Sunday, June 16, 2019

Pacific Mission 2019

The week before last I was part of the New Zealand mission to Melanesia visiting Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Both countries are major targets of the New Zealand Aid Programme, with New Zealand involvement and support in areas ranging from police training to tourism. The reception in both countries was very friendly and showed there will be opportunities for New Zealand businesses to engage over the coming years either as part of the aid programmes or directly as the economies develop.

Pacific trip
One of the most interesting parts of the trip was the delegation itself which was lead by Rt Hon Winston Peters and consisted of 10 MPs (including members of Labour, Greens, NZ First, and National) a Pasifika and community group, a business delegation, and media crew on top of the MFAT officials and RNZAF staff. With around seventy people we filled one of the Air Force’s 757s (which we were very happy to be in, as there had been some suggestions we might be in the Hercules and everyone agrees the novelty of wears off in the first 20 minutes of the flight). Bringing such a diverse group together with various experiences in the region was hugely valuable in its own right with connections quickly forming that will allow more NZ organisations to cooperate on what they’re doing in the region.
It was also a fascinating look into how well respected New Zealand is at a political level across the region. I think some credit must be given to all the politicians on the trip for contributing to New Zealand’s reputation in the region. Although it was a cross-party delegation everyone was explicit that New Zealand’s role and aid in the pacific is not a partisan issue and avoided bringing any of the domestic political disagreements they might have on the trip with them. Although some top level policy and direction might change this firm commitment to the region across all parties has contributed dramatically to how well we are thought of.
The trip was valuable in terms of all the connections built both in country and between the group itself. New Zealand presents itself well and is well-liked. The parliamentary delegation in particular worked hard to present as a single group from New Zealand rather than letting any of the disagreements they may have domestically show. As a business delegate I found it useful. The main thing for any others approached for a similar trip to be aware of is that the schedule is hard to keep to, and although there are a couple of gaps set up which you can theoretically book your own meetings into, it’s pretty hard in practice to actually pull that off. I have suggested something like a business speed dating event next time around so that the meetings can be centrally managed rather than delegates trying to sort out emergency internet connectivity to rebook a meeting when they realise the schedule has slipped.

Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands are a bit behind on their development journey in comparison to many of their neighbours (GDP per capita was estimated down around $2,380 USD per annum in 2017), but they surprised me the most in terms of the things that are going well and the potential represented. They’ve just gone through a successful election that, while tense, has had plenty of international oversight and appears to have been the most successful yet in terms of voter turnout and engagement (a particular shout out here went to the NZ Police trainers who have been working on helping bring community engagement strategies to the Solomon Islands Police Force).
Invariably the first thing people said to me after they learned I was in technology was that the country is finally getting a cable connection in about six months. That’s going to allow for a much more connected experience with the rest of the world. Even if access doesn’t make it to everyone immediately, the benefits of being more connected to their neighbours and being able to use the tools that other countries are using for planning and growth will be immense once they’re no longer dependent on satellite. To put this in perspective the roaming deal I was offered on mobile data was $5 NZD per megabyte and even locals were paying upwards of $250 NZD per month for less than a gigabyte of data.
Other pieces of infrastructure are also heading in a good direction. I was particularly impressed by our visit to the Honiara Port where the international side was in extremely good order and had deployed a fair amount of forward looking technology in terms of tracking systems and comprehensive dashboards in the main offices. New Zealand has also funded a second international airport in Munda to build a tourist zone around - this seems particularly positive in terms of allowing Honiara to focus on building itself out as the capital and industrial centre of the country.
On the industry side I found visiting Kokonut Pacific, an organisation teaching Solomon Islanders how to process coconut oil, interesting in terms of it illustrating a relatively complete supply chain all the way from small coconut growers through to export. People working in the coconut industry are producing a range of products including: oil, soap, copra, charcoal, bowls, carved items, and coconut water. This can then feed into the port that has plenty of backfill capacity allowing for cheap exports.

Coconut soap
Coconut oil soap at Kokonut Pacific

Most of the rest of our time was taken up by tours or events relating to the activity of New Zealand in Solomon Islands ranging from our support for the youth centre in Honiara through to official dinners more focussed on the political necessity of exchanging gifts between New Zealand and our hosts.
Solomon Islands has one particularly huge challenge in front of it - a huge youth population that is also mostly unemployed. To fix it they absolutely need to develop more industry but they’re taking many of the right steps to head in that direction. If they manage it then it’s likely they will end up in a good position as they have more scale and resources to work with, being comparatively larger (~600,000 people), than many of their neighbours.
The visit featured an amazing example of well-intentioned people making a small decision that has deeply negatively affected how they’re perceived. At some point someone on the policy side in Australia decided that the Australians should import Dole pineapples from outside Solomon Islands instead of buying the local produce as they were concerned buying locally would warp the domestic market. I’m sure the Australians did this with other things but everyone remembers the pineapples because it appears to be a point of local pride that their pineapples are extremely good (something I can attest to having sampled the produce). So a number of people bring this up in a variety of contexts including: talking about fruit, using it as an example of how the Australians didn’t engage with the community, and weird policy interventions when the price of pineapples seems so minor in comparison to how much aid money has warped the property market in Honiara. These three contexts match the three times I was told this story over the course of two and a half days on the ground. I found this fascinating as I’m sure no one agonised over this particular decision but it’s become so deeply entrenched as a bit of perception that people roll it out in conversation regularly.
Solomon Islands surprised me in terms of how far along their development journey they are versus what my preconceptions had been from outside the country. They’ve taken a number of positive steps towards building industry and infrastructure and what appears to be solid government vision for continuing to do so. Coming away from the visit I’m much more optimistic about what the next decade will bring for the country.


Vanuatu is a very different experience from Solomon Islands as it is much more developed in the main centre. In Port Vila the internet speed is good and they already have a thriving tourism industry. Despite this the rural areas and islands are still mostly subsistence living with little in the way of access to services.
While Solomon Islands face issues from youth moving to the city and being jobless, Vanuatu was more concerned with the issue of less of the population moving to the areas that are easy to service. On the one hand it’s easier for everyone to stay at a subsistence level when spread across the region, on the other it’s harder to move towards industry and development.
Another challenge for businesses trying to work out what the future of Vanuatu will be is the complexity of the political situation - the current government is an eight-way coalition which is down from a coalition of 12 parties. This situation makes predicting what’s likely to happen on a political front difficult, with frequent motions of no confidence in parliament and a number of groups pushing very different futures.
Vanuatu’s economy is much more tightly tied to tourism than Solomon Islands with regular arrivals of large cruise ships supporting much of their economy. This is leaving the country with a different set of challenges around infrastructure and planning (more areas have to be able to handle the sudden arrival of a shipload of people). In the vast majority of cases the expats and businesses I met there were involved in the tourism industry in some way.
Because of its dependence on cruise ships Vanuatu is even more vulnerable to climate change having a long term effect on its economy than some other islands. Hurricane seasons are getting longer and the direct danger increases alongside the window in which cruise ships are travelling the region decreasing. Without the cruise ships there would simply not be enough trade to support the country and there isn’t a clear path to an alternative industry. This is a reminder that if the world as a whole doesn’t proactively address climate change the costs will also accrue directly in increasing aid and support needed by the countries affected.
One of the pieces of better news in the trip was our visit to the Fred Hollows eye clinic in Port Vila. Fred Hollows has some of the best investment to outcomes metrics of any charity I’ve come across, because restoring vision changes someone from permanently needing some level of support to being able to work or produce for themselves. The Vanuatu clinic is particularly notable for being the first time the foundation has successfully trained a local through to being a full opthamologist alongside building a new clinic that should allow for 800 surgeries a year.
One key part of any Vanuatu visit is sampling the Kava which tastes medicinal and is purported to have a relaxing effect. The impression I’d been given of it ahead of time overstated the effects as I can’t say I particularly noticed any mental changes but it was always served in a setting that was comfortable and open to good conversation so I recommend the experience.
We also had the notable experience of clogging up the airport on the final day with the RNZAF 757 had an issue and the other one had to be flown over to bring us back to New Zealand. Apparently the 757s are a bit error prone, but at least it gives the media some extra opportunities for stories.
Although it’s currently ahead on tourism I felt that Vanuatu was more vulnerable than Solomon Islands in terms of the various challenges facing it as a country. Everything from climate change to oil price can affect the tourism industry in ways that Vanuatu doesn’t have much power to change and there isn’t a good backup option at the moment.
Both countries I went to are amazing places to visit, and I look forward to watching their development over the coming years. The mission reinforced how key it is that we do our part in the region especially as other parts of the world prove to be less stable than we may have thought. A stable connected pacific region is good for us and good for the world.
Overall it was a hugely worthwhile trip in terms of connections built and for giving me some time on ground and experiences of things that would otherwise be hard to access.

(This article originally posted on the Ackama blog)