Pacific and world leaders gather in Auckland today for what promises to be the most important Pacific Islands Forum meeting in decades. Barry Coates, executive director, Oxfam New Zealand, gives his perspective on the most pressing issues facing the region.

Despite the Pacific's reputation as a region of beaches and abundance, there is no place further from the internationally agreed poverty reduction targets under the Millennium Development Goals - by this measure the Pacific is on par with sub-Saharan Africa.

Although there is huge value in its natural environments, fisheries and vibrant cultures, there is unrest in the Pacific and there is poverty, even if it does not always look like the pictures of starvation we're used to seeing elsewhere. In the Pacific, poverty looks like one million children who can't go to school and a lack of safe drinking water suffered by half of the population - the worst rate of any region in the world. The costs are poor health, unnecessary deaths, and a lack of opportunities for youth.

With less than four years left to achieve the goals, the targets need to serve as an urgent challenge to forum members, including the New Zealand Government, to create jobs and opportunities for young people, and reverse the trend towards poverty. The answer is not only economic development - now the priority for the New Zealand Government aid programme - but the inclusion of all. The Pacific is suffering widening inequalities. There have been improvements in getting children into primary education but, in the Melanesian countries, barely half complete primary school. They need more education to get decent jobs. And they need clean water, adequate sanitation, basic health care and an end to the violence against women that is all too common across Pacific societies.


This week's meetings are doubly significant because they signal the start of New Zealand's year-long term as chair of the forum, which provides an important opportunity for the Government to build trust and act as a unifier. This is urgently needed. Splits have emerged within the Pacific, not only over the way to engage Fiji's military regime, but also more broadly over the role of Australia and New Zealand and the independence of the Pacific's institutions.

The rift is one that has seen an increasing number of countries, particularly the Melanesian nations, align themselves more closely with China and others for strategic and trade partnerships, rather than with Australia and New Zealand. The rift threatens to undermine decades of investment in regionalism and Pacific co-operation. As chair of the forum, the next year must be a time to restore trust in the Pacific's institutions, and rebuild a sense of unity.

To do so, members of the forum must reach out beyond governments to involve the people of the Pacific. The official forum meetings include engagement with businesses to discuss the private sector's role, but there are few opportunities for engagement with the Pacific's vibrant civil society - NGOs, churches, women's organisations and community groups.

Oxfam has joined Pacific allies to fill that gap with a range of seminars and discussions timed to coincide with the forum and aimed at addressing issues facing Pacific people, including climate change, agriculture and food security, trade negotiations, arms control and gender rights. As a representative body of democratic nations, the forum must be opened up to welcome the voices of many more of the Pacific's people and build unity across the fabric of civil society, business and parliamentarians.

As chair, the New Zealand Government must set a good example. This means starting with the position of "do no harm". As one of the highest emitters of greenhouse gases per person in the world, New Zealand must reduce atmospheric pollution. Our neighbours in the Pacific are among the world's most vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change. Justice demands that we bear our fair share of the costs that Pacific people face to protect themselves from climate change, a problem they have done little to cause. We need to provide funding, beyond the aid budget, for the Pacific to adapt through infrastructure, agriculture and water supplies.

New Zealand must also step up to commit more funding through the aid programme. It is obviously a difficult time with rising bills for Christchurch reconstruction, but we are one of the lowest donors among the OECD countries in terms of the proportion of our income we give to the developing countries, now about 30c in $100. We can do better.

There is a saying that Australians holiday in the Pacific but New Zealanders live here. Now the line-up of the Australian rugby team shows they are joining the Pacific as well.

Over this week, we can give the Pacific a warm Kiwi welcome and celebrate its richness, but also help people create real opportunities for a better future.