Q&A: 'Tuvalus will never sacrifice our principles for a few million': former PM Enele Sopoaga

Former Prime Minister of Tuvalu Enele Sopoaga. Photo by: ACFID

CANBERRA — In his keynote address to the 2019 ACFID conference in Sydney this week, former Prime Minister of Tuvalu Enele Sopoaga delivered an address that set the stage for two days of discussion on sustainable development cooperation — including responding to climate change and supporting the needs of the Pacific.

His address was scathing of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Pacific Island Leaders Meeting, who Enele said was dismissive of the UN’s flagship Green Climate Fund in favor of promoting “rebadged” bilateral funding.

“We know that the $500 million offer for climate change to the Pacific, is nothing compared to the costs of damages and adaptation needs inflicted upon PSIDS [Pacific small island developing states] due to the continuing GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions from burning of coal and fossil fuels in Australia,” he told the audience.

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“The outburst that we should be thankful of this money and keep our mouths shut, is irresponsible and unbecoming of a government minister. May I say to this, keep this money in your coffer. Tuvalu and the Pacific are not paupers, their appeal is our right.”

The delivery of Australian aid was also criticized by Sopoaga for having more impact in Australia than on delivering development outcomes.

“We also know that most of this money will never leave Australia and will go to large consulting firms that may have former ministers on their board,” Sopoaga said, referring to Palladium and former foreign minister Julie Bishop. “As a consequence, other important developing assistance programs will suffer from the reshuffling of aid funding.”

China and the United States were also on the receiving end of criticism for their politics creating a harsh environment for Pacific development.

Speaking to Devex following his speech, Sopoaga expanded on development assistance in the Pacific.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In delivering your speech today, what were the priorities you wanted to share on behalf of the people of Tuvalu?

These are true reflections of the concerns on the ground from the people of Tuvalu, but the underlying concern particularly is the lack of action on climate change — including its catastrophe for people on Tuvalu.

The strategies or modalities being used, for the delivery of ODA [official development assistance] unfortunately do not reflect a serious response under partnerships for dealing with climate change — far from it. Most of this aid under ODA continues to be a boomerang — most of it will stay in [donor] countries.

What is needed is more ownership by local communities in Pacific Island countries on the discussion, dialogue, and delivery of ODA. And ownership of implementation.

With ODA, we need to move beyond that narrative — we need genuine, durable and respectful partnerships. The donor-recipient paradigm is gone. Those are things of the past. And I hope that Australia would look ore at investing in local partnerships in terms of local communities owned, and driven and implemented programs. These are sustainable and go directly to the benefit of women or youth, dealing with noncommunicable diseases, food security, and more.

This approach created more pragmatic and genuine areas of partnership.

I was in government for many years and most of the aid money was stuck in bureaucracy — papers and project proposals that never get implemented. But if we go directly to the island communities — including the young people and women — this will have more impact. And I hope this encourages our partners to move towards that.

That is the main message that I put on the table.

As prime minister, did you find that donors and partners coming to Tuvalu to discuss development assistance would tell you what their priorities for you were rather than engaging in a dialogue?

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Yes, absolutely. This dynamic is shared by many island countries, including Tuvalu. It is more exploring the priorities and always asking for the priorities of partner countries, and identifying the special interests of donors.

This is the nature of the game.

Certain donors will have a particular focus or priorities and even to focus more attention on saving sharks or whales than saving the people against climate change.

Saving sharks is not a priority when the coastal foreshore is eroded, you are vulnerable and you face the impacts of tropical cyclones. Saving sharks is not a priority for Tuvalu — and these are things that need to be put into perspective.

We are very conscious of biodiversity and understand the importance of respecting the environment, but we cannot ignore the source of what is causing the problem — and that is global warming. So to solve all of these we need to go back and look at our consumption and production and sources of energy. There is nothing wrong with consumption and production but it is the source of energy we are concerned about.

The sad thing is that there are so many alternatives for cleaner and sustainable energy sources that the world is not utilizing.

When development programs use language on building climate resilience or climate adaptation, do you see this as a problem that the focus is on living with change rather than trying to prevent it worsening?

Absolutely. Of course, I support the narrative on the necessity of enhancing resilience — Pacific countries have been building resilience naturally throughout their culture and traditions over many years. We have managed to survive despite the odds and dynamics.

Building resilience has a connotation that there is no resilience in the culture and tradition — it is wrong. I think what the narrative should be is enhancing the resilience — especially when the problem is exaggerated by man-made impacts.

Your speech delivered criticism on Chinese and Australian engagement in the Pacific region and their intentions. How do you compare the rhetoric and intentions between the two countries?

I appreciate the support Tuvalu has been receiving from the Australian people through ODA. But the situation to unique challenges like climate change and the vulnerability it creates needs special clarity and attention under the doctrine of Australia’s “step up” policy.

I certainly appreciate the efforts, but as I have said in the past it needs to be consulted and clarified so that we have mutual understanding on the objectives of the step up policy responding to climate change.

If there is a vacuum, that would of course allow for other influences. And as I mentioned in my speech, we are seeing a big country [China] is influencing the basic principles of vulnerable island countries overnight. All for the sake of creating economic advantages. Big chunks of islands are being possessed by that big country. It is never free of costs — it comes with influence.

Tuvalus will never sacrifice our principles for a few million dollars.

We have been brought up based on principles of democracy and the rule of law and will stay with those principles. And I hope Tuvalu will work with Australia and New Zealand to maintain those principles.

While there is economic benefit in taking up other partners, I hope this does not translate into disturbances for the geopolitical stability of the Pacific.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.