By Maureen Penjueli
The COVID19 pandemic has upended economies the world over, while there is financial pain there is also an opportunity for the reorganisation of national and global economics. Fiji's economic fault lines have been exposed under the pressures of COVID-19, exposing the gaps through which people and communities are falling.
The Reset Fiji TV series is a first of its kind series, bringing together civil society, academia and leaders in their fields with mainstream media to stimulate public policy dialogue around ideas, innovations and solutions. The idea is to start to engineer a reset on so our country can move towards building an economy of solidarity.
The messages from the first panel were clear about what kind of economy is needed and what should be prioritised first in a reset: people, protection of wages, food security to ensure no malnutrition and real hunger, enhancing and scaling up Fiji’s social safety nets, whilst providing relief through training and reskilling, and to support innovation and starts-up. We also saw the emergence of key ideas around the need for basic income protection beyond the current proposals of cash injections from pension funds, a cashless society based on indigenous system of exchange (exchange of goods, services and skills), a debt holiday from commercial banks, hire purchase companies and utility providers for ordinary workers, enhancing indigenous systems of knowledge innovation.
The closure of our borders to foreign tourism has shocked Fiji's economy and highlighted our precarious dependence on tourism. The immediate reaction from Fiji's two largest sources of tourists, Australia and New Zealand, has been to announce a Trans-Tasman bubble – effectively cutting off lifelines to much of the Pacific’s tourism sector whilst being presented as a 'do no harm' policy for our benefit.
An increasingly diversified economy takes time to develop however the pandemic has changed those timelines – a window is now open to rapidly move away from an over reliance on dominant sectors like foreign tourism and sugar exports. Those sectors however can be the structure that supports a move to a more diversified economy, this applies not only in Fiji but for many Pacific Island Countries they are also heavily reliant on foreign tourism with few built in value chains.
Nearly all the panellists agreed that agriculture and in particular rural agriculture must become the priority for the government in its drive to diversify the economy. As one panellist noted, it is the role of government to provide the supporting infrastructure for the transition to a more diversified economy in the middle to long term. Key policies such as import substitution, local infant industry protection, and requiring local content in investments (like minimum levels of local foods purchased for hotels) can start to help shift towards a more diversified economy. We need out of the box thinking while challenging some of our long held basic assumptions. As one panellist asked, why not legalise marijuana? New Zealand is about to have a referendum on that very question if as predicted it votes to legalise there is a ready made market right next door.
While the pandemic has brought unprecedented widespread financial and economic pain a defining feature of the economic shock has been the strength of the community reaction. The strength of the human spirit to share and care, can be and is the basis for resilience across Fiji. From bartering systems to customary land tenure systems, once again the resilience of traditional systems have acted as the fall-back safety which people have been able to rely upon once formal employment and remittances began to disappear. This is not to romanticise these systems or dismiss the very real financial stress that communities are experiencing, rather it can be understood as a starting point for conceptualising how to reset the Fijian economy, and many other Pacific Island economies. An economy based in solidarity and support for communities.
One key takeaway from the first Reset panel was the way that indigenous intelligence can point the way forward. The disruption of global value chains and the reliance on non-traditional foods can be addressed by traditional processes for preserving crops as well as offer locally grown alternatives like breadfruit flour to imported products.
As governments continue to act to support economies undone by the pandemic it's important to see that any community relief that is being offered also has an eye to the future. One can see this in the employment of Fijians to plant trees, this not only alleviates financial stress for the recently unemployed but also acts positively for climate change and habit restoration. This idea also applies to industry support and facilitating the move to a more diversified economy, providing assistance to encourage innovation or sectors with high prospects for growth like yaqona.
A reset Fijian economy can also build on the skills and experience of its people whether they are employed or not. There are many now who are now unemployed but are also highly qualified and skilled. Again, as a panellist pointed out, these people will need time and space to reskill and innovate. Further we must see the value that lies in those who contribute outside the formal economy through unpaid domestic work, meeting social and cultural obligations and other ways. The provision of a government supported financial safety net can support all those to work together to build a better Fiji.
An economy of solidarity starts with acknowledging that the role of an economy is to support people, it is a tool to help communities not an end in and of itself. The policies and ideas that shape Fiji's economy can change, there is little stopping that. An economy that supports people, nourishes the environment, strengthens culture and increases everyone's happiness is possible and necessary in the wake of the global pandemic. Structuring the economy to build solidarity among all Fijians in extremely difficult times is the first step in resetting Fiji.
Maureen Penjueli is the Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), a a regional watchdog promoting Pacific peoples’ right to be self-determining.
RESET Fiji is produced by Mai TV, Oxfam in the Pacific, USP and the Pacific Network on Globalisation.