Saturday, 21 July 2012

A Comprehensive Assessment of Fiji Today

Fr Barr (r) with Prof Vijay Naidu
by Fr Kevin J. Barr

Two years ago I was asked to write an Assessment of the Fiji situation as I saw it. Now I have been asked once again to reflect on the current situation and make an assessment of Fiji today.

Two years ago I wrote:

“Unlike the 1987 and 2000 coups which were carried out in the name of ‘indigenous Fijian rights’, this coup was in the name of multiculturalism. Moreover, while the 1987 and 2000 coups sought to protect the economic interests of certain business and traditional elites, this coup aimed to address corruption and economic mismanagement and see that the economy works in the interest of all Fiji’s people (35% - 40% of whom live below the poverty line). Moreover, the Bainimarama government says it wants to return Fiji to real democracy and that his coup was a coup to end all future coups.”

How well have the aims of the 2006 Coup been fulfilled?
I guess the big question now is how well have the aims of the December 2006 coup been fulfilled?

Combatting racism
In terms of combating racism and making everyone in Fiji respect multiculturalism, a lot has been achieved. The racist legislation of the Qarase era which provoked the coup has been withdrawn. People of all races living in Fiji are now called “Fijians” (with the indigenous Fijians being referred to as i-Taukei). The divisive aspects of elections has been done away with so that now we are to have one person, one vote. The names of schools identified according to race have been changed. Of course, as many say, it is easy to pass legislation against racism but changing the mentality of the people is another matter and takes time. But there have been very positive moves to address racism. However, as some point out, the army itself is still a racially based institution dominated by indigenous Fijians and so does not really represent multi-culturalism.

Class divisions have increased
Presumably racism has been fought for the purpose of making Fiji a more inclusive nation. However, while racism and racial divisiveness has been addressed, it would appear that class divisions have increased. Fiji is still a country with deep inequalities (as the 1997 Fiji Poverty Report states in its opening sentence). Income inequalities have increased with the lower 30% of the population earning roughly 10% of all wages and the upper 30% earning roughly 60% of all wages. Poverty and inequality have increased. A number of pro-poor programs have been introduced (such as free bus fares for those whose parents combined income is below $15,000, free text-books for schools, food stamps for those on social welfare) BUT these have been negated by policies introduced on the advice of the World Bank and the IMF (such as increasing VAT, devaluing the currency by 20%, and privatizing/corporatizing various entities - including basic services such as water and electricity). All these policies have impacted heavily on the poor only 3-4% of whom are covered under Social Welfare programs.

Encouraging investment
To encourage investment corporate and personal taxes of high income earners have been greatly reduced in recent budgets and other incentives have been offered to various business sectors – especially to tourism. Yet 60% of those in full-time employment earn wages below the poverty line, union activities have been curtailed and union leaders have been vilified. While a number of businessmen were said to have been involved in the 2000 coup and its aftermath, no investigation has ever been held and no businessman has ever been brought to trial (either by the Qarase or the Bainimarama regimes). This is a serious omission in terms of justice and addressing the root causes of our coup culture. It would appear that certain business elites are still being protected.

In the interests of inclusiveness sexism also needs to be addressed. How many women are Ministers, Permanent Secretaries or Ambassadors? Moreover women’s groups in Fiji have sometimes been treated with a heavy hand and their opinions dismissed, criticized or not given the respect they deserve. Too many women are among the poor and disadvantaged and receive low wages. The potential of our women remains to be tapped.

Corruption has been targeted as one of the key issues of the 2007 coup and various institutions such as FICAC have been strengthened. Yet only a few cases of serious corruption.have been successfully prosecuted in court. And, while the issue of corruption is often mentioned in speeches and in the media, some questions concerning public accountability are often raised and no recent Auditor General’s Reports have been made public. Thus transparency often seems to be lacking. Moreover, as I have pointed out elsewhere, crony capitalism has been rife. This means that certain lobbies (especially of business interests) are able to get their own way because of their political connections. Crony capitalism is not exactly corruption but is tending in that direction. It benefits a few powerful interests but does little for the common good.

The economy
In terms of the economy we seem to be at the mercy of the World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank. Our policies reflect theirs and promote an extreme form of neo-liberalism common in many parts of the world. As I have discussed elsewhere these policies are not in the interests of the common good and social justice. Despite their strategy of using poverty alleviation slogans these International Financial Institutions are no friends of the poor. Their constant talk of creating economic growth is not accompanied by any real plan which shows how the benefits of economic growth will reach the people. The old “trickle down” theory has proved to be a myth because any growth tends to get stuck at the top and very little actually gets to trickle down.

"Looking North"
In my earlier assessment two years ago I mentioned that Fiji was “looking north” to find new friends in China, Malaysia and elsewhere because of the hard-line approach of former friends in New Zealand and Australia. The Chinese influence particularly has certainly become dominant and is a cause of concern for many – not only in Fiji but in the Pacific generally. Chinese companies enter the country with low interest loans from the Chinese Exim Bank to build infrastructure or housing developments. While terms of interest may be low, these companies usually bring a high percentage of their labour and materials from China thus contributing to China’s economy but not to ours. Moreover these Chinese companies and other Chinese investors are undermining local companies and local employment. They are impacting particularly on the local building, mining, quarrying and timber companies and often getting unfair advantages in terms of quick approvals and non application of labour and environmental requirements. Acres of mangroves have been laid waste to facilitate Chinese developments and many people are concerned about what this devastation may hold for the future. A saying is becoming common: “Whatever the Chinese want, the Chinese get”. Of course Chinese diplomatic influence in Fiji and the Pacific is growing stronger every year and the resources of the Pacific – especially in fishing, timber and mining – are particularly appealing for Chinese economic interests.

Tourism appears to be a success story and needs to be applauded. Its high profile promotions often hit the headlines. However tourism tends to promote the false up-market face of Fiji and does not show what lies beneath. The much publicized benefits of tourism are real but are we ensuring that these benefits reach all workers in the industry? We must not aim to improve economic growth and promote prosperity at the expense of the poor and ordinary people of the country.

The sugar industry
The determination of the Bainimarama government to revive the sugar industry is to be applauded not only because it promotes employment and security for many families in the agricultural sector but because 90-95 cents of the sugar dollar stays in the country. (In comparison only 40-42 cents of the tourist dollar is said to stay in the country.)

Preparations for elections
As promised, preparations are being made for elections in 2014. A highly respected Constitutional Committee has been appointed to draw up a new Constitution and everyone has been encouraged to make submissions to it. Electronic voter registration is currently being put in place and contributions have been sought to assist in the electoral process for 2014. The voting age has been reduced to 18 thus giving young people a greater say.

Media freedom and freedom of association
One serious problem for a number of years has been the lack of media freedom. Also the people’s freedom of expression and freedom of association have been curtailed. Our newspapers are filled with a lot of superficial information and little investigatory journalism or criticism from the public has been allowed. Some joke that there is more truth in the sports pages than in the rest of the newspaper. Letters to the editor on serious issues of concern are hardly ever published so many problems are not allowed to be discussed openly. People’s participation is inhibited in favour of top-down decisions which brook no opposition. Many ask why such strong controls are necessary.

Trade unions 
Moreover while incentives have been given to local and overseas investors, various decrees have curtailed the work of Trade Unions. Some key Union leaders have been beaten up, imprisoned or vilified. These would appear to have been very unwise moves. These anti-union actions and decrees have received international condemnation but few in Fiji have been made aware of this. Weakening unions is not the way to go in seeking to promote business interests. It is good to cultivate business and encourage investment but it is very unwise to alienate workers and their unions. Business may be the engine of growth but workers are the ones who keep the engine oiled and working. Moreover the moral and ethical dimension of such policies and decrees seem to have been forgotten. Not “anything goes” when it comes to planning for economic growth.

The Great Council of Chiefs
The Great Council of Chiefshas been dismantled and the power of traditional chiefs reduced. This has been a controversial move. It is a bold step with both positive and negative consequences. The more equal distribution of the rent money to the members of the mataqalis has generally been welcomed but not by all.

The Methodist Church
The unrelenting “war” with the Methodist Church is unfortunate and one wonders if the problems (particularly that of ethno-nationalism) could not have been addressed in a more sensitive and responsible manner. Perhaps greater understanding and compromise on both sides could have led to an earlier and more mature solution. About 30% of our population are Methodist and their religious rights need to be respected.

Other issues
There are many more issues which could be discussed particularly involving the power exerted by certain individuals and the issue of mining. However I will leave those for others to discuss. I am sure historians will have some very interesting things to say and some interesting evaluations to provide which may not always be very complimentary.

Mix of good and not-so-good
We could say that there has been a strange mix of the good and the not-so-good. As I wrote in my previous assessment: “Many believe that Bainimarama’s intentions are good and are in opposition to the aims of previous coups. Some say that he needs time to carry out the necessary reforms and set in place a new non-racial vision for Fiji. But he does not always get the best advice and certainly some mistakes have been made.”

The good
So, accepting that the Bainimarama regime set out to address racism, do away with corruption and return Fiji to true democracy, we must admit that some real progress has been made and a new way forward is being set in place. New infrastructure is being built and schools and health centres are being improved in rural areas. The plans for a new constitution and democratic elections are beginning to take shape. One person one vote, more voice given to youth (as the voting age is reduced to 18) and a new system of electronic voter registration are good initiatives. Moreover PM Bainimarama often shows he has a heart for the people by visiting villages, sugar farmers and minority communities and tries to address their needs. Also, as the Constitutional Commission begins its work, he encourages people to raise their voices and make their opinions known. So some very good things have happened.

The not-so-good
Some reforms have shown great courage and vision but others are questionable and some are possibly unwise because they have been made for the advantage of special interests. While racism is being addressed, the gap between the rich and poor is growing. Business interests are being showered with all sorts of incentives but workers wages are kept low, unions are being repressed and poverty and inequality is increasing. Social injustice is growing. Investors and tourists are provided with attractive incentives but the poor and ordinary people of the country struggle to feed their families and find decent housing. Class differences are replacing racial differences as a source of tension. As some have said, we have two Fijis – the Fiji of the rich (which is rather small but very vocal) and the Fiji of the poor and ordinary people (which is very large and depressed). The “haves” who are constantly in the social or business pages make it appear that great progress has been made but little is said about the “have-nots” who are struggling to make ends meet. As we prepare for a return to democracy in Fiji it could be useful to recall the words of Louis D. Brandeis (former US Supreme Court Justice): “We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both”. Perhaps the answer lies in the words of Aristotle: “In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them and the will of the majority is supreme”.

Corruption is being attacked on many fronts but public accountability and transparency is often lacking and crony capitalism is very much alive.

Some outdated legislation is being modernized and replaced but some autocratic decrees are questionable and not helpful in building a better Fiji nor in engendering trust among the people. The lack of freedom of expression as well as freedom of association are serious issues which need to be addressed – especially in view of the Constitutional review and up-coming elections. The voice of the people has been muted for far too long.

Fiji is still far from being “the way the world should be” and we are not learning the lessons from the recent world economic collapse. Social justice and concern for the common good need to become new priorities and an economic system suitable to the needs of our Pacific realities needs to be set in place – a system which puts people first. We must get to the root causes not just of racism and corruption but have the courage to seriously address the economic system which is at the root of so much poverty and inequality.

Conclusion: What a just society in Fiji should look like
Let me conclude with an assessment of what a just society in Fiji should look like.
A just society is people-centred,
the rights of all are respected and protected.
It is inclusive and recognizes
the place of women
the importance of youth
the special needs of the poor,
the multicultural and multi-religious nature of society.
Its economy works for the benefit of all – not just the few.
Its wealth is redistributed in such a way that all benefit
and poverty and gross inequality are eliminated.
It is motivated by communitarian values of compassion,
caring, sharing and concern,
and is built on the appreciation that
all its members form one family.
It respects and protects the environment for the good of all
now and for future generations.
Thus racism, sexism, discrimination, exploitation, greed and selfishness
are replaced with love, service, respect, understanding and concern for the common good.


Shallow and fluffy said...

To call this a 'comprehensive assessment' of Fiji is a misnomer. It is fluffy and shallow. Where is the critical analysis? In lacks insight, integrity and is ingenuous. It purports to help the poor and underpriviliged but nowhere acknowledges the impacts of this latest disastrous coup on the economy? It skirts around the edges of repression, intimidation and human rights abuse? It talks about what the bainimarama 'government' (non elected junta in place because of guns) but does not give any examples or acknowledge that the sugar industry is in a terrible state as a result of the coup? Father Barr needs to get real, and actually do something or get out of the kitchen.

Crosbie Walsh said...

@ Shallow and fluffy... I disagree. The article serves its purpose in reviewing most developments over the past couple of years. But of course not every will agree. If you are one of them, why not write something less shallow and fluffy than your shallow and fluffy comment.

Role of the military said...

Perhaps you could ask father Barr if he thinks this is the role of the military in the new Fiji? If he does then Fiji's future as a free, democratic and prosperous nation is very limited indeed.

"Tikoitoga sent by PM to tell public servants: Shape up or ship out

By Maika Bolatiki

The staff of the Ministry of Lands and Mineral Resources have been warned to improve their work performance.
This came from the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) spokesman and Land Force Commander, Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga.
He said he has been given a directive from the Prime Minister and Minister for Lands and Mineral Resources, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama to talk to staff of the Ministry of Lands to lift their performance."

Anonymous said...

Fair and balanced, well said Father Barr

Nik Naidu said...

Here’s my view on this – good balanced perspective - but it is amazing just how naïve people like Kevin Barr are?!

What did you expect Kevin – Guns and Roses? Kevin, this was a military coup, and like all other military coups all over the world, it is never about anti-racism, corruption, eliviation of poverty, equality, justice, etc – these things are part of ‘democracy’. Military coups are about power and money. So Kevin, why are you surprised and why now a change of view?

Kevin, did you really expect the 2006 Fiji military coup that you so whole heartedly supported, would create a more equal and just society, and reduce poverty, and all us natives would live happily ever after? Were you asleep during the previous 3 coups?

Stop living in a dream world. Wake up and smell the few roses that are left, and stop listening to the guns