Monday, August 3, 2009

Pacific Nations' Development Should be Prioritised at Pacific Islands Forum: Oxfam

By Rich Bowden

Img: Oxfam International logo.

Aid organisation Oxfam has released a report on the eve of the Pacific Islands Forum calling for development of the Pacific Island nations to be prioritised over a standard free trade agreement. Delegates and press have begun arriving for the annual four-day forum which starts in Cairns, northern Queensland tomorrow.

The NGO report entitled "PACER Plus and its Alternatives: Which way for trade and development in the Pacific?" contends the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER), which is likely to be discussed at the Forum, has the potential to strengthen the economies of the Pacific nations to help them progress economically during the current global financial downturn but only if it covers essential development criteria.

Oxfam said the outcome of the negotiations could: " the Pacific to build on its assets, strengthen its resilience during global economic recession, and accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals."

However it warns that "Framed in the wrong way, it could exacerbate the problems of poor economic performance, growing economic hardship and conflict."

Oxfam New Zealand's executive director Barry Coates told reporters that any agreement signed should go one step further that a standard free trade agreement and focus on the Pacific nations' economic development.

“Against a backdrop of the enormous trade imbalance with Australia and New Zealand, and the lack of a strong base of productivity industry in the Pacific, it is clear that a new approach is needed,” he said.

The Oxfam report warns that a standard free trade agreement would be of little use to the Pacific. It concludes that such an agreement would: "...entail high costs and generate little benefit for the Pacific" which would include, "...lost government revenue and consequent reduction in essential government services, regressive measures that harm the poor, a failure to harness the potential benefits from utilising the Pacific’s resources, and loss of the Pacific’s productive capacities and damage to the welfare of its people."

Oxfam warns that the chief obstacle restricting Pacific nations' economic development is the lack of viable supply to available markets. It says any agreement signed should enable the productive capacity of Pacific countries' to be enhanced to take advantage of larger markets in Australia and New Zealand.

The aid organisation has called on additional funding to be made available to smaller nations to achieve these improved productive capacities.

Pacific nations will be looking to place a meaningful free trade agreement on the agenda at the annual summit along with discussions on climate change and its effect on the Pacific region and the restructuring of aid in the context of the global financial crisis.

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