Following the Dec. 2006 coup that installed Commodore Frank Bainimarama as leader of Fiji, the Pacific island nation has had limited development cooperation with EU, formerly one of its biggest aid donors according to the OECD.
Issues of legitimacy and human rights violations have distanced the country from the eyes of donors, compromising its development progress. Democratization, according to a local human rights advocate, will boost the nation forward.
So if Bainimarama keeps his word and elections take place next year, where should the EU aid go?
For local humanitarian organizations in Fiji, aid from the European Union must be directed to governance programs, making sure that democracy is properly in place for development to be sustainable in a country where democratic principles have been largely ignored for seven years.
“We see the priority as democratizing institutions that serve the public and will take us to democratic rule. That will take whatever good development [we had] the last couple of years forward,” Shamima Ali, chair of the NGO coalition on human rights in Fiji, told Devex.
Since the coup, the EU has withheld most of its aid to the country in accordance to Article 96 of the Cotonou agreement, by which nations which breach “human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law” will be sanctioned. Fiji is a signatory of the agreement.
This restriction have stunted the country’s development progress. Litiana Cola, an official of the local unit of international group The Salvation Army in Suva, noted that democracy can lay down the foundation for much higher development goals including health and education which the Pacific island nation is currently lagging behind in.
With its first democratic parliamentary elections to be held in September 2014, Fiji is in for a test of how it has come in terms of governance — something which Brussels has recognized following its intent to resume development cooperation with the Pacific island nation after the polls.
Sign of accountability
Despite the aid restrictions imposed on Fiji, recent events have caught the EU’s interest to resume full assistance. The ties, according to an EU official, can be made stronger again if certain measures are met.
“The European Union and our development cooperation with Fiji will return to normalcy if there is estimation that the requirements [that we have laid out] are reasonably met,” Johnny Engell-Hansen, deputy head of the EU delegation for the pacific, told Devex.
Some of the requirements include free and fair elections, installation of a vice president, expulsion of some outdated councils and human rights observance, among others. Engell-Hansen mentioned the Fijian government committed to some of these conditions in 2007 but “has since been overtaken by events or outdated.”
The move by the EU has been welcomed by local humanitarian organizations which have suffered under Bainimarama’s rule.
“For us, it’s a good thing because it takes accountability into the picture because this is not a democratically-elected government. The issue of accountability is so important which we haven’t had for a very long time,” Ali said. “The European Union and any other member of the international community is justified in demanding those conditions.”
The importance of political stability in the consideration of aid donors was magnified when the EU held back €30 million allocated to Fiji from the region’s development fund that runs from 2008 to 2013. This is on top of the €52 million not disbursed to the nation’s sugar industry this year, out of the total €108 million approved budget. All this happened due to the restrictions imposed to the Pacific island nation, noted Engell-Hansen.
Drafting the country’s new constitution is still being finalized but there is an air of hope that it will, according to most Fijians, jump-start the country’s democratization and development progress.
Cola said: “I believe if that happens then international donors will surely support Fijian development work.”
Given the issue on governance the past couple of years, there’s a level of “mistrust” on the government by the local NGO community as well as the international community, Ali said. This mistrust has affected aid flows, which in turn affect the success of the country’s development programs.
Although aid from Brussels is still ongoing in the country, it is very limited due to bureaucratic difficulties in implementing these development projects.
“The EU channels its aid to the government through national contracting authority like it does with all its development partners,” Engell-Hansen noted. “In the case of Fiji, the [authorizing] officer is not authorizing due to the current restriction.”
Despite the progress with the looming elections and the drafting of a new constitution, however, the country’s civil society still has reservations on whether the new government will truly uphold the kind of democracy suited for the country’s development.
“There are issues on government and civil society coordination including restrictions. NGOs find it difficult [to work] because of the situation we find ourselves in,” stressed Ali. The elections next year will make or break, not only the international community’s ties with Fiji but also the country’s aspirations for sustainable development.
“People have waited a long time for this [change]. We hope this will come soon,” she concluded.
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