Smells Like Team Spirit

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

When I learned of the release of this year’s Pacific Economic Survey, I was excited. I shouldn’t have been. The contrast between the 2008 report and this year’s could not be stronger. How could something so promising have fallen so far so fast?

When a player fails, you blame the player. When a team fails, you blame the coach.

Produced by the Australian government, the Survey looks at economic trends across the region and maps them to major development issues. Or, at least, that’s the game plan.

The 2008 report provided timely and useful assessments of telecoms and transport sector liberalisation. It was an enlightening document that validated some of Vanuatu’s key policies as well as providing analysis concerning future trends. I found it useful enough that I wrote about it or referenced it 7 times over the course of the year.

This year, I expect to write about the survey just this once. The 2009 report seems to be animated primarily by the Australian government’s desire to see a regional free trade agreement. The Survey sacrifices common sense and ignores its own data in its quest to glorify liberal trade policies that simply do not fit with the economic realities in Vanuatu today.

When Mark McGillivray, AusAID’s chief economist, spoke at the roll-out of the first Survey, many in the audience were impressed by his determination to continue producing this regional economic report. It would be, he promised, an important tool by which national and regional progress could be monitored and measured.

While much of the research is sound, it appears that McGillivray’s enthusiasm for objectivity was over-ridden at some stage. The executive summary reads more like a Labour stump speech than an overview of the findings.

Some of its pronouncements are surprisingly inapt. The report contends, “Pacific island countries… continue to export primarily to Australia.” Further on, the report contradicts itself, noting that, tourism aside, New Zealand and Europe are far more important to Pacific exports.

Another chestnut:

“No country in the world has generated sustained economic growth and poverty reduction by closing itself off to international trade. Trade provides access to a wider range of goods and services, technologies and knowledge.”

Had the authors (only committees are capable of such blinding inanity) of that paragraph left off evangelising long enough to actually read the report, they might have perused the litany of structural impediments faced by all Pacific countries.

The data makes it clear that – at best – achievement of these goals is a strategic objective lying years in the future. I’d love to see freer trade tomorrow, along with diversification and stronger access for all to cash and international markets. I’d also like a pony.

It is precisely the distance between dream and reality that have led to governments across the Pacific to state unequivocally that PACER+ must be negotiated over a period of years, not months. Far from supporting the argument for more open markets, this year’s survey instead makes it clear that most Pacific nations are nowhere near ready for them.

If this were another report, I’d chuck it onto the stack that serves as my office doorstop, mourn the needless sacrifice of yet another tree and forget it. But it’s precisely because of the potential shown by the initial Survey that this year’s is so disappointing. What promised to be a yardstick for regional development is being used not to measure, but to beat us about the proverbial head.

The idea of a regional annual survey remains valid. But it’s now clear that AusAID alone should not write it. Not if it’s going to allow the truth to be trumped by political considerations, anyway. (I suspect that this year’s low-key roll-out was motivated as much by embarrassment as anything else.)

A number of academic and civil society organisations are capable of handling the task of collating and analysing the kind of data this report contains. AusAID should either hand off its production to one or more of these parties or it should quit pretending and frankly state its desire to support Kevin Rudd’s trade policies. There’s no shame in either choice.

Truth be told, once you get past the tub-thumping prose, there actually is some useful trend analysis buried inside. It would have been nice to see 2008’s thematic approach continued, but it appears that this, too, was sacrificed to political considerations.

Nonetheless, there are a few interesting insights. Seeking data on economic effects of telecoms liberalisation, I found a graph showing that mobile phone ownership has tripled in just over a year. The report quotes a Ministry of Finance estimate that this is responsible for 1% growth in GDP.

We need more of that. Much more. We need less pabulum, more facts. The report contains one lonely paragraph about climate change without even a single metric to back its assertions.

The Pacific Economic Survey does a few things very well. It could, anyway. It should remember what these are and leave politics to the politicians. It’s time to change the coach and let the players play.