Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark joined discussions yesterday at the International Civil Society Week in Suva.
In her first visit to Fiji in twelve years, Ms Clark addressed civil society organisations present at the weeklong meeting.
The former PM was a fierce critic of the 2006 military takeover and was involved in placing sanctions during that period.
She then headed the United Nations Development Programme for eight years and in her capacity advocated for the welfare of Pacific Island states.
We caught up with Ms Clark at the conference. Here are the excerpts from the interview:
Fiji Sun: How do we ensure Pacific voices continue to be heard in the global arena particularly in regard to climate change?
Clark: I think the advocacy from the Pacific on climate change has been huge. We can say a lot of world citizens don’t notice much about anything that’s going on, but informed citizens know about the Pacific and climate change.
I mean, Tuvalu has been in the headlines for years as very vulnerable, so has Kiribati. So the voice of the Pacific is loud in those circles – sustainable development discussions globally and regionally. It is climate change discussion so people know the Pacific has a major issue.
All I can say to the Pacific leaders is keep out there with your message because that is what in the end will help a more ambitious Paris Agreement than we might have thought possible.
For years, it was only the small island developing states who were out there in effect saying we need global warming to peak at 1.5 degrees – they got it into the agreement as an aspiration.
Well, the issue is as with the Sustainable Development Goals, that it’s one thing to have the Paris Agreement but we do not yet have enough ambition by countries in their nationally determined contributions – not enough ambition to stop global warming at 2 degrees let alone 1.5.
Pacific voices are going to have to stay very strong, also strong on advocating for more support for the vulnerable which the Pacific are.
When I was at the United Nations Development Programme, I made a lot of speeches and did a lot of advocacy with the Pacific Islands Forum, with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and with the Commonwealth which is a great voice for small island states too, about the need for the international regional and development banks to be much more considerate to vulnerable countries.
In the Pacific, you have Tuvalu on the brink of becoming lower-middle income, Vanuatu has lower-middle income – once you move out of the low-income category you stop getting decent concessional lending and yet your lower-middle income status is so fragile and you could have a major cyclone come along like Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and flatten everything or like Dominica or Barbuda in the Caribbean.
So, a lot of the small island developing states are deemed to be middle-income, but they are so vulnerable and they cannot afford to re-finance reconstruction on commercial terms – this is ridiculous. Now, the banks are so slow to move on this but the UNDP I know will keep advocating.
They are committed people on this. The commonwealth is committed on carrying out the forum. But we need the World Bank to move – to accept that concessional lending should not relate to lower income.
It needs to take into account vulnerability to what economists would call externalities like climate change. Vanuatu and Fiji and so on have no control over it whatsoever but they’re on the receiving end.
Fiji Sun: Climate Change is a big issue in the Pacific now, but what do you think are some other issues that Pacific countries, in particular Fiji, should address?
Clark: The other one that needs to be absolutely in the headlines is the non-communicable diseases (NCDs) crisis and specifically the obesity epidemic.
It’s very serious, not just for Fiji but across the Pacific, and it is a global problem. In my own country, two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, a third of children – and this is quite typical for the US, Australia and the Pacific. In the Pacific it is truly a mega crisis – absolutely alarming.
The stories of the number of amputations every day and every week in Fiji from this crisis. There is a lot awareness of this in the Pacific. I would say climate change and obesity are up there in the headlines as the major, major challenge.
Fiji Sun: How do you view the current political climate in Fiji ahead of the 2018 General Elections?
Clark: I don’t follow it day-in and day-out. I haven’t been to Fiji for 12 years partly because of former developments, of course. I hope there are free and fair elections – that would be my hope for Fiji.
Fiji Sun: What does Jacinda Arden becoming PM mean for Fiji-New Zealand Relations?
Clark: I’ve known Jacinda ever since she was a student. She as a young graduate was employed in my office when I was Prime Minister and she was elected to Parliament just as I was leaving in 2008.
She now represents my old electorate. We come from the same region in New Zealand –there are a lot of similarities and of course we come from the same party.
I think her election will be very positive for the Pacific – I think it would be positive for the aid budget and positive for relationships. She has a foreign minister, Winston Peters, who was the foreign minister for my last three years I was Prime Minister and Winston has many ties with the Pacific going back more than half a century.
He’s a guy who is 72, he went to university with many people who are still prominent in public life and politics in the Pacific today. He’s the kind of guy you can pick up the phone and ring him. He put a huge emphasis on the Pacific so I feel pretty confident that the new government will be positive for Pacific relations.