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Connecting the Pacific

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31 August 2011 11:25

Danielle Romanes is an intern with the Lowy Institute's Myer Foundation Melanesia Program.

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) connectivity and labour migration will be hot topics at the Lowy Institute's forthcoming 'Pacific Islands and the World' conference in Auckland.

Few countries stand to benefit from seasonal migration and the ICT revolution quite like those of the Pacific Islands, which have historically provided the consummate example of the overwhelming constraints that geography can place on development. It's incredibly difficult to achieve economies of scale when your internal markets consist of only a few thousand people, and your export markets are thousands of kilometres away.

It's also incredibly difficult to achieve political stability when your imported political institutions presuppose a cohesive nation-state, while your 850- language groups are fragmented along at least as many ethnic lines, and had barely heard of each other (much less lived in harmony) until a few decades ago.

These obstacles have until recently made development prognoses for the Pacific rather poor, but with an increase in seasonal migration opportunities and rapidly expanding regional ICT connectivity, prospects for both economic growth and political stability are looking up.

An Australian friend told me recently that Viti Levu's mobile phone coverage is better than Canberra's, with Digicel on its way to providing 100% population coverage throughout Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Nauru. It's only upward from here, with Alcatel-Lucent and Interchange about to lay a US$60 million 1230m seafloor cable between Port Vila and Suva, and the World Bank's Pacific Regional Connectivity Program to lay an 827km repeater cable linking Nuku'alofa with Suva.

As my colleague Danielle Cave recently pointed out, ICT is the perfect solution to the Pacific's physical barriers. ICT endows Pacific Islanders with remote access to financial services, news and information, lolcats, and digital media. A digitized coconut wireless creates opportunities for more informed dialogue between fragmented political constituencies, and gives Pacific NGOs a better means of communicating with people across the region on issues of importance.

There is incredible potential here to increase transparency in and democratic engagement with Pacific governance. Popular sites like I Paid a Bribe and Wikileaks increase the incentives for public figures to behave honourably in areas normally spared mass scrutiny, and there is brimming opportunity for Pacific Islanders to use the web to militate against public dishonesty and graft.

ICT enables Pacific Islanders to engage in regional and global dialogues, connecting the Pacific with the world and the world with the Pacific. Social media endow the humble foreign researcher with a window into the social dynamics of change in the Pacific, while connecting Pacific Islanders' debates with those taking place in previously remote corners of the globe.

The experiences and insights of emerging economies might prove of immense value to the digital citizens of the Pacific. They may find in Botswana's brand of democracy a recipe for beating the resource curse. Or, India's highly successful IT service export model could point the way to overcoming the growth constraints imposed by geographical isolation.

That ICT also eases the social burden of migration is a fortunate development, given the increasing labour mobility opportunities for workers from the Pacific's job- and foreign-exchange-scarce economies. The US admits a large number of global seasonal workers every year, and NZ has received much acclaim for its RSE Scheme, which reserves 8000 visas a year specifically for Pacific Islanders working in its under-staffed horticulture and viticulture industries.

The result is a win-win solution that Australia has been puzzlingly slow to replicate, given the economic consensus on the massive benefits of immigration and Australia's own much-vaunted bilateral commitment to poverty reduction.

Photo by Flickr user karen horton.

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