ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much Meli. You disappeared, but I was looking forward to shaking your hand – I hope I’ll get to do that some other time. Lovely to meet you and thank you.
Vice Chancellor and President Ahluwalia, thank you for the warm welcome. It’s really an inspiration actually to have a sense of how profound an impact this university has had on the development in the region and the impact that it will have for generations to come in fostering a dedication among your students to giving back, to strengthening prosperity, individual dignity, democracy, in their respective countries. And as you noted, also an inspiration as an example of regional cooperation of the kind, but now it seems at every turn that Pacific Islands and their people are crying out for. So that is incredibly important. I’m grateful to be part of a conversation with not only the young people here who are gathered in this auditorium in Fiji – but beamed, this conversation is, to 14 islands across the Pacific.
Our conversation, it turns out, just by coincidence, isn’t happening on just any day. It was at almost exactly this time 78 years ago – midday on August 15, back in 1945 – that the Second World War finally came to an end in the Pacific.
In the years before that day, as communities across the Pacific had their villages occupied, their natural resources raided and stolen, and very often, their populations subjected to horrific violence, our peoples came together to defend one another.
On August 15, 1945, as news of our victory spread, celebrations erupted across the Pacific. The American President, Harry Truman, declared: “This day is a new beginning in the history of freedom on this earth.” A new beginning in the history of freedom. But as the celebrations ran their course, the question quickly became: what would we do with this new beginning? We could fall back on the same patterns of exploitation and rivalry that humans have repeated again and again throughout history.
Or we could carve a new path together – one that promoted the fundamental dignity of all people. We could choose actually to honor each community’s right to chart their own course. We could choose not to hoard opportunity, or economic resources, but to spread those resources for others to grow as well. We could choose to work together to nurture and care for our one shared planet.
So what path have we taken? This is a very contested question. And this path is getting carved every day. Many of those fundamental questions about how we treat mother earth, about how we grow our economies in an equitable manner, about the form of governance and the role that citizens have in choosing their leaders and holding them accountable. All of those questions are still up for grabs in many parts of the world all these years later.
In the decades after World War II, many Pacific Island nations gained independence. The organization that I have the privilege of running, the United States Agency for International Development, worked with the newly free nations of the Pacific.
This was also the dawn of an era of relative economic freedom. As Pacific economies grew and standards of living increased, USAID partnered with Pacific Island communities to invest in small businesses, to help grow sectors like agriculture and fisheries, and to connect local goods to international markets.
The very fact that we can be speaking together like this today, in one talanoa across the Blue Pacific Continent, is a testament to our partnership. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, USAID invested in boosting this university’s satellite communications between this campus and what was then eight centers outside Fiji, helping build this institution’s pioneering regional model to reach more students in the countries where you all live. And I say that particularly to those who are beaming in.
Many countries of course did not develop economically at the pace they had envisaged. Aspirations for universal health coverage and education for all in parts of this region, of course, have remained out of reach. And today, growing global challenges are reversing progress that was made in different quarters.
I know I don’t need to detail these challenges. The changing climate presents every bit as significant a challenge, a significant danger in fact, to Pacific homelands as those invading forces did back in the 1940s. That's the urgency, that’s the level of danger. As waters rise and natural disasters increase in frequency and intensity, the threat for some nations is truly existential.
Economic independence, too, is at risk. After the devastation of the COVID pandemic, some Pacific nations find themselves under growing debt burdens facing – what is now referred to as debt distress. I know so many of you young people are feeling the pain of inflation as you grapple with the expenses of buying the basics just to be able to show up in the class and be able to do your best every day. You’re also facing the worry associated with three years of economic contraction, as those of you who will graduate head out into the job market.
Even the values of self-determination and independence we fought for all those years ago are being challenged anew. Autocrats near and far are becoming bolder – ignoring boundaries, threatening and even as you know, invading neighbors, undermining the international order that, which far from perfect, contributed to decades of relative peace and prosperity.
So, to meet these rising challenges, the United States is deepening our engagement with our Pacific partners, and recommitting to that path of progress we set down together – albeit slowly and unevenly – all those years ago.
Last September, President Biden hosted a summit with Pacific Islands leaders in Washington and he announced that we would step up our diplomatic and development presence across the Pacific, opening new Embassies and expanding our assistance and investment programs.
Just this morning, at the U.S. Embassy here in Suva, I had the chance to open the USAID Mission for the Pacific Islands, which will lead U.S. investments in areas like climate resilience, health, and economic development. These efforts will be waged across nine countries: Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau. I have just come here to Fiji, yesterday, from Papua New Guinea, where I also had the chance to open a Country Office, and that will serve Solomon Islands and Vanuatu as well.
This new Mission here in Fiji, and the new Office based in Papua New Guinea, are the next step in the United States’ reinvigorated commitment to the Pacific Islands – in the past decade alone, our country has invested $1.5 billion in the region.
Now, our new Mission here in Fiji, and our Regional Office in Port Moresby, will give us more of an on-the-ground presence which will help us listen, learn, and better understand the challenges that you are facing directly. It will provide a platform to substantially increase our investments in the solutions that you are advocating for, to build on the progress that we have made together, and to partner more deeply.
But how one partners matters a great deal. Some partnerships are cooperative, born of mutual respect in pursuit of mutual benefits – and some are coercive, seeking individual gain. Some seek to respect the dignity of everyday citizens, to ensure that they are able to raise their voices and exercise agency to chart their own course, to decide on their own future – some are more inclined to respect only the authority of the state. Some are forged in the light of day, some partnerships relish the light of day – others are hashed out in backrooms, away from accountability, away from prying eyes.
As President Biden has said, the United States has never fully lived up to our founding principle – that all men and women are equal. We haven’t in our dealings abroad and we haven’t in the treatment of our own citizens. As we grapple today with some of the most profound threats to our democracy that we have faced, in fact since our nation gained independence, we are still struggling in many ways to live up to our founding ideals.
But we have also never run away from those ideals. We continue to strive to work toward them as we engage with nations around the world as they seek to advance their independence and to strengthen the dignity of each and every individual within their borders. Today, I want to be clear about how USAID intends to partner with you – we intend to do so inclusively, openly, and with humility. And by doing so, I’m hopeful that I can illustrate very briefly what we can do together.
So as we increase our investments here in the Pacific, I want to be very clear – and this is subject to some misunderstanding, so please, I hope I am very clear. The United States is not forcing nations to choose between partnering with the United States and partnering with other nations to meet their development goals. That said, we do want you to have a choice. It's not a choice that we will make for you, but we want you to have options. We want Pacific Island nations to have more options to work with partners whose values and vision for the future align with your own.
Second principle in terms of how we will work together is that the assistance that we provide will come – as is always the case with USAID – in the form of grants and not loans. We are very interested in economic independence, and independence of choice and not saddling future generations with attachments and with debts that will later have to be paid.
We don’t want to create a dependence on the United States or use economic leverage to extract concessions. Our goal is to do what we can do to support you as you decide how to invest in the future you want for yourselves – because fundamentally, we do believe that advancing independence and dignity in every nation helps create, ultimately, the stable and prosperous world that benefits us all.
Third – and this is of course a related point – our new mission here in Fiji and our office in Papua New Guinea – are not going to come in and impose our ideas or our solutions for the shared challenges that we face. We have a lot to learn – a ton to learn – and we will learn by listening, and listening with humility.
Take climate change. The United States is both one of the world’s largest emitters, as you well know, and we are a country that is right now struggling mightily, even as an advanced economy, to manage the effects of extreme weather events – as we saw just a few days ago, when Hawaii’s emergency warning system was not activated when historic wildfires devastated the island of Maui. More bewilderingly to those of you living daily the existential threat posed by climate change, we are having a hard time in Washington forging a lasting political consensus for action at the scale that we need to take on the climate crisis. Given all of this, you can see, certainly, why humility is warranted.
At the same time, we know that so many of you are already leading. You are already devising the solutions that if scaled could make a major difference in the world. You are working directly in your communities to help them adapt, while also advocating for reform at the highest levels with a cry heard around the world: “We are not drowning; we are fighting.”
We know that the most important thing we need to do is to listen, particularly to young leaders, to learn about the solutions you’re pursuing, and the ideas that you have for how our investments could accelerate progress. So we will partner closely with local leaders, civil society, and faith based organizations – not just governments – as we chart a course together.
And we will engage with you openly, transparently, with respect for individual dignity and the benefits of inclusive governance, the benefits of being held accountable by our citizens, and we will join you in seeking to combat corrupt dealings that can enrich elites often at the expense of everyday citizens.
In short, we will be engaging with a dedication to democratic principles – to a respect for human rights, a respect for environmental safeguards and social protections, a belief that transparency and accountability are to the larger good. That they enhance social service delivery and that they will help in the long run secure much better outcomes for citizens.
We also believe in the importance of empowering local workers and making sure that job creation and retention of the talent that grows out of universities like this one remains top of mind.
Today, again, we opened a Mission in Suva. But over the next several years, we are going to be growing our presence and engagement across the region, consistent with a democratic approach and the Pacific Way – recognizing that there will be as many approaches and as many solutions as there are different communities in this vibrant, rich, and diverse Blue Pacific Continent.
And with a partnership done in this way, there is so much we can achieve together. Again and again, I heard in my conversations with individuals from Pacific Islands, from Pacific communities, three priorities repeated:
Jobs: fueling the economic growth that affords young people like you the opportunities you need to build the futures that you want in the communities where you live and communities that you would prefer not to leave.
That’s why USAID is investing in the digital infrastructure that connects Pacific communities with global economic opportunities. And I was very privileged earlier today to get to talk with the Deputy Prime Minister about Fiji’s digitalization agenda and the beginning of conversations about how we can support them.
This week, we are launching a new initiative that will commit as much as $20 million to improve broadband access and connectivity across 12 Pacific Island countries. To accomplish this, we’ll in fact, partnering closely with USP – harnessing the digital expertise that your institution has honed in the decades since we worked together to connect campuses across the Pacific.
The second priority I keep hearing about is health. Not surprisingly in the wake of a devastating global pandemic. But the statistics are truly sobering: as risks from climate change and other factors grow, the odds of living through a pandemic of similar severity to COVID during our lifetimes are nearly 40 percent. Those are not good odds. Being forced to close up our borders again to save lives at the expense of livelihoods would be catastrophic for all of our nations.
So we will work with the World Health Organization to create global health security National Action Plans for up to 11 Pacific countries. These plans will identify the investments that are needed to respond to emerging threats – like hiring scientists to test water and sewage for emerging pathogens, and training health care workers to recognize and quickly contain infectious diseases. And because most emerging pathogens evolve in animals and make the jump over to humans, we will also be working with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Administration to improve animal health and train veterinary professionals throughout the Pacific Islands to identify and treat diseases.
And finally, we know that the highest priority for our Pacific communities is combating the climate crisis, and building resilience to the existential threat it poses for all of us.
There is so much to do: Training farmers in new techniques to grapple with changing weather patterns and encroaching salt water. Boosting our disaster response capabilities so we can stay safe in extreme weather. Relocating communities who have seen or will see their homes destroyed by rising sea levels. Conserving the forest and ocean ecosystems that provide invaluable carbon sinks and treasure troves of biodiversity. During my time in Papua New Guinea, I was reminded that this single nation contains a stunning seven percent of all the world’s biodiversity. Our future depends on preserving Pacific ecosystems.
The United States has a responsibility, given our contributions to global carbon emissions, to help other nations invest in mitigating and adapting to climate change. And if I had to describe in one phrase the way we are thinking about our approach, it would be this: locally-led, but globally financed.
Since 2016, we have worked to train students here, and community leaders throughout the Pacific, to lead climate adaptation projects. We invested about $24 million – but that helped governments and leaders across the Pacific Islands access more $500 million in climate adaptation funding. We know this is not enough but there’s proof of concept here about how strengthening national capabilities can unlock very significant investments.
So we are exploring new ways to build on those impacts, including hosting an Indigenous People’s Dialogue to expand the reach of such efforts to traditionally marginalized communities who hold, in some cases, centuries of expertise about living in harmony with nature.
Yet the funding needs for climate adaptation are gargantuan, so we want to help make the catalytic investments that could unlock capital on the scale that this region truly needs.
Today, many nations with the world’s great forests are in fact getting paid simply not to chop them down, offering carbon offsets to help organizations meet net zero pledges.
Yet, despite also being essential carbon sinks, the world’s ocean ecosystems have not drawn the same kind of capital from offsets, because there hasn’t been enough research to show how much carbon they sequester. We’re changing that. And today, I am announcing that USAID will be conducting a new Blue Carbon Assessment to quantify the true value of these marine carbon sinks across the Blue Pacific Continent – the crucial step, one of many, in unlocking the flow of resources to Pacific communities, and a recognition of the incredible value you provide to our planet by conserving these natural treasures.
These commitments to your priorities are just the beginning of this new chapter in our inclusive partnership.
So today, as we honor the anniversary of that new beginning in the history of freedom, I want to hear your thoughts on what the road ahead should look like. Your generation has a strong sense of justice – an irrepressible sense of justice, it seems – a steadfast commitment to defending the dignity of all people, and a fervent love of the natural world. The kind of love that comes from growing up knowing all that we might lose if we do not do more to protect it.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts about where we need to go from here.
Thank you so much.