Island products must leverage their backstory

At a major international trade show last year, the representative of one Pacific Island company that was displaying and sampling its wares for the first time at such a level was ‘gobsmacked’ at the overwhelming response to their product. I clearly recall their words: “If even if a fraction of these enquiries turn into orders, we will have to scale up our production at least tenfold.”

This company was not alone. At least two others from different island nations expressed similar surprise. For all of them it was the first time that they had exposed their products at an international platform. They had modest expectations of finding an interested potential buyer or two – not businesspeople who would offer them an advance and ask them if they could supply many times more than what they imagined they could ever supply.

One of the participants said they didn’t know whether to celebrate or become worried. Their predicament is completely understandable: how does one deal with a situation like this, where the potential demand for what one is producing appears to be far higher than the production or growing capacity (as some of these items were natural products). These are questions with no easy answers and each company will have to find different answers going by what they produce and how they do it.

But then there are a few factors that are common to most small Pacific Island businesses. One of these is scale. It is difficult for these businesses to scale up in the face of a potential increase in orders. This may be because of a variety of reasons from limited available raw material or growing capacity, limited manufacturing capacity, inadequate skilled human capacity, financial constraints, environmental and seasonal reasons besides others.

While some of these like manufacturing and financial constraints can be addressed fairly easily, other factors are relatively difficult to deal with. For instance, the company that was surprised with a flood of orders at last year’s show is limited by growing constraints around its natural products. If it tries to expand without the right approach to producing the quality product it already grows, it runs the risk of greatly compromising on quality. If it takes that tack, its business will go nowhere. There is no merit in expanding for the sake of expanding.

Scale will always be a problem for Pacific Island producers, especially when it comes to global markets. There is no point in going after volumes, especially for niche, natural products that might be greatly valued in specific, well-identified markets. ‘Niche’ and ‘natural’ are two of a few other attributes that Pacific Island producers must use to their great advantage. Pacific Island businesses need to generate more bang for their buck from these attributes. Revenue and profit must come from quality and uniqueness rather than volumes. Leave the volumes to businesses in cutthroat markets where price sensitivity is valued much more than quality and uniqueness.

Pacific Island producers need to better leverage the range of the region’s well-known attributes. Uniqueness, pristine, natural environments, traditions, people and so on need to be better packaged into their value propositions. In a world of mass produced tat, these attributes have increasing value. They stand out. Customers are paying more attention to this and valuing it more. Products that can demonstrate these attributes, therefore, have the potential to deliver more bang for the buck, if promoted astutely.

Niche product marketing is all about the backstory. The Pacific Islands and peoples of the Pacific have plenty going for them in terms of building neat backstories for their products. Actually, it’s a marketer’s dream: there are huge dollops of exotica, there are enduring pictures of pristinely pure environments in consumers’ collective mind’s eye, there is the knowledge of natural traditions of an ancient people – and so much more. These are powerful elements in any backstory and have been used to great effect by businesses in other parts of the world. No reason why more Pacific businesses should not put this rather successful formula to better use.

In fact, the Pacific Islands tourism industry has used these elements well. Fiji, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu have all successfully used these elements to promote themselves while at the same time differentiating themselves from one another. Small Pacific Island producers with big export ambitions need to emulate these instances. Niche, if portrayed well, can not only sell better, but also deliver much better value and generate demand. A few Pacific products have achieved this with great success. Bottled water and vanilla are two that come to mind immediately.

There are a few encouraging examples of success in the making, too. A boutique New Zealand chocolate manufacturer is creating an engaging backstory around chocolate that it is making from naturally organic cocoa grown on the island of Bougainville. It has successfully built similar stories from several faraway exotic places in Africa, South America and Asia. Quite naturally, the product sells on the basis of its backstory and delivers better prices than famous factory made brands. If successful, this backstory has the potential to build a whole cocoa growing initiative in Bougainville, bringing much needed incomes to local people.

This niche product will never ever match the volumes of branded, mass produced chocolate. But it will deliver better profit per unit sold, while creating warm fuzzies in the hearts and minds of the customer who buys into its backstory. That feel good factor is what growing numbers of discerning customers are after.

But then the backstory is only half the story. While it will create a platform for the a sought after niche product, the backstory will have to be backed up by consistent quality and production volumes, timely deliveries, alluring packaging and requisite technology to seamlessly blend in with global supply chain requirements such as barcoding. These can all be put in place by following sound business practices with the right kind of mentoring.

It is time Pacific Island producers and manufacturers seriously took on board the growing importance customers are according to ‘country of origin’ and exotic but credible backstories while making their buying choices, relegating the price factor to the background. Never underestimate what great stuff a good backstory can deliver – as long as it is credible and the product around which it is built delivers on its promise. The proof of the pudding is in the eating – backstory or not.

Dev Nadkarni is Stakeholder Relationships Advisor at Pacific Islands Trade & Invest based in Auckland, New Zealand.

First appeared in Islands Business Magazine, March 2015 

 

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

Uncle Sam comes calling again – will stay put this time

By Dev Nadkarni

For the past three years the United States has rather desultorily talked of increasing its engagement in the Pacific Islands region. Its deepening commitment in the Middle East and the global financial crisis have left little time and resources for it to firm up any concrete plans in the area despite having made grand statements about serious involvement from time to time.

Even the project to relocate the armed forces base from Okinawa in Japan to Guam – at US$15 billion, the largest ever project in the Pacific – has been progressing at a slower pace than originally planned.

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to New Zealand and Australia last month and the tone and content of her statements about the region clearly signal a renewed resolve to step up this engagement that has long been talked about but followed up with little action.

The US has clearly been watching the growing influence of the Asian powers in the world’s final and largely unexplored frontier for natural and marine resources. That is what has caused the periodic statements from Washington reminding everybody about its interest for a stake of the state of affairs in the Pacific.

Soon after she was appointed to her job in the Obama administration, Secretary of State Clinton, during a regional visit in early 2009, had said the US “was not ceding the Pacific” to anybody. That was the most definitive indication that the country had well and truly realised that its influence was waning in the region and it needed to pull up its socks. There was a clear sense of urgency in that statement.

In 2007, the US hosted the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders – a triennial meeting of heads of government and senior officials from the Pacific islands region in Washington. Traditionally held in the country’s island territories like Hawaii, that was the first ever time that the meeting had a mainland venue –significantly, too, in the national capital. Weeks before the PICL conference, a senior official said the country wanted to reverse any perception that it had withdrawn from the Pacific.

The US reminded the leaders and the world that it had named 2007 as the “Year of the Pacific”. With that theme, the US sought to bring the importance it gives to the region into sharp focus within its own policy-making machinery as well as to get various government departments and agencies –including Defence, Coast Guard, Interior, the Peace Corps, among others – to work together in a “whole of government approach” to make the country’s presence felt in the region.

That year the US sent then Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill to attend the Pacific Islands Forum Meeting where he went on record saying his boss, then Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, Clinton’s predecessor, wanted to attend too but couldn’t because of the situation in North Korea.

Hill also used the opportunity on that occasion to see around the region, visiting Honiara and Wellington – where he famously asked for New Zealand’s “eyes” to view the Pacific – praising the country for its long and friendly relationships with the Pacific island states.

Shortly thereafter he also announced scaling up the US’ diplomatic presence in the region with an extended facility in Suva – a reality today, with the large new building in Tamavua.

Clinton’s November visit to New Zealand removed the last vestiges of any misgivings between the two countries on New Zealand’s hitherto rigid and non-negotiable stance on the issue of access to nuclear powered vessels into its territorial waters. The thaw was perceptible with both countries agreeing to joint military exercises in the South Pacific about once a year.

It is hoped that the newfound love between the two nations will also pave the way for better trade relations, even a possible free trade agreement in the not too distant future – the possibility of which had been in the doldrums because of New Zealand’s strident anti-nuclear stand.

But what is most significant is Clinton’s announcement in Hawaii that the US would reopen Suva based Pacific Agency for International Development office at the cost of US$ 21 million. The political reality in Fiji did not seem to matter to the Secretary of State or her government. This is a major departure from her predecessor Rice’s stand on Fiji’s military regime who had criticised the Fiji situation saying the Pacific could not evolve into an area where strongmen unilaterally decided the fates of their countries and destabilised the democratic foundations of their neighbours.

The change of stand three years down the line clearly indicates that the US has realised that New Zealand and Australia’s isolationist tack has not only not worked but is now proving counterproductive to western interests. This tack has obviously given the impetus for Fiji to forge closer relationships with Asian powers, notably China and made it a major player in the region.

The redrawing of continental shelf boundaries of sovereign island nations because of changes in the United Nation Law of the Sea, which has significantly expanded their exclusive economic zones giving them greater control over harnessing natural resources, makes the islands region hot property for the world’s fast growing economies.

It is natural that in this scenario, the west does not want to miss out and it realises that its stand and ongoing policy on one of the region’s most significant players, Fiji, which is also the geographical and logistic gateway to the region, has gone nowhere, drifting rudderless in an increasingly alienating manner.

In attempting a serious comeback, the US has been careful to state that its renewed interest in Fiji and the Pacific immediately through its investment in reopening its Fiji office has more to do with development co-operation and to help climate change. Such benign and altruistic ideals are decidedly non-controversial and on the face of it acceptable in all quarters. Besides, they sit rather well with New Zealand’s much touted commitment to the environment.

And one last thing: the ultimate upshot of increased US involvement in the region in unison with seasoned regional allies New Zealand and Australia may yet be instrumental in hammering out some sort of solution to the Fiji situation over the medium term – a brokered deal acceptable to most players under the iron fist concealed in stars and stripes spangled velvet glove.

First appeared in Islands Business, December 2010