Shades of green in the Pacific

Why do small island nations have such different interpretations of ‘green growth’?

Matthew Dornan, Tess Newton Cain, Wesley Morgan, Sandra Tarte

Development, Environment & energy | Asia, The Pacific

14 November 2018

Competing definitions of the Pacific’s latest development buzzword are inherently political, Matthew Dornan, Tess Newton Cain, Wesley Morgan, and Sandra Tarte write.

The term ‘green growth’ and its sister concepts, ‘blue-green growth’, the ‘green economy’, and the ‘blue-green economy’, have gained considerable traction in the Pacific island region in a short space of time. Pacific island governments, regional organisations, and development agencies all use these terms when referring to economic growth and development that aims to be environmentally sustainable.

But the green growth concept didn’t originate in the Pacific – so what has driven its adoption within the region? To what extent has its usage been influenced by external actors? How has green growth terminology in the Pacific mirrored or differed from global debates? And to what extent has the use of green growth terminology actually become unique to the region?

These are all questions explored in our recent article in the Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies journal. We examine usage of the term both at the regional level, and locally in Fiji and Vanuatu, where we draw on existing literature and interviews with politicians, public servants, civil society, the private sector, and donor agencies.

What we find is a contested policy space, where Pacific actors deploy competing meanings of green growth terms in ways that reflect their worldviews and support their agendas.

This is most evident at the regional level, where competition between regional organisations now extends into usage of ‘green growth’ terminology.

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The Pacific Island Development Forum’s (PIDF) original embrace of green growth as its raison d’être did not occur in a political vacuum. Green growth formed part of the PIDF’s ‘unique selling point’ in a crowded regional landscape. Importantly, it was advocated by those challenging the political settlement at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), as a more uniquely “Pacific” vision than the PIF priority of “regional economic integration”.

In contrast, the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat (PIFS) has until recently been reluctant to adopt green growth terminology, instead favouring terms such as ’resilient development’ and ‘low carbon pathways’ when discussing climate change, disaster preparedness, and disaster management. This only changed in 2017, when PIF leaders endorsed a statement of regional identity centred around The Blue Pacific.

In Fiji and Vanuatu, green growth has assumed a different hue to that of regional discussions. In Fiji, the government set out a Green Growth Framework in the lead up to the country’s first election in nearly a decade, borrowing the term to articulate a “uniquely Fijian” vision for national development. The Fijian government also sought to reposition itself on the global stage as a leader in multilateral environmental diplomacy (diplomacy not always reflected in domestic environmental policy).

In Vanuatu, green growth was adopted in a decidedly Vanuatu syntax, captured in the National Sustainable Development Plan. Local political leaders drew on long-running national debates about appropriate development, as they sought to articulate a “people’s plan” that valued economic growth as well as the country’s environment and wealth of traditional cultures. Here, the emphasis was on strengthening the traditional economy, or ‘the kastom economy’ – an idea with a long history in Vanuatu, where Indigenous values are frequently contrasted with those underpinning ‘Western’ economic models.

What was also clear from our discussions was that there was no single understanding of green growth in the Pacific. Organisations and individuals used different (and sometimes contradictory) understandings of green growth in ways consistent with their worldviews, often as a means to support their own agendas. So too did governments, as illustrated by Fiji’s adoption and deployment of green growth as part of its broader foreign policy strategy.

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Nonetheless, there were common themes that arose in our discussions that differentiated the use of green growth in the Pacific from its usage internationally.

The first involved an emphasis on self-determination and resource sovereignty: concepts that are foreign to international discussions of green growth.

The second involved an emphasis on the broader context of cultural obligations and Indigenous concepts of ecological stewardship – a theme often associated with sustainable development (and its social objectives), but not one often drawn on to describe green growth in other parts of the world.

These uniquely Pacific interpretations of green growth are especially interesting, given that they sit in direct conflict with global usage and criticism of the term, which detractors have argued is market-centric and forms part of a broader shift towards the application of economic approaches to nature. In the Pacific, no such criticism has taken place. Instead, the term has been used by many to promote an alternative development model to the neoliberal focus on economic growth.

In this sense, the dissemination of green growth terminology echoes the introduction of other foreign ideas and institutions in the Pacific. As Peter Larmour famously noted, foreign ideas and institutions are never transferred unchanged but are used and interpreted locally. Pacific actors have used green growth terminology differently, in ways that support their own agendas and worldviews.

It is this flexibility and lack of precision that has contributed to the widespread dissemination and use of green growth terminology. What remains to be seen is the extent to which such usage has tangible impacts on public policy in the region.

This piece is based on the authors’ article in the Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies journal, What’s in a term? ‘Green growth’ and the ‘blue‐green economy’ in the Pacific islands. All papers in the journal are free to read and download. It is published in partnership with Devpolicy Bloga platform for the best in aid and development analysis, research and policy comment, with a focus on Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.

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