Pacific Islanders Debating ‘Oceanian’ And Global Citizenship – Analysis
By Shailendra Singh*
Discussions about the concept of ‘Global Citizenship’ are gaining momentum in various international forums, but remain largely unexplored in the Pacific Islands.
According to Ron Israel, co-founder of The Global Citizens’ Initiative, Global Citizens think beyond communities based on shared group identities, and see themselves as part of a larger, emerging world community.
In the Pacific, the late Tongan academic and philosopher, Professor Epeli Hau’ofa, had gone as far as proposing a common regional identify he called the “new Oceania”, comprising of people with a common Pacific heritage and commitment, rather than as members of diverse nationalities and races.
In Hau’ofa’s conceptualization, an Oceanian was anyone who lived in the Pacific, and was committed to the region, regardless of ethnicity or religion. His framework also accounted for the “astounding mobility” of Pacific Islanders over the last half-century or more. This expanded version of Oceania covered larger areas than was “possible under the term Pacific Islands region,” forming a “world of social networks that criss-cross the ocean, all the way from Australia and New Zealand in the southwest, to the United States and Canada in the northeast.” Hau’ofa felt that a common, enlarged Pacific identity was crucial for the advancement of collective regional interests, including the protection of the vital Pacific Ocean.
Connecting and mobilizing people to gain strength in numbers in order to agitate for common interests, is the thread that binds the Oceanian and the Global Citizen concepts. Global Citizen is just more expansive. Its proponents link it to the universal values of justice, democratic participation, diversity, and global solidarity as the building blocks for peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and sustainable societies.
Pacific Island commentators laud the concept, but feel that certain cultural, economic, geographical and historical obstacles could stand in the way of its implementation. Former University of the South Pacific (USP) academic in literature, Dr Som Prakash, feels that some Global Citizen values are incompatible with the cultural beliefs, philosophies and life-styles of Pacific Island societies. For instance, egalitarianism is seen as inimical to the hierarchical nature of some Pacific societies, such as chiefly power in Fiji, the aristocracy in Tonga, and matai (chiefly) system in Western Samoa.
“Democracy, for example, is not always welcomed by traditional chiefs who are given much more power and authority than the ordinary folks,” says Prakash. “It takes a while for the ordinary Pacific cultures to get accustomed to the questioning of elders and chiefs. Often peace (one of the pillars of Global Citizenship) is argued to be better attained under a benevolent dictator,” adds Prakash.
There are some other apparent contradictions. As pointed out by Fiji’s former vice-president, Ratu Jone Madriwiwi, in collective Pacific societies like Fiji, group interests supersede individual interests. Global citizenry, on the other hand, centers on individuals as the agents of change through instilling in them “awareness of the interconnected nature of the world and the need for a global focus for development.”
However, the likes of Fiji-based university student, Duane Mar, do not see the above paradoxes as obstacles. Mar points out that the Pacific is equally affected, if not more, by some common world problems, which transcend geographical cultural, and philosophical differences.
“Global citizen is a person whose ideals and thought processes are based around those of the general global issues, such as poverty, climate change and human rights,” says Mar. “In many rural Pacific communities, the people are very much aware of issues like climate change, and the need to combat poverty. These issues are discussed at the community level and from there, villages often work with NGO groups to address them,” adds Mar.
Moreover, collectivism, based on group solidarity, has some clear parallels with the Global Citizen concept of “interdependency”, even though the Global Citizen model encompasses an “interdependent world” rather than just the village, or clan. Global Citizen, as espoused by UNESCO and other institutions, promotes the idea that people’s “individual and collective actions have a global impact – and it is their responsibility to engage in positive actions for their communities and the planet.”
The idea of collective responsibility to address global problems is likely to resonate with Pacific peoples, especially in relation to global warming and sea-level rise, seen as a severe threat to the region. For more than a decade, one Pacific leader after another has stood up at various international forums to urge the industrialized nations to take responsibility for global warming and implement meaningful policies to reduce carbon emissions.
As Kiribati President Anote Tong has often pointed out, the Pacific region contributes the least, just three per cent, to global warming, but many islands are on the “frontline” of sea level rise.” Speaking at a recent meeting of Pacific Island leaders, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama blamed the industrialized nations for “our slide into disaster.” He added that, “the industrialized world needs to reorganize its economies and its priorities to stop pumping excessive carbon emissions that are warming the planet. To let us sink beneath the waves is totally immoral. The world must not betray us.”
Another recent Pacific leaders’ meeting in the Papua New Guinean capital, Port Moresby, ended in a stalemate after Australia and New Zealand blocked a bid from low-lying island nations for a tougher global target. This stance has led to increased polarization, with one commentator stating that the “lacklustre response by Australia and New Zealand to the plight of Pacific nations has finally reached boiling point.”
Mar describes the Pacific’s global warming predicament as the “tragedy of the commons”, which in this case refers to the actions of some nations having an adverse impact on others, including those nations that did not contribute to the situation.
On his part, USP academic Prakash sees Australia and New Zealand’s intransigency over the global warming issues as perhaps the most recent example of the many ways in which the greater powers have treated the Pacific with “carelessness, if not contempt.” Prakash feels that such treatment lead to skepticism in the region about what inevitably comes to be seen as “fancy notions of globalization, often emanating from well-to-do nations.” He adds that “the most visible and tangible effects of globalization is the crass TV, mobile phones and social media that inundate our Pacific societies.”
However, as Mar points out, the Pacific has, in some ways, benefited from globalization. Furthermore, globalization and Global Citizenry are two distinct ideas. In fact, Global Citizen principles aim to address situations such as “tragedy of the commons”, a by-product of globalization, although it is easy to see how the two terms could be confused.
The reality is that despite their smallness and isolation, the Pacific region’s destiny is tied up with that of the rest of the world, something which Hau’ofa was keenly aware of. Surely Hau’ofa was thinking along Global Citizen lines when he wrote that “we cannot confront the issues of the Pacific Century as individual, tiny countries created by colonial powers and acting alone. We could indeed ‘fall off the map’ or disappear into the black hole of a gigantic Pan-Pacific doughnut.”
*Shailendra Singh is Coordinator and Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the School of Language, Arts & Media, Faculty of Arts, Law & Education at the University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji. The views in the story are not necessarily shared by the USP, where the writer is employed.