Pacific leaders to tackle impact of global crisis

Leaders from around the Pacific region gathered in Cairns, Australia Tuesday ahead of a summit aimed at tackling the impact of the global economic crisis on some of the world's smallest and poorest nations.

The Fiji coup of 2006 has dominated the last three annual summits of the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum and Voreqe Bainimarama's military regime was suspended from the grouping in January for breaking promises to hold elections early this year.

The two-day summit starting Wednesday is sure to return to the subject of Bainimarama's refusal to loosen his hold on power but hosts Australia want to emphasise economic issues and climate change.

Australia's government aid agency AusAID released a report Monday showing poverty was worsening in the region and many nations were falling behind the UN Millennium Development poverty reduction goals.

"The Pacific region is seriously off track to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015," said Bob McMullan, Australia's parliamentary secretary for international development assistance.

"The people of the Pacific expect us all, donors and Pacific island governments alike, to do much better," McMullan said.

Around 400,000 children across the region were not going to primary school and around 64 out of every 1,000 children in the region died before the age of five.

"Perhaps most worryingly, in some countries the number of mothers dying while giving birth is getting worse," he said.

The report said the 14 Pacific island forum nations and donors needed to better coordinate their aid efforts, the report said.

Murray McCully, the foreign minister of New Zealand -- the other developed nation member of the forum -- took aim at slow progress in development efforts in a speech in Brisbane Monday.

He said little had been achieved since the forum attempted to better coordinate regional development under the Pacific Plan adopted in 2004.

"Five long years after the Pacific Plan was produced, identifying bulk fuel purchases as a means of assisting smaller Pacific states in countering mounting fuel prices, we still have no bulk fuel purchase scheme."

"And that would have to be the simplest of the challenges listed as Pacific Plan priorities and solemnly adopted by forum leaders back in 2004."

"On the big picture issues -- fishing, energy, transport services, the environment -- the regional organisations charged with advancing our collective interests have too little to show for their efforts and our dollars.

Climate change will be another focus of the forum, with low-lying atoll nations such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands among the world's most vulnerable to rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.

International aid agency Oxfam said in a report last week that developed countries such as Australia and New Zealand needed to act urgently to help Pacific island nations cope with climate change.

By the year 2050, about 75 million people could be forced to leave their homes due to climate change in the Asia-Pacific region, the Oxfam report said.

Attempts to put the Fiji issue aside may be frustrated after a summit in July of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) -- Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji.

In a communique at the end of their meeting in the Vanuatu capital, Port Vila, Fiji's closest neighbours called on the forum to maintain an "open and constructive dialogue" with the regime.

The communique stopped short of specifically calling for Fiji's reinstatement to the forum but noted "the importance of Fiji being continuously engaged" in the regional grouping.

But Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said the region did not want another Pacific Islands Forum to be dominated by the Fiji issue as it had been since 2006, the year Bainimarama ousted the elected government.

Source: AFP

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