THOUGHT LEADERS : Pacifica Future: The billion dollar question

Scattered across the broad blue sweep of the Pacific Ocean is diverse, culturally rich but geographically isolated series of island nations whose future is inextricably entwined with that of New Zealand.
There has long been flow of people and of goods east and west over this vast expanse of water that both defines and segregates small nation states from Tonga to Tokelau and from The Solomons to Samoa. But in world grown smaller, the challenges they face seem to loom ever larger.
One of the issues is how the cultural strengths of these communities can be leveraged to contribute to their future prosperity. What needs to change – and how can government agencies and communities encourage better economic outcomes?
These were among questions addressed at the recent “Pacific Futures: Preparing Pacific Communities for the 21st Century Symposium” sponsored by the University of Auckland Business School and Brigham Young University Honolulu.
The principal purpose of this gathering was to look at bridging the gap between the past and the future in the Pacific. Speakers, who included number of heads of state along with academics specialising in Pacific peoples’ issues, explored how religious, social and cultural heritages might affect future economic outlook.
Specifically they looked at why strong Pacific family bonds can help in the economic transition and what are the cultural traits and behaviours that might encourage better outcomes.
In world of globalisation and economic pluralism, these countries of the Pacific face significant challenges as traditional values and cultural mores come into conflict with the economic forces that are sweeping the world.
There is the risk that Pacific peoples may be left behind if some form of harmony and synchronisation between the past and the future does not take place within present and future generations.
New Zealand undoubtedly has role to play. As speakers at the Symposium noted, this country has strong historic and economic links with the area – through trade as well as through extended family networks. These were explored in the context of future economic and political interests of the Pacific nations and the ongoing impact of New Zealand’s participation in new and more competitive business era.
The good news is that economic and business prospects for the 21st century are regarded in positive light with plenty of opportunity to build on existing trade links.
According to the New Zealand Pacific Business Trust, headed by Gilbert Ullrich (Ullrich Aluminium), the 23 Pacific Island nations are not only important to New Zealand from political and diplomatic point of view, but also because of their commercial importance to New Zealand’s international trade.
As Ullrich pointed out, while island nations may be viewed individually as comparatively small economies, collectively these 23 countries provide New Zealand with its single largest annual regional trade surplus of $944 million.
NZPBT sees its role as addressing this trade gap, by exploring opportunities to encourage two-way trade. At the same time it looks at the prospects of further increasing New Zealand exports to these countries. This is very much private sector initiative, working in partnership with the Government, which recognises the importance of the Pacific Island nations to New Zealand, and this country’s responsibilities to its Pacific neighbours.
New Zealand businesses are interested in both export and import markets, as well as investment opportunities – which include the growing Pacific tourist industry.
Finally, rapidly growing population is also of interest to businesses of the future. According to Gerald Haberkon of the South Pacific Commission, the addition of 1.7 million Pacific Island people since 1994 reflects an annual population growth rate of 2.2 percent per annum.
If sustained, this growth would lead to doubling of the Pacific Island population in 32 years, to 17.2 million. And if stacked up against New Zealand’s relatively small and demographically aging population, it provides another good rationale for our ongoing commitment to the future social and economic development of Pacific peoples.
The Pacific Futures symposium has significantly added to the body of research in understanding the impact religious and spiritual legacies from the past have on people’s behaviour in the 21st century – and how these factors can be used to effect better outcomes in the future and improve the socio-economic status of Pacific peoples.
This is something of importance to all Pacifica peoples, New Zealanders included.

Manuka Henare (PhD) is associate dean, Maori and Pacific Economic Development, at the University of Auckland Business School.

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