Editorial: High profile leaders give forum clout

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It is not often that the United Nations Secretary-General and the president of the European Commission will find their presence in this part of the world overshadowed. Yet such is the lot of Ban Ki Moon and Jose Manuel Barroso, who are in Auckland for the 40th anniversary meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum. Such, also, is the fate of the summit, which starts today and will conclude hours before the start of the Rugby World Cup. Its place in the shade does not, however, mean it is an insignificant occasion.

The appearance of such high-profile world leaders is a tribute to the 16-member forum's longevity. But it also reflects the fact that this is a region in which more countries and international groupings see reasons to become more engaged.

This summit is particularly notable for the diversity and high level of the United States delegation. Its leader, Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, has signalled the determination of the US to have a greater involvement in the Pacific. Clearly, China's growing presence as a donor and trading partner has hit a nerve. And not to be outdone, Beijing will have Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai at the summit.

Mr Nides suggests the US can help the forum become "a more effective, results-oriented institution, one capable of addressing the region's most pressing challenges".

This reflects a widely held view that the forum, despite some successes, has failed to transform potential into region-wide prosperity and social wellbeing. Partly as a consequence, some ailing economies have declared themselves open to support from other than the traditional sources of Australia, New Zealand, the US and Europe.

Forum meetings have customarily sought a polite consensus - the so-called Pacific way of doing things. This approach, and an unwillingness to interfere in one another's domestic affairs, has been gradually diluted, not least because of the need for a strong collective response to the military regime in Fiji. It had, in any case, been a means of disguising many flaws. Nonetheless, Pacific leaders would still look askance at any blundering into their backyard.

This is where New Zealand, which enjoys generally good relations in the Pacific, can soften any perceived threats. It is also why this summit could prove influential. The Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully, has already indicated that he, too, is dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. He wants a rethink on development aid, especially in the field of education.

At the heart of this is a desire for better results from the funding that has gone into the sector. That is a reasonable expectation given 40 per cent of Pacific Island children do not complete a basic primary education. Better results are unlikely to be achieved, however, by a continued emphasis on the likes of the Peace Corps, the volunteer programme run by the US Government and lauded by Mr Nides.

As education is crucial to the social and economic development of the islands, so, too, it is important that private investors become more deeply involved. For the first time, the business sector is to be included in some forum sessions. Its participation in infrastructure, energy development, tourism, fishing and the like would do much to turn well-intentioned words into action.

The presence of so many high-profile international leaders gives the Pacific Islands Forum a new profile and the prospect of greater support for its endeavours. The post-forum dialogue involving Pacific leaders and the international attendees will have a much-heightened importance.

Such a high-powered gathering should be the catalyst for more energy and resolve. If so, promise could finally become practice.

- NZ Herald

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