Canberra Diary: Capital letter

Dev Nadkarni

Like most major national capital precincts around the world, Canberra, too, has that geometrically clinical, imperiously distant quality about it. The straight and wide avenues that connect the centres and symbols of power, the manicured gardens and artificial water bodies that structure the agoras seem carefully designed to overawe, employing the scale, immensity and grandeur to convey in no uncertain terms the collective greatness of the people of the country and its place in the scheme of things in the modern world. Australia’s capital turns 100 next year.

Australia’s billion dollar parliamentary complex in the capital’s heart is undoubtedly one of the finest modern buildings anywhere. It is a fitting symbol of the country’s enviable successes in so many diverse fields. But unlike such building complexes around the world, Australia’s seems strangely welcoming and accessible. The security is minimal and unobtrusive – the corridors of power are not guarded by gun toting soldiers or slick, prying plainclothes security personnel – admittedly though, the houses aren’t in session during my visit. There don’t seem to be any no go areas and the guided tour is excellent.

Among details of the workings of Australia’s bicameral parliamentary systems, the articulate guide lets us in on many interesting tidbits about the building and the precinct. One of these creates little eddies of excitement in the group: There’s free wifi in the building. People reach out for their smartphones and are clicking away.

 

Kilroy was here

It’s too hard to resist the mobile, digital version of ‘Kilroy was here’ – especially when you don’t have to pay eye-watering data roaming charges. How very easy it has become to let the whole world know of what you’re up to – even if you are at one of the most politically sensitive places in a country. All you need is a little device. And, of course, a network to transmit.

Which, on an entirely different level, worries countries like America and Australia. Both are extremely wary of doing business with Chinese networking giant Huawei. Both want to block its multi billion dollar plans to join local partners to build broadband networks in their countries. Their fears seem to border on paranoia. But on the other hand, those fears might be justified. We don’t know yet. It’s as though both Australia and America want to build the Great Wall of China in their own countries to keep Huawei out. Huawei, in this modern version of trade warfare, has employed some very high profile people to fly its flag. For instance, former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer is a director in its Australian arm and champions its cause in the country.

But none of those fears come in the way of my posting a couple of pictures instantaneously on my Facebook page. Within minutes, friends from halfway across the globe are laughingly joining the dots between my visit to the Australian parliament and Julia Gillard’s now famous ‘trip’ in New Delhi just the previous day.

The Australian Prime Minister’s accidental stumble and fall on her way to an official engagement in the Indian capital is somewhat symbolic of the stumble in the relationship between the two countries after the spate of bashings that left several Indian students in Australia injured and even a couple of them dead last year. The incidents have apparently seen a big drop in the number of students from India coming into Australia for tertiary studies and technical qualifications, causing a dent in that significant revenue stream. Then there has been the uncertainty around the supply of uranium ore for India’s huge nuclear power generation programme.

But Gillard has played her cards well. She has aimed well to find India’s soft spot and announced during last month’s trip that Indian cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar will be presented with the Order of Australia. While this has sent positive vibes throughout Tendulkar’s considerable fan world, not all Australians have been impressed. And in all probability that’s not because Tendulkar is not Australian. It is because it is hard not to dub the move a political stunt to mollify the 400 million strong Indian middle class and its huge buying power. There is little doubt that the gesture will go some way in mending perceptions in India. Whether that translates to runs on the board as regards fresh waves of students coming in remains to be seen. Time will tell if Gillard hit a six or just played the ball for no run.

 

Scribes no more

We catch up with Ed, one of my former students at the University of the South Pacific’s Journalism Programme. Ed lives with his wife in Canberra. As it happens, like many of my former journalism students, Ed isn’t a journalist anymore. We discuss the old times over some delectable Thai food. Thanks to social networking most of Ed’s class is in touch with one another despite a decade that separates them. And within seconds, thanks to it again, they know we’re having dinner in Canberra. Almost none of that batch is in journalistic jobs, Ed tells me.

Being a scribe doesn’t pay anymore. It’s a great stepping stone to other far better paying communication jobs, though – especially in the government and development sectors. So a great number of my former students are spinning tales for their employers for our consumption through the media and getting paid much more than they would have had they stuck to reporting on stuff like what goes on in places like the splendid building I visited that morning.

We discuss how the big Australian media houses have been culling journalists for a while now and how newsgathering and reporting are changing because of social media propelled so-called citizen journalism. Coincidentally, one of the big headlines of that day is that one of the world’s high profile newsweeklies, Newsweek, is to cease production of its print edition and will be available purely in the digital format. How exactly the Fourth Estate will eke out a survival from an increasingly digital world is pretty much up in the air right now but there is no doubt that some sort of revenue model will emerge at some stage.

Ed and his wife are just back from a month in Burma, which is where he comes from. Burma has opened up in the past couple of years and its most visible face, Aung San Suu Kyi, has begun travelling the world and is being feted by hordes of admirers and world leaders alike everywhere she goes. She’s a great symbol for the sea change that promises to sweep the country, despite the ongoing ethnic clashes that are being reported over the past several months. Ed strongly reckons adding Burma or Myanmar to my bucket list is a great idea. It’s absolutely fascinating he and his wife say proudly.

I hope to visit sometime soon and look forward to writing a Yangon Diary sooner rather than later.

First appeared in Islands Business, November 2012 

End of the news media as we know it?

Turmoil in Australian news media is the thin end of the wedge

One of the pithier definitions of news is, ‘something that someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know’. That someone is usually in a position of power – either in government or in business – and what they don’t want you to know is some shady stuff that has been done at your cost.

It is no surprise that the powers that be – whether government or business – so often find themselves at loggerheads with the news media. Most politicians and businesspeople are of the view that the news media is a necessary evil that has to be lived with.

History is littered with instances of politically motivated muzzling of the media with methods ranging from financial and physical coercion to the enactment of legislation heavily loaded against libertarian freedoms, mainly targeting the freedom of expression, leading to censorship in many guises.

Less obvious is the influence that big business wields over the news media. Big spenders of advertising dollars have mastered the fine art of extracting their pound of flesh in terms of gaining favourable exposure – while getting the media to gloss over what would seem unfavourable – by leveraging their huge ad spend, which indeed is the lifeblood of the news media. The influence of big money has muscled its way to the front pages. And quite literally, too: think how often these days you see a highly paid for advertising wraparound concealing the front page of a newspaper under a faux masthead.

The burning desire to control the media has traditionally been associated with politics and politicians – not so much business and businesspeople. However, that is about to change, as we are seeing it unfold in Australia – but more about that, a little later in the piece.

The Fourth Estate’s vulnerability

By its very nature, the Fourth Estate, which is supposed to be the independent guardian of common people’s interests, is fraught. It does not have the same locus standi that the three estates or pillars – legislature, executive and judiciary – of democracy have. In that sense it is powerless. But then, it derives whatever semblance of the power it has from the people – by virtue of being a guardian of their interests and keeping a hawk’s eye on the goings on in the dealings of the three estates and the effective separation of their powers, which is the very essence of democracy.

The ideal, dispassionate, independent news organisation would therefore be one that would be completely supported by subscription and newsstand sales, paid individually by readers. This, like most ideal stuff, has never been possible and a news organisation is simply unviable commercially without advertising or some form of government subsidy (as in the case of broadcast media in many countries around the world, including developed nations).

Never viable as a solely subscriber supported enterprise, the dependence of the news media on advertisers has grown exponentially over the decades. The advent of the internet, especially since the 1990s, has exacerbated that dependence, not least because the world’s news media fell over one another in a mindless scramble to give all content away free.

That decision to give it away free even further alienated the tenuous financial support the news media received from end users or news consumers, increasing their dependence on advertising dollars while at the same time having to deal with falling circulations and concomitant sliding advertising revenue.

The ease of accessing news from a variety of sources on a range of digital devices at no cost has sounded the death knell of the news media, as we have known it. The virtual elimination of subscriber supported revenue streams and the complete dependence of the news media on advertising dollars has greatly compromised its independence.

This realisation has come in too late and the news media is once again scrambling, falling over one another to erect ‘paywalls’ so that subscribers pay for what they read, watch and listen. Leading news organisations around the world have been experimenting with various models but none seems to have hit upon a scheme that works satisfactorily. Twenty years of free news content from multiple sources has all but nullified brand loyalty and it is hard to convince people to pay for what they have been used to getting free for two decades.

Big turmoil in Australian media

Most big news organisations are deeply in the red and the fact that their traditional business model is coming unstuck is borne out from what has happened in the Australian news media last month.

Fairfax, among the country’s largest media houses and the publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, announced plans to cut 1900 jobs and shut down two printing plants over three years. The two leading newspapers will cease to be broadsheets and will be in a smaller ‘compact’ size (the editors-in-chief of the two papers have also announced their decision to step down). Fairfax’s share price has seen a precipitous drop of 85% in the past five years.

The company has also announced that it will start charging for content, following in the footsteps of its big rival, News Limited, which also, incidentally, announced big job cuts in its Australian operations last month.

Meanwhile, the bigger story in Australian media that has repercussions on all big media houses around the world and perhaps portends the shape of things to come is the acquisition of nearly 19 per cent of the stake in Fairfax by Australia’s richest woman and mining magnate, Gina Rinehart.

Ms Rinehart is reported to have asked for a say in the appointment of directors on the board and also reportedly refused to sign a document that guarantees editorial independence. Her group has indicated that it may sell the stake if conditions are not met. Also, it is well known that Ms Rinehart is opposed to the Australian government’s carbon tax regime and mining policies that are seen as restrictive by the industry. It is clear in her acquisition and recent statements that she would like control on media content and opinion.

Australia’s Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said this would lead to a “crisis of confidence among the readership” and the developments have worried Treasurer Wayne Swan enough say, “I think that has very big implications for our democracy, I think we should all be very concerned at this turn of events.”

It is interesting to see what was widely touted as the very bastions of free media that didn’t bat an eyelid before condemning attempts at media control in poorer countries around the region are now under threat of losing independence to vested interests powered by big money.

The advent of digital media and the entry of big money are set to change the face of the news media forever. What won’t change is that clever definition of news we began with: something that someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know – except that such concealment won’t even serve the purpose of the proverbial fig leaf.

First appeared in Islands Business, July 2012

Rio+20’s bottom up initiatives hold out hope

Dev Nadkarni

This month thousands of the world’s political leaders, scientists, corporate heads and representatives from civil society, non government organisations and interest groups will gather at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (better known as the Rio+20 summit) in Brazil. They will deliberate on ways to promote greater social equity by reducing poverty while ensuring environmental protection.

None of these ideas are new and such jamborees have been held periodically in many parts of the world since the first such conference in Rio twenty years ago. Their achievement so far can at best be termed patchy. Climate Change conferences have failed to achieve consensus repeatedly generating skepticism around mega events like Rio+20. But they have succeeded in greatly raising awareness about environmental degradation and the progressive loss of biodiversity. They have helped bring ideas like sustainability and social equity into the public discourse. They have catalysed the incorporation of these concepts in development initiatives especially at local, grassroots levels.

This has helped percolate these ideas through levels of government and through the media into communities’ grassroots activities like agriculture, fisheries and helped promote ideas of conserving resources around these practices. The awareness of sustainable practices is much more out there among the people than ever before and being involved in the activities themselves, it is best for decision makers to hear straight from communities and people who are at the coalface.

Ear to the grassroots

Fortunately, the Rio+20 has taken this on board. Rio+20 differs from previous conferences in that it has a built in system for information and communications technology infrastructure to involve the wider community. Any person from anywhere in the world can participate in the pre-summit deliberations using simple web technology. Submissions, which can be made on more than a dozen listed topics, will be collated and suggestions and opinions from common people will hopefully be presented to the leaders before the final deliberations. How much this ICT-aided attempt at to ensure inclusiveness will succeed remains to be seen. But it is a great start at involving hands on people at the grassroots of human activity.

If this highly democratic looking system really works – which we will know in the weeks after the conference concludes later this month – the more inclusive bottom up approach will be a refreshing change over previous conferences that have deliberated at the highest political, commercial and scientific levels with little active input from the grassroots – except for scenes of protests outside meeting venues. It is time policy makers took on board feedback straight from the people who are directly affected in terms of their livelihoods, habitats, shelters, lifestyles and cultures, rather than from intermediaries like research and survey agencies.

Rio+20 has also succeeded in keeping the conference conceptually simple. Rio+20 focuses on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and developing the institutional framework for sustainable development.

Climate change conferences and the global initiatives they have spawned aiming at adaptation and mitigation has brought a greater appreciation at all levels about adopting green technologies for achieving greener economies. More and more countries are embarking on the path of renewable energy generation and several Pacific Island countries are at the forefront of policy making and target setting for implementing renewable energy projects. Countries like the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Tonga have well documented strategies to achieve milestones.

But that is only the ‘pull’ factor, so to speak. There is a bigger ‘push’ factor that is driving these countries on that path. It is the continuing uncertainty wrought by the entrenched oil economy. The volatility of oil prices and the fact that it is so closely tied to such unpredictable elements as geopolitical stability, market forces, cartelisation and the sheer costs of moving it to remote locations like the Pacific islands has hastened the islands toward adopting strategies for alternative, unconventional energy systems.

Sustainability the central mantra

The key word in all this is sustainability. Be sustainable and you will be in a position to be more independent, self sufficient, economical, clean, green and prosperous.

Small vulnerable countries like most of the Pacific Island states would do well not merely to stop at adopting renewable energy sources driven chiefly by the uncertainty of the oil economy and spiraling costs of dwindling hydrocarbon based fuels. They should in fact do everything to delink from the oil economy as best as they possibly can. This means less dependence on imports that can be replaced quite easily with little intelligent effort locally.

For instance, adopting new grassroots level small and micro-farming techniques could collectively save the islands millions of dollars in foreign exchange, while promoting healthy practices of which islanders are so badly in need of. The islands have the requisite climatic conditions to grow a variety of fruit and vegetables on small scales at community and even family levels. It is just a question of adopting a sustainable, low resource using growing technique like the fish waste driven aquaponics. This simple technique is gaining impressive ground in water starved regions even in the developed countries such as the United States and Australia.

It will be interesting to see the outcomes of the deliberations on the adoption of green economies at Rio+20. Techniques like aquaponics that promote food security and therefore greater social equity as well as dozens of appropriate low cost, low footprint, high on conservation, sustainable techniques and technologies are being invented, reinvented, revived or tinkered with every day. It is hoped that initiatives like Rio+20 will help bring these to the fore.

What will be even more interesting is to see what progress is made on the second theme of the Rio+20 conference: developing the institutional framework for sustainable development. This is the important part that will make the wheel of sustainability turn to gather momentum toward a greener future. It is the part that deals with assisting national governments and global financial institutions to sit together and develop frameworks for financing, implementing and successfully running green technology initiatives.

Unlike climate change conferences, which have aimed at top down prescriptive initiatives based on unproven science that have big implications on national economies – mostly perceived negatively – which indeed is why no substantial agreements have been reached, the Rio+20 conference seems more grassroots level, bottom up, full of proactive initiatives in sharp contrast.

The ingredients for successful outcomes are all there. Making it work is as much an opportunity of decision makers at the highest level as it is for people at the grassroots level. For all our destinies are bound up together with the well being of the planet. We’re all stakeholders and our collective strategy can only be sustainable practices.

 

First appeared in Islands Business June 2012

Five years on, RSE yields bountiful harvest

By Dev Nadkarni

New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, which enables the country’s farming enterprises to employ seasonal labour on their farms and pack houses from overseas – notably from around the Pacific Islands region – is undoubtedly a success story.

Thousands of seasonal workers from Vanuatu, Kiribati, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands work at dozens of horticulture and viticulture facilities around the country, sending back millions of dollars in earning back to their home countries.

Last month, Vanuatu celebrated five successful years of its participation in the RSE scheme. The Melanesian nation, which, unlike other Pacific Island nations had a traditionally low volume of remittances, has seen a marked increase in remittance inflows since it began participating in the scheme in 2007.

Vanuatu has been one of the most enthusiastic participants with over 1700 men and women currently working in New Zealand hired by more than 40 employers and some 2300 who have worked in previous years. Several workers are here now on their fifth stint and are looking forward to more years of gainful employment.

Over the years, the workers have honed their skills and improved their work ethic to become more efficient. In a recent letter to Vanuatu Commissioner of Labour Lionel Kaluat, New Zealand Department of Labour’s National Manager Emily Fabling said one of New Zealand’s major RSE employers had noted that ni-Vanuatu workers’ productivity had increased each year.

“When the first seasonal workers from Vanuatu began arriving in the small farming towns and communities in 2007, locals thought they were newly resettled refugees from some African country,” says McKenzie Kalotiti Vanuatu’s High Commissioner in New Zealand. “But today they are part of the townscape adding great cultural diversity to the places where they live and work.”

Last month, workers from Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu joined Christian choirs comprising a wide mix of ethnic communities in an annual ‘Many People, Many Songs’ celebration in Nelson in the South Island. This was the fifth year of their participation.

“It’s great for the community to be able to appreciate the cultures of our guest RSE workers, given that they play such an important role in the local horticulture and viticulture industries. It is an excellent opportunity to learn about each other’s cultures and, for RSE workers, to give something back to the Nelson community,” Ms Fabling said.

As well as bringing ethnic and cultural diversity into New Zealand communities, the RSE workers’ presence in the countries over extended periods has helped familiarise locals with their Pacific homeland. Of the increased numbers of New Zealand tourists visiting Vanuatu in the past two or three years, a significant number are from the areas where the ni-Vanuatuans live and work, says Kalotiti.

This is clearly an unintended flow-on benefit of the highly successful scheme, which has been studied widely and is now being emulated in many countries. Australia, for instance, after a long trial scheme that ends on June 30 this year, has announced a new, more permanent scheme and last month began accepting applications from Samoan workers in Apia. News reports indicated that there was great interest in the Australian scheme.

The Pacific Islands Forum’s trade commission in Auckland, Pacific Islands Trade & Invest, conducts periodic financial literacy training for the RSE workers around the country on how to manage their dollar earnings efficiently – transferring money across borders cost effectively, saving both while here and back in their home countries and investing in small enterprises and gainful schemes wisely. Last month the trade commission conducted two such sessions for workers from Vanuatu and Tonga.

Returned workers from Vanuatu are known to have invested in initiatives like fishing boats or buildings for use by their communities and a band of Samoan workers invested in a bus to serve a hitherto unserviced route on the island of Upolu. The trade commission is now looking at exposing the returning workers to small entrepreneurial activity that addresses both social and economic development issues such as food security.

Meanwhile, concerted efforts of the World Bank, national central banks, regional commercial banks and financial institutions have helped reduce costs of money transfer around the region. Fees were among the highest anywhere in the world until a couple of years ago. Though still high in comparison with other regions, costs have reduced considerably. Mobile telephony has recently entered the money transfer business and this is expected to drive costs even lower leaving more investible funds or money to save in the hands of the workers.

The only significant costs that workers face while living in New Zealand are stay and local transport – some NZ$135 a week at the very least, on top of tax deductions. Workers are typically able to save about NZ$8000to NZ$10,000 at the end of their seven-month stint – significantly more than what they would earn in comparable employment back home even if they worked for the whole year.

OLPC criticism lopsided

An article in The Economist last month criticised the global One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project as not having achieved any marked improvements in literacy and numeracy skills of school children – at least in the South American nation of Peru.

As part of the project, some 2.5 million laptops at about US$200 apiece have been distributed to classrooms in 42 countries including some in the Pacific Islands region. Given the results, the study raises the question whether the $200 spent on each laptop computer in an environment where governments spend just $48 on an average student annually is effective use of funds.

While pointing out the lack of appreciable improvement in reading and writing skills, the study ignores a number of other factors that could logically be responsible for low achievement. For one, it would be naïve to look at computers per se as some sort of magic wand to improve such skills. Secondly, properly trained teachers (many of them encountering computers for the first time in their lives) and contextualised, relevant software are critical in ensuring success. In many countries the computers exist without these other inputs.

Speaking about his experience in a school in Oksapmin district of the remote highlands region of PNG, David Leeming, who has been involved with the OLPC project in the region, says on a regional public internet forum, “These places have no timely access to newspapers, no TV, no school libraries to speak of. In short not a rich educational environment.

“These schools now have OLPC XS servers running 24/7 on solar power, containing 40 GB of digital educational resources accessible at anytime by the children and teachers laptops. Children from age 6 are now learning information literacy skills … The XOs are better than books as they also allow the children to build their knowledge using the activities – creative, multimedia, customisable tools to construct knowledge from information both in about outside of class. Just in the area of information access and information literacy, the OLPC programme has a huge impact. It is self-evident. A no brainer.”

Pointedly, Leeming asks another pertinent question: “Where would you place your children at school? Would you think it immaterial whether computers and ICT were used? Why does the question need so much more examination when it comes to the children of other people – poor people’s children in under underserved areas?”

I would think if a similar study in developed world schools was done to assess the effect of mobile phones and social networking, a marked decline in literacy skills would be quite evident, given the ubiquitous coolness of txting, LOL.

First appeared in Islands Business, May 2012

Fiji land deal could help save a nation

By Dev Nadkarni

“Every time the plane comes in to land on one of our Pacific Island countries, as it flies low over so many beautiful green islands, I think to myself – how nice it would have been if our people had an option to live on them,” Kiribati President Anote Tong told me in the course of an interview in his office in Tarawa in October 2008. “There are hundreds of uninhabited but habitable islands in the South Pacific Ocean.”

Last month’s announcement that Kiribati was considering purchasing one of the islands in Fijian territorial waters has the potential to fulfill the recently re-elected President’s longing. The announcement received wide coverage in the media worldwide. The President’s office then issued a hurried rejoinder stressing that the idea of acquisition of a Fijian island was solely from an investment point of view.

The clarification is understandable, given the sensitivity around the issue. Kiribati has been in the spotlight in recent years as being one of the island nations that is most threatened by sea level rise. President Tong has campaigned tirelessly at all sorts of world forums, especially at the climate change mega jamborees from Bali to Cancun. Though it has been designated as one of the most “vulnerable” islands threatened by climate change and sea level rise, the funds promised at successive climate meets for adaptation and mitigation projects have come in a mere trickle for Kiribati.

And the biggest question of all – of what to do when push comes to shove has remained unanswered. Mass migration – and the big issues and problems that come with it – has been discussed many times but there is far from a consensus in the world community about what to do with rising sea level related climate change refugees. Climate scientists would have us believe that such an eventuality is a question of when, not if, but world organisations have left the issue in the too hard basket and it has never formed part of serious public discourse at least thus far.

This is despite dozens of television programmes and hundreds of media reports that have portrayed Kiribati as one of the first nations to potentially sink along with another neighbouring atoll nation, Tuvalu, as sea levels rise because of climate change.

Kiribati though has a host of other problems that the issues related to sea level rise have overshadowed. One of the most isolated island nations in the Pacific Ocean, its slender atolls straddle three time zones giving it one of the highest land to territorial waters ratio anywhere. Given this sprawl and poor air and sea connectivity, logistics and administration are challenging, to say the least.

Tarawa and many other atolls have no freshwater sources as there are no permanent rivers or streams and people depend almost exclusively on rainwater or small desalination plants. Donor countries have helped build large rainwater storage tanks and changing weather patterns tend to keep residents perpetually on the edge when rainfall fails over several weeks at a time. Being flat atolls, king tides often ravage the country, especially the causeways that link atolls, submerging the only single linking road for hours at a time.

Ever rising tides are battering the nation’s coastline with making saltwater flood coastal farmlands and destroying the semblance of agriculture that the islands have. It is not unusual to see hectares of coconut groves shorn of their fronds sticking out mournfully out of the salt-ridden, fallow ground. Worryingly, the influx of people into Tarawa from the outer atolls has made it one of the densest places anywhere in the Pacific, mimicking problems caused by overcrowding in developing world metros.

There is little industry in the island nation and Tarawa gets only a few tourists each year even though it has some interesting World War-II gun sites (Christmas Island, which lies two time zones away to the East and is closer to the West Coast of the United States, gets far more tourists to visit its WW-II heritage sites). Also, last month’s announcement that Kiribati would help in yet another search mission for legendary pioneering woman aviator Amelia Earhart may help boost tourist numbers, if the mission shows promise of discovery.

President Tong’s clarification that the idea to buy the Fijian island is for investment purposes does have a basis. Wealthy individuals, Hollywood celebrities like Mel Gibson and businesses have been known to own islands in the Pacific. So for a country to buy an island is hardly out of character.

But clearly, possible future mass migration in the face of continual sea level rise would definitely have been a major driver in the decision. After all, low lying islands like the Maldives in the Indian Ocean have also been considering investing in tracts of land in far off continents, obviously with a view to resettling their populations in the event of an impending oceanic cataclysm. But the fact that the President and the Kiribati government have sought to relegate this possibility to the background is understandable, given the sensitivities around the issue.

Fortunately for Kiribati, though, it has a small fund of a few hundred million dollars sitting in Australia, which it accumulated years ago out of royalty proceeds for mining phosphates on Banaba, one of its outer atolls. Successive Kiribati governments have dipped into this nest egg time and again and it has diminished somewhat – but is still quite considerable, running into the hundreds of millions. In that sense, it has played its cards better than Nauru, which went from being one of the wealthiest countries in terms of per capita income (thanks again to phosphate) to zilch in the space of a decade. It is this small pile of cash that might ultimately bail out the people of Kiribati.

Curiously, if the deal goes through and the Republic of Kiribati ends up acquiring a Fijian island, it would be the second time that Fiji would play a role in resettling displaced iKiribati people. Following the savaging of Banaba by colonial phosphate companies in the last century, Banabans were shipped en masse to the island of Rabi in Fiji. The Banaban community is now integrated into mainstream Fijian life and as the older generation passes on, life on the distant atoll, now all but abandoned, will only be a distant memory and will live on in folk songs and stories (compiled in a well-produced book in New Zealand a couple of years ago).

Given the multiple implications of the proposed island deal, Fiji deserves praise for welcoming this move, as its government has done publicly.  If the deal goes through according to plan and the people on some of Kiribati’s atolls do end up resettling on their new island home in Fijian waters some time in the future, it would be the first ever incidence of climate change related migration in the world and may well open the door to other such humanitarian migration elsewhere.

The deal could help save an entire nation.

First appeared in Islands Business, April 2012

2012: what does it portend?

By Dev Nadkarni

Most people around the world would be happy to see the back of 2011 and look forward to the January of 2012 being a harbinger of better times, despite the widespread trepidation of grim forebodings wrought by some interpretations of the Mayan calendar.

What a year 2011 has been. Disasters of all kind – whether natural or financial – have befallen the peoples of so many nations around the world. A series of hugely destructive earthquakes, massive flooding, tsunamis and dozens of tornados brought many parts of the world to the brink.

This string of natural disasters and altered weather patterns set the backdrop for climate change negotiations in Durban last month – but the world by and large decided to postpone the possibility of working toward any definite solution, avoiding confrontation.

The one that caused the most widespread concern on a global scale were the earthquake and tsunami that conspired to create a nuclear disaster in Japan, sending shock waves across the world. For New Zealand, the early part of last year was eminently forgettable. The Pike River disaster and the Christchurch earthquakes are the worst this country has seen in its history.

As if natural disasters were not enough, the worst of the global financial crisis, unfolding slowly and menacingly since 2008, came to a head last year, with countries virtually going bankrupt. What the natural disasters did to life, limb and property, the financial disasters did to people’s wealth and that of entire nations.

The situation has gotten so dire that what was one of the world’s wealthiest regions until a couple of years ago – the Eurozone – is on the brink of collapse. Fifty years in the making, the Eurozone was hailed as a great example of cooperation that was achieved among countries that were at the throats of one another fighting wars not much more than a couple of generations ago. But it has taken just a couple of years of financial crises for it to face the threat of unravelling.

A weak Eurozone could have serious implications for the Pacific Islands region this year and the next several, because many of its development programmes are tied to European aid. In times like this, overseas aid would be far lower down leaders’ priorities as they grapple to save their countries from worsening financial climes and manage tense political situations. So far there has been no official announcements about cuts to aid programmes but that cannot be ruled out given the circumstances.

At one time in the early stages of the global financial crisis, as the contagion consumed Wall Street after the Lehman Brothers implosion followed by that of several others that plunged the US dollar, the euro threatened to dislodge the greenback from its nearly five decade long reign as the currency of choice. What a sudden and precipitous fall the past year has been for what once was such a strong and desirable currency. The crisis has shown how fickle and illusory so-called financial success based on unmanageably large debt can be – as for individuals, so for nations.

The US is continuing to head for the worst of times economically. This year, its cities have seen the mushrooming of tent cities on the outskirts of many of its big cities – populated with increasing numbers of people who have been forced out of jobs and their homes into poverty. The country’s policy making machinery seems to be in a state of paralysis as the nation inches toward what undoubtedly promises to be an acrimoniously fought election.

Things haven’t been bad at all in Oceania as they are in the some countries of the developed world, particularly in the United States and the Eurozone. The banking systems in the whole of the region have generally held up well against the global crisis. New Zealand’s saga of the string of finance company disasters is a different story though. But the government has moved swiftly to put in place measures to prevent the repeat of such grief for mum and dad investors who have collectively lost hundreds of millions of dollars to the unbridled greed of dodgy finance company promoters.

Strong fundamentals of the Australian banks have fended off any possibility of a crisis in Australia or the rest of the region including the Pacific Islands, where Australian banks dominate the scene.

Is there another way to run the world?

Meanwhile, the world’s ordinary folk have grown sick and tired of what they see as a culture of unmitigated greed, fiscal irresponsibility, and unjustifiably high rewards among the powers that be – whether they are politicians, businesspeople or finance professionals. The “occupy” movements around the world have been spontaneous and have driven home a strong point – but have been no match for the entrenched vested interests they have been up against.

Chances are they will remain exactly that – just token protests, even though a magazine no less than the profile of Time has made ‘the protestor’ the person of the year, which is an interesting commentary on a phenomenon that has fired the imagination of young people around the world. But existing power structures and their vested interests are too deeply entrenched and have been so for far too long to be dislodged by mere financial crisis or a bunch of youngsters holding court in public places, no matter for how long and no matter in how many important city centres around the world.

The solutions, therefore, will have to come from well within the structures that exist within the world’s political and financial power systems. There are more flashes of realisation in the public discourse today than ever before that there may be other far more inclusive ways of running the world and sharing its wealth and resources more equitably across its 7 billion denizens. It’s unbelievable but true that some big, rich businesspeople themselves – especially in the United States – are making a case for more equitable tax structures that would make the rich like them pay more.

On the flip side of the coin, company shareholders around the world are demanding sensible salary caps on high-flying executives, while some countries are legislating to introduce caps on salaries and bonuses. These may seem small, even insignificant changes but they have the power to influence a change in the way the world has been used to look at creating wealth in these past decades where unbridled ‘greed is good’ type capitalism has held sway.

As the financial world continues to be preoccupied in sorting itself out of the super high mountain of tangled debt it has created for itself over all these years, problems of the real world – environment, food and water security – are more than likely to be sidelined this year.

But a New Year always brings new hope. There is widespread belief in the prognosis that 2012 will be a watershed year. I would like to believe that this will be so in a positive way.

Happy New Year.

First appeared in Islands Business January 2012