Shedding Our ‘Skins’ and Sharing our Wealth


Guest author: Claire Slatter*

A Contribution to the Panel on ‘Shared Societies in the Pacific – Beyond Colonialism, Tribalism and Racism’. Asia Pacific Forum, Club de Madrid, Tahiti, July 5, 2012.

Distinguished Club de Madrid members, fellow panelists and participants. ‘Ia Orana, Bula Vinaka/Namaste, Talofa lava, Maloleilei, warm greetings to you all. I would like to add my thanks to Club de Madrid and the government of French Polynesia, especially President Oscar Temaru, for holding this important Forum in Tahiti. The Forum provides an opportunity to discuss development challenges in Pacific societies and how Club de Madrid, with its wealth of experience in political leadership, might assist.

Our objective in this panel is to reflect on Club de Madrid’s ‘Shared Societies’ model, consider what it has to offer to the Pacific, and how it might help manage and transform tensions in the region.

Let me say from the outset that I like the model, and consider it both useful and appropriate for Pacific societies. ‘Shared societies”, as defined by CdM, are “stable, safe and just”; they are based on “the promotion and protection of all human rights as well as on non-discrimination, tolerance, respect for diversity, equality of opportunity, solidarity, security and participation of all people, including disadvantaged and vulnerable groups and persons”. Shared societies are and socially cohesive and inclusive societies in the sense that everyone living in them ‘feels at home’. Shared societies are “constructed and nurtured through strong political leadership”.

The rationale for promoting shared societies is self-evident – insecurity, instability, conflict and war have their roots in social exclusion, inequality and failure to ‘manage diversity’ (as Club de Madrid puts it). There are also environmental costs to failing to build cohesive, inclusive shared societies. Club de Madrid does not provide a ‘one size fits all’ blueprint for how to create Shared Societies’. But there are 4 essential ingredients: meaningful democratic participation; respect for diversity and the dignity of the individual; equality of opportunity, including to access resources; and protection from discrimination

There are many in the Pacific who would embrace the idea of promoting shared societies. The process of creating shared societies in the Pacific presents some challenges.

Is there a foundation of core values in Pacific cultures that could support the creation of Shared Societies? Pacific people are well known to be hospitable, generous and inclusive. Pacific cultures are based on values of reciprocity, generosity, care and respect. There is a strong ethic of social responsibility for wider kin and for the elderly, as well as a strong redistributive ethic. Traditional wealth was accumulated to be re-distributed through practices of social exchange. Pacific societies value social relationships -especially kinship ties – and community solidarity, and provide security and care to vulnerable and less well-off members of the wider family.

Extending the traditional ethic of care and share beyond wider kin (i.e. beyond caring for one’s own) to all who constitute the national society ought to be a defining feature of Pacific states and governments. The reality is that in some Pacific countries, whole communities live their lives without much or any support from the state, and thus without any sense of inclusion, much less a sense of care from modern society or government. They include rural communities living outside of the main island, communities living on remote islands or in the interior or hinterland, and not least economically marginalized communities in the mushrooming urban and peri-urban squatter settlements in and around the Pacific’s main towns.

Pacific societies value participatory, consensus based decision-making, although not everyone participates in decision-making. In most Pacific societies, women, youth and people with disability, as well as sexual minorities, are excluded generally, and especially in decision-making. Dame Carol Kidu’s recent success in securing the PNG parliament’s approval of a quota system to ensure women’s representation in the national parliament is a milestone achievement in advancement of women in PNG. The democratic value of treating everyone equally – whether male or female, chief or commoner – is not widely subscribed to. Differential treatment on the basis of gender and class/social status is both expected, and commonly practiced.

The community or wider group matters more than the individual, and there is thus a tension between group rights and individual rights. Group rights in respect to land ownership, are in most cases strongly protected by law, although recent liberalization of leasing arrangements in Vanuatu has resulted in effective alienation of large areas of beachside custom land to Australians and New Zealanders. Sharing access to communally owned land with other citizens on fair and equitable leasing terms for both livelihood and residential purposes remains an issue in some states, including Fiji and Solomon Islands.

Pacific societies tend to be conformist, and there is a reluctance to embrace some individual rights and personal freedoms that are considered contrary to cultural, or religious, values and teachings. This particularly affects the rights of women, children, and sexual minorities. Pacific societies which deny equal rights and protection from discrimination to women and minorities, including sexual minorities, would not meet several of the qualifiers of ‘shared societies’ – namely safety, justice, non-discrimination, tolerance and respect for diversity.

There are two challenges to creating shared societies in the Pacific that I wish to address– managing ethnic diversity and reducing economic disparities. Failure to address one or both of these factors lies behind recent political upheavals and outbreaks of open conflict in Melanesia.

(1) Managing ethnic diversity: As pointed out in Club de Madrid’s key project documents on ‘Shared Societies’, more than 90% of all nations today have minority populations comprising at least 10%. Some are stable and generally inclusive of ethnic minorities; the rest exhibit varying degrees of social exclusion and instability. Most Pacific societies are ethnically diverse, comprising either a diversity of indigenous cultural and language groups, or indigenous majorities and non-indigenous minorities.

Creating inclusive societies and celebrating diversity is easier said than done, given pre-colonial histories of autonomy, the legacies of colonial divide and rule policies, urbanization and uneven development, different cultural norms and practices (e.g. in relation to settling grievances and compensation), and, in Fiji’s case, the colonial institutionalization of race-based voting and representation systems, decades of ethnic politics, and the post-colonial project of indigenous political paramountcy. Resentment and distrust of ‘others’ is sometimes encouraged or mobilized for political purposes, and fear mongering about the influence or intentions of ‘others’ has provoked human rights violations and conflict in parts of the region. In no Pacific states is such socially divisive behavior legally prohibited and ethno-nationalist extremism remains a threat to building inclusive societies.

Ordinary people in our communities live peacefully and cooperatively side-by-side, although prejudices and stereotypes about different groups do contaminate relationships. Ordinary people share much the same values, and aspirations and their differences are really only skin-deep. The sources of tension between groups largely arise from increasing inequality, distrust (often been encouraged by communal leaders and divisive politics), and the loss of, encroachment on or damage to, land and other livelihood resources through expanded urban (or rural) settlement and destructive forms of ‘development’. All of these sources of discord need to be institutionally addressed by the state and not left to fester. The commencement of new mining ventures, and the expansion of other extractive industries (e.g. forestry and fisheries) to which affected communities are or may become opposed, are especially concerning. We should not forget that mining triggered a 10-year war in Bougainville. There are also possibilities of conflict arising from the relocation of communities as a consequence of global warming and rising sea levels.

Creating shared societies in the Pacific is a highly desirable goal, but it’s a long term project to which not only governments would have to commit, but political, community, women, youth and church leaders, among others would also need to subscribe. It cannot be achieved overnight, or by a quick technical fix. It will involve different processes and programmes and the use of various incentives, as well as changes to law and to the education curriculum, and ongoing citizens’ education programmes to accomplish it.

Fiji’s case is worth citing briefly, to illustrate the difficulties (even with the best will in the world) of trying to achieve an inclusive multi-racial society by institutional design. Fiji’s 1997 Constitution, the outcome of both a widely consultative constitutional review process led by the late Sir Paul Reeves of New Zealand, and a process of careful deliberation and negotiation by political leaders at the time, was intended to move Fiji towards a more inclusive society. The democratic settlement was encouraged by a citizens’ organization of which I was a part, the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF), which held independent national consultations over 4 years, bringing together community and political leaders with the aim of encouraging consensus on controversial issues. CCF was supported in this endeavour by the London based group, Conciliation Resources,

The 1997 Constitution included a Compact which acknowledged the unique place of indigenous Fijians, affirmed the equal value of Indo-Fijians and other minorities, and recognized Fiji as home to all who chose to live there. It also included a model Bill of Rights, inspired by South Africa’s, which explicitly protected sexual minorities from discrimination. A chapter on Social Justice permitted time-bound affirmative action or positive discrimination programmes to support disadvantaged groups. The Social Justice provisions were used by the Peoples’ Coalition Government led by Mahendra Chaudhary, to legitimize compensation payments to displaced Indo-Fijians whose agricultural land leases were not renewed by indigenous landowners on the advice of the NLTB in the fraught aftermath of the 1999 elections. They were also subsequently used by the SDL government led by Laisenia Qarase to legitimize extended affirmative action programmes for indigenous Fijians.

The two flaws in the new Constitution were its retention of communal seats and communal voting and its introduction of a new voting system – the Alternative Vote. Ironically the AV system was promoted by some Australasian scholars as best suited to ‘divided societies’ as, in theory, it should have encouraged (race based) parties to work together. The AV system, together with the introduction of ‘above the line’ voting, by which voters could choose to transfer power to their political party to distribute their preferences, enabled unprecedented manipulation of the electoral system by race-based political parties, and created unpredictable electoral outcomes including the defeat in 1999 of the two moderate political parties and their leaders who had been responsible for agreement on the 1997 Constitution. A constitutional power sharing provision under which all parties that gained 10% or more of the vote were entitled to be included in the Cabinet, was not welcomed by either of the parties that won landslide victories in 1999 and 2001, and was only implemented by the second SDL government shortly before it was deposed in the 2006 coup.

In short, the specially designed features of Fiji’s 1997 Constitution that were intended to foster an inclusive, fair and just society based on principles of non-discrimination, protection of human rights and support for disadvantaged groups, were easily undermined by politicians who did not subscribe to its underlying objectives, but used the electoral system to their advantage in the contest for political power. Creating shared societies has to go beyond getting institutions right.

You will be aware that Fiji will be going to the polls in 2014 under new electoral arrangements – this is one of the non-negotiables of the constitutional review process that is about to commence. The new electoral system will for the first time be non-race based – we will no longer have reserved seats for indigenous Fijians (or iTaukei), Indo-Fijians and ‘others’ as we have had since colonial times, and no longer will we vote for representatives from our own ethnic group/category. We will all be voting, as ‘Fijians’, on an open roll, and on an equal basis. There are many of us who welcome this proposed change in the electoral representation system. Not only will it be more genuinely democratic, we hope that it will move us away from the race-based politics that has so undermined previous efforts to strengthen and sustain democracy, and create an inclusive society in Fiji. But we have to recognize that it will require a lot more than this to achieve the change that is being sought. It will require support and ownership by incoming political leaders. There is a risk that because this change is being pushed by the coup-leader, it may not be welcomed by all. It may also be misunderstood. Hopefully, the intended widely consultative constitutional review process, headed by eminent constitutional expert Prof. Yash Ghai, whose recent constitutional work included Kenya and Nepal, together with an public education programme, will inspire the required confidence and trust to encourage ownership by a majority of citizens. But there will still be much work to do in Fiji, and support from the Shared Society project could be extremely helpful.

(2) Dealing with economic disparities: Creating an inclusive society where everyone living there feels ‘at home’ and has a stake in building and nurturing that society, requires, in my view, a more equitable sharing of wealth and opportunities. The gap between rich and poor in all societies is growing, as we all know. We have to recognize the impoverishing impacts of neoliberal economic policies. It is no coincidence that poverty has been growing in the midst of increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. The angry protest movements that sprang up in major cities in developed countries beginning with Occupy Wall Street were responses of outraged ordinary citizens to the excesses of economic liberalism and the culture of greed that it encouraged.

A growing gap between the rich and poor is as evident in the Pacific as elsewhere in the world. Recent UNESCAP and ADB reports point to even greater inequality in Pacific Island Countries than in Asian countries, and to less formal social protection mechanisms for the most vulnerable in PICs, compared to Asian states. Inequality breeds resentment and discontent against those who have. We have rising levels of violence and crime in several countries of our region, and we see well off people increasingly depending for their safety and security on private security companies many of which, I should add, pay notoriously low wages to security guards. There is something really ironic in the rich being guarded by the poorest of the working poor.

We have to put back in place effective re-distributional mechanisms, as well as social safety nets, to support the growing numbers of people who are economically marginalized. The state has important roles to play in both legislating (and enforcing) minimum wages, and in ensuring that all citizens have an equal starting point – that there is a genuinely level playing field. This means ensuring that all children do get to finish school, that all schools – not just private schools – are well-resourced, that basic infrastructure and services, and quality health care are available to all. This poses particular challenges in outer islands and remote interior areas, but more accessible depressed and poorly served regions should be prioritized. To be able to do this may require returning to the more equitable, progressive taxation systems of the past. None who truly believe in an inclusive society should have any quarrel with that.

A recent study by epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published under the title, ‘The Spirit Level’: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better provides evidence that more equitable societies prosper in every way – less violence, less crime, less imprisonment, less addiction; less health problems, less teenage pregnancies; less environmental damage; more security, more trust, better relationships, healthier, happier and longer lives – a win-win situation for all.


Dealing with ethnic diversity and economic disparities requires more than institutional changes. It requires firm, fair, socially minded and ethical political leaders and accountability systems to ensure that leaders do not abuse power or become self-serving, and that those who engage in communal appeals, ethically divisive campaigns or discriminatory practices are penalized. It also requires public policies that are seen to be fair and equitable, and that do not advantage stronger interests in society (such as investors, owners of industry and employers) at the expense of more vulnerable groups in society, such as unorganized workers. Not least, it requires citizenship education at all levels to build understanding of what it means to belong to a shared society, as well as a sense of ownership of the vision of a shared society.

Finally, we need to be mindful of the fact that the world today has become a global village, and we are all global citizens, and need to think of ourselves as such. Migration into (as well as out of) the region is ongoing, which means not only that Pacific Island societies are becoming more diverse, but that Pacific Islanders living abroad are contributing to diversity in their host countries. The challenge for Pacific leaders is to be as inclusive, as fair and as non-discriminatory to all who live here, as we would want government leaders in societies abroad to be towards our people who now call those societies home.

*From the Governance Programme. School of Government, Development and International Affairs. University of the South Pacific. Laucala Bay Campus. Suva. Fiji Islands


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