U.S. – Pacific interactions: An account of the 2018 Young Pacific Leaders Conference in Hawaii.
12 February 2018
The 2018 Young Pacific Leaders Conference was convened at the East-West Center, Honolulu from the 15 – 18 January 2018. The EWC in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State selected 37 participants from across the Pacific Island Countries (PICs), including Hawaii State of the U.S., New Zealand and Australia to an interactive 3 days conference.
In discussing the U.S. policy in the Pacific, the participants got to share their issues, challenges and successes. Despite the distances between each country, the problems these countries share are so common and somewhat linked, and it is appreciated that the Pacific Ocean links these nations so much than it separates them. The untapped potential for the PICs is huge and opportunities cannot be wasted to develop it fully, in the midst of challenges.
Martin Luther King Jr Day
The conference unofficially started on the Monday, 15 January 2018 and coincided with the Martin Luther King Jr Day. Every third Monday of January, the U.S. observe this day to mark Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and honor his contributions against racial discrimination – the unfair, unwarranted and unjust treatment of fellow man/woman against principles of justice, equality and freedom. It was fitting to be involved in this important day and not only reflect on their experiences but to appreciate the challenges, particularly questioning peace, justice, freedom and prosperity for all and how to address them.
L-R; Chris Banga (PNG), Sylvia Elias (FSM), Elsie Bong (Vanuatu) and Regina Maefasia Lepping (Solomon Islands). U.S Embassy in Canberra.
As we walked down the Waikiki beach, I thought of people who are not free, are troubled and indeed insecure. Reflecting on Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby and going to school with West Papuan political refugees from across the Western border, it assures me that one day they will observe such days but how long will it take is unpredictable and an ongoing challenge. I believe a similar sentiment is shared across the Pacific, especially for the traditional/indigenous people to take control of their own destiny. But the trend of decision making and resource exploitation even in the fully independent nations like PNG leaves a lot to be desired.
I also thought of the climate change refugees in PNG. In the 1980s, the Carteret Islands, low-lying islands with a maximum elevation of 1.5 m above sea level, was inundated by storm and salt water intrusion threatening the livelihood of its inhabitants. This lead to the first relocation exercise in PNG in 1984 where 10 families from the 300 families were relocated to the main island in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (AROB). These families were relocated away from the sea, which pose the immediate challenge to live of the land as they are used to the sea and their techniques of survival is so different from the land. Only 5 years into the relocation exercise and since 1989, the Bougainville Crisis halted any further relocation.
Erosion on the islands got worse in time until 2006, the Carteret Islands Council of Elders initiated a NGO, Tulele Peisa – Sailing the Waves on our own – in response to inactions from successive government and concerned authorities to combat the challenges. This is so similar to other Pacific Islanders whom their islands and atolls are at risk of inundation and erosion, a direct impact of climate change and rise in sea level.
Three days after observing the day and on Friday, 19 January, fellow PNG participant, Salome Kair Aba and I were returning from the Walmart which is about 15 minutes’ drive to the University of Hawaii at Manoa where we were staying. We approached a cab to take us there but the driver responded, ‘I do not know the location’, while a GPS-aid could easily and ably assist. We approached the next cab in the queue and the driver granted our request. As we sat in the cab ready to leave, the first cab boarded other customers. The second (our) cab driver was curious about the situation and started asking questions. There and then I realized that the first driver meant it, not that he did not know our destination, but he chose to board people of a certain race.
While racism is not so much of a concern in PNG, ethnic differences is. A nation with over 800 different languages and culture in just 462,840 km2 of landmass poses significant challenges. Some observers of PNG politics, for example, have argued that the country’s fragmentation presents a ‘formidable and intractable’ impediment to its successful governance and nation building (Premdas, 1989:246).
Despite threats of secession by AROB in the late 70s, PNG continue to progress as a nation without great political separation.
The Pacific Ocean connects the Pacific people more than it separates them. That is reflected in the culture they share, the rhymes from the language they speak to merely the tattoos on their skin and the type of food they eat – Pacific Islanders love their food! It is also true that some other Pacific Islanders are connected to the land/mountains and rivers. Coming from the highlands of PNG, our people only got used to the sea/ocean when the road links opened up the highlands to the coastal provinces in the late eighteen hundred.
However, the common denominator is we all share a rich culture. At the welcome reception, the participants were accorded with the Hawaiian ‘kava/awa’ which resonates with ‘ava’ from Samoa, ‘yaqona’ from Fiji, ‘sakau’ from Phonpei and ‘malok/malogu’ in parts of Vanuatu. In PNG, the locals in Madang province refer to their kava as waild koniak (“wild cognac” in English).
Young Pacific Leaders before the welcome reception, Hale Halawai, East-West Center. U.S Embassy in Canberra.
We were greeted at every location of visit and it was not after the visit to the Ka’iwakiloumoku Hawaiian Cultural Center that I began to appreciate how they take pride in their culture – a culture that stretches as far across Polynesia. They are not afraid of questioning conventional ideologies, like they believe and keep telling the story that their ancestors sailed the Pacific Ocean way before Captain James Cook made his first voyage. The fact that people were living on islands before first contact speaks for itself.
This is challenging for PNG, a society increasingly influenced by Westernized ideas, not discounting the challenges of climate change and the related issues. This does not discount also the fact that modernization is good. The challenge though, is to manage/mitigate the challenges which are brought about as a result of these issues. This is one thing the Pacific community share in common, to combat the rising sea level, controlling pollution from plastic bags, mine exploitation by giant companies who have their roots in the developed nations.
The next three days following the welcome reception on Monday evening was fully booked with events. We were escorted along nicely paved walkways to the Center for Hawaiian Studies where the history of its people and places was told.
As the day matured, the discussion broadens to include U.S. policy in the Pacific Islands and we were graced to have an audience, over videoconference, with the Deputy Assistant Secretary and Ambassador for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs – Ambassador Mathew J. Mathews.
The Ambassador urged us to continue to influence change, as he highlighted the threats and issues which preludes progress in the region. PNG was pinpointed in the discussion as the host nation of 2018 APEC and the U.S. government is taking responsibility to assist in the preparations. On the domestic scale, preparations are underway. The PNG National Research Institute where I work, for example, is preparing to host the APEC Study Center Consortium Conference (ASCCC) between 14-15 May 2018. We expect that high-quality research, policy and best practice papers will be collated and presented at the conference.
The conversation was fluent and timed from the beginning to the end. This experience reminded me of the last time I sat before a screen to listen to a lecture from abroad. The videoconferencing prematurely stopped after several interruptions, presumably due to disruptions in the internet connections.
After the videoconferencing, the shuttle arrived right on time as programmed to take us to the next locations. Wow! this is the first time I ever used a toilet facility on the shuttle, which simply goes to show that toilets and sanitation facilities are readily available. It made me wonder where the bus and taxi drivers in PNG’s Port Moresby go to use a toilet facility? But the good transport infrastructure, notably, the road network in Honolulu also impressed upon me that the management and funding is fantastic. Consistent maintenance of such infrastructure is crucial for sustainable economic growth. The opposite is true and is a challenge for PNG where funding and proper maintenance of transport infrastructure is rarely considered a priority.
A supporting infrastructure is crucial to any economy. Key economic infrastructure may include but not limited to these five: energy/power; telecommunications; transport (roads and bridges, maritime transport (ports and shipping, aviation); solid waste management; and water supply and sanitation. Certainly, the social and economic context of the U.S. and PNG are different, let alone the U.S. to the rest of the PICs. But lessons can be drawn from the experiences, challenges and successes of the developed nations.
Flourishing Tourism Industry
On the second last day, we were given a tour of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We made several stops on the way to the park. The first stop was at the Farmer’s Market where we were told of the small island economic development through local products. The market was well organized with fruits and vegies on one side and crafts on the other. In PNG, building proper markets for local farmers remains a challenge, but this is probably the best way to meaningfully engage the bulk of the PNG population who are very much involved in the informal economy. Unless PNG’s informal economy is organized, broadening the economic base would not be a challenge.
Moving on and we were at the Pacific Aquaculture & Coastal Resources Center (PACRC) at the University of Hawaii, Hilo campus. The guide showed us around the farm and it is particularly interesting to notice university students engaged in farming. They raise their school fee in that way, and the returns depends on the yield of their harvest. At the end of their engagement, they have ample experience which is an advantage to their career. This helps tailor programs taught at the university to the demands in the economy, which is missing in PNG.
After about an hour bus ride uphill, we arrived at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The lookout is suspended over the range overlooking the magnificent view of the volcanoes. We were part of many others who passed through the park and went before us. The park ranger in welcoming us noted that the highest number of tourist in a day last year was around 13,000. In 2016 and according to the National Park Service report, the park recorded 1,887,580 visitors. The same year, the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority recorded only 197,631 visitors, in contrast to Fiji’s 792,320 visitors. This does not suggest that PNG lacks wonders which the world can be awed at, but only shows that the industry has a lot to offer and a lot to do to attract visitors to PNG.
The Polynesian Cultural Center presented the peak of my experience from the conference. The design of the facilities itself is a manifestation of the culture of Hawaii and Polynesia. We were graced with the cultural show of Polynesia and I thought this is probably the best cultural show I have ever watched. From the organization to the presentation and the essence of culture is formidable. I mean the organization and presentation is top of the list.
I think back to PNG and yes, the immediate question was the lack of supporting infrastructure and services. In this midst, it came to mind that we have a lot to present to the world imaging over 800 cultures. But the rest of the Pacific people, including the Melanesian and Micronesian, have a lot to add to the list of activities.
In all, the Young Pacific Leaders Conference helped me to think as a responsible global citizen. The organized events and activities provided an ideal platform for us to interact, learn and appreciate each other, where we were coming from and what we are doing.
We established networks as far across the Pacific, and came back with a new perspective of things. Immediately after the conference, a grant opportunity was opened for us to submit project proposal where cross-border collaboration is encouraged.
The Pacific nations maybe distant from each other but are connected by the Pacific Ocean. The challenges we share are so similar, but some are bigger than what we can manage. Many times, we count on the development partners like the U.S. for support. Sharing local knowledge, expertise and ideas around the issues we face should be one of the first step to addressing issues like the rise in sea level. The opportunities, however, are immense and need right interventions to deliver maximum impact on the community.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park News Release. Tourism to Hawaii Volcanoes NP creates $199,923,400 in Economic Benefits. Released at: April 20, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.nps.gov/havo/learn/news/newsreleases.htm
Reilly. B (2008). Ethnic conflict in Papua New Guinea. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, Vol 49, No 01, April 2008. Centre for Democratic Institution, Australian National University.
Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotions Authority. 2016 Annual Arrivals
Sinking Islands: Focus on the frontlines of climate change. (2014). Carteret Islands – The challenge of relocating entire islands. Retrieved from:
United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Financing for Development: Infrastructure Development in the Pacific Islands. Working Paper Series; July 2015.