Reshaping Fiji

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General view of the Suva CBD. Picture: FT FILE

It has been just over 100 days since Fiji turned over a chapter, voting in a new coalition government after more than a decade to end former leader Frank Bainimarama’s hold on power.

The new administration now has the task of reflecting on and fulfilling its campaign promises – one of which is to address the nation’s economic woes.

With that in mind, Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka’s government is holding a two-day national economic forum with the aim to create a collective national vision by charting a path towards economic recovery.

It is a vision dreamt up by Rabuka’s three-party coalition in an effort to rebuild the country’s fortunes. Rabuka said the theme is reshaping the future through genuine dialogue and collaboration.

He said Fiji was moving into an era of change and engaging with all segments of society was essential to achieve his government’s overarching objectives. “These include inclusive economic security, social justice, conscientious governance, political stability, inclusive participation in development, and environmental sustainability,” he said.

Big budget controversy

But even before the official meetings started, the inaugural economic summit was fraught with controversy.

The reason: a big budget of $360,000 to host the meeting has raised eyebrows not only amongst Fijians but also opposition politicians. Earlier this week, Rabuka stated he was not happy with taxpayers having to fork out exuberant amount for the luxuries of the 500 attendees.

According to Communications Fiji Limited, the prime minister said funding allocated for kalavata (matching outfits) and a cocktail event would not be billed to Fijians but rather by those attending.

“I am not in favour of the $360,000 budget for the economic summit. People can pay for their own food and kalavata.”

He added “the budget was not approved. I will talk to the [Finance] Minister.”

But in a statement issued on Tuesday, Rabuka was singing a different tune, stating the $360,000 was only an estimate and has been approved.

He clarified the estimated budget was approved by Cabinet on the understanding that the finance ministry would seek sponsorship for the meeting to minimise costs.

“I am sure that the summit, attended by over 500 participants, will cost less than half the estimated figure for a national event of this magnitude,” he said.

“The deputy PM and Minister for Finance Biman Prasad has confirmed that the summit has attracted significant financial sponsorship of over $150,000.”

He said Prasad would provide the final expenditure of the event in the near future” for “transparency and accountability”.

Remittances important

Like many countries, Fiji’s economy experienced a decline in growth due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and multiple tropical cyclones.

Its heavy reliance on tourism decimated its economy. According to the World Bank April 2023 Public Expenditure Review, it has experienced an ‘economic crisis of unprecedented scale.’ But that is where remittances proved to be a lifeline.

The Reserve Bank of Fiji’s latest update said there was an increase from 4.7 per cent to 28.7 per cent in remittances from February 2022 to the same time this year.

Economist Dr Rohit Kishore said Fiji “discovered the strength of remittance” at the height of the pandemic.

“In the tough times we had during 2020 and 2021 with the Covid lockdown, when people were unemployed and lost their jobs, our overseas friends and relatives really stood up,” Dr Kishore said.

“Remittance became number one contributor at that time and it, sort of, (helped us) survive.”

In light of this, Fiji looks towards its people beyond home to continue to support the economy in its recovery efforts. Human rights activist Shamima Ali agrees that the country is in need of its community.

“We have to straighten a lot of things out. We have to pump in money into the country for a better state of living, a better life for everyone, and not just the elite few,” Ali said.

She said the change in government has been a breath of fresh air and claims the state was laying the right foundations for investments.

“People should go back [and invest in Fiji] if they are thinking of it. There is no fear,” she told RNZ Pacific in an interview during a recent trip to Auckland.

“What we need is people who have gone away, the diaspora, to come back and help [us] because the government needs a lot of support,” she said.

“The people of Fiji need a lot of support for a better state of living,” she added.

Commitment to investment

The government has also established an Investment Facilitation Committee (IFC) to make it easy for people to conduct business in Fiji.

Deputy Prime Minister Manoa Kamikamica said setting up the committee was the Rabuka administration’s “commitment to promoting investment and economic growth”.

“It will bring together stakeholders including government, investors, businesses, chartered accountants, lawyers, to discuss challenges collectively and address issues in terms of making business easier,” Kamikamica said.

“IFC will hopefully serve as a high-level dedicated platform to address regulatory and administrative bottlenecks that are faced by investors.”

But Fiji Business Network New Zealand president Nik Naidu said while the diaspora was willing to invest and welcomed the efforts of the investment committee, a long-term commitment to return home was not feasible.

“We all want to help our island home but leaving our adopted home Aotearoa is difficult,” Naidu said.

He said a transfer of skills and knowledge could be a more sustainable option.

“We want to mentor business people and workers to upskill them by transferring our knowledge in Fiji along with direct investment into businesses,” he said.

“We are also trying to create a database of people with skills, not necessarily money only, but those who can donate time. So, we want to get the diaspora to go and give time in Fiji.”

‘An economic opportunity’

Supporting this notion are Fijian academics, who wish to explore the potential to make Fiji a knowledge-based economy. Drafting a legislation to promote a daring change of perspectives from “brain drain to brain-sharing” is the Fiji Higher Education Commission.

Commission director Dr Rohit Kishore told RNZ Pacific consultations were underway for a review of the country’s education curriculum that encourages a transfer of skills between nations.

“We want to align our education system in such a way that we are able to produce the skills and the knowledge…needed for us and also export.”

Dr Kishore said this approach will help curb unemployment issues in the country.

“We have a young population and a lot of people are coming through our school system. If we do not find outlets for them, then we might overcrowd and build unemployment here.”

He said there was debate within the industry that Fiji was “shortchanging and allowing people to migrate”.

“These are opportunities that Australia, New Zealand, [and] other countries are producing for us. I see this as an economic opportunity and we must grab it. If we do not, other countries will take it.”

But Dr Kishore stressed that a need for balance was necessary.

• RACHAEL NATH is a journalist with RNZ Pacific. The views expressed in this story are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.

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