific countries must also reform their business environments by increasing access to finance and making it easier for the private businesses to grow and create jobs. Finally, greater regional cooperation in the areas of investment policy and business law, among others, is integral to the future of the Pacific. The potential for Pacific nations to join together and create an attractive single market should not be discounted. Regional cooperation can also enable collective action against global challenges, such as climate change. Working together, Pacific countries can advance the climate and development financing agenda.

While the picture is decidedly mixed and the challenges daunting, new found attention to this region could help usher in the kind of transparency and change so desperately needed in this vast and yet remote corner of the globe.