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[Media Release - MFAI]

Pacific Economic Ministers call for debt relief and flexibility in development financing modalities

Te Kauono Tutara e te Mana Tiaki – Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration


The annual Pacific Islands Forum Economic Ministers Meeting (FEMM), held virtually on 10 and 11 August focused on a range of COVID-19 related issues. The Cook Islands delegation was led by the Associate Minister of Finance, Mr Tingika Elikana, and the Finance Secretary, Mr Garth Henderson, supported by officials from the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management (MFEM) and Te Kauono Tutara e te Mana Tiaki/Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration (MFAI), including the Cook Islands Chargé d’Affaires in Fiji, Mr Jim Armistead.

As part of its role to advocate the interests of the Cook Islands internationally, MFAI provides advice and support to Government’s technical agencies on issues where those agencies lead the Cook Islands’ participation in regional and international fora.


This year’s dialogue amongst Forum member countries centered on economic and social impacts being felt at the community and national levels as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic. There are estimates that the Pacific region will sustain economic losses in the millions of dollars caused by the impacts of COVID-19 and the efforts of countries to contain the spread of the virus within its borders. FEMM discussions were informed by statements delivered by a representative of Pacific Civil Society Organisations and Mr Stephen Lyon, Chairperson of the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation (PIPSO) on behalf of that Organisation which highlighted a number of key issues and areas for potential cooperation subsequently considered by Ministers.

At the conclusion of FEMM, a Regional Statement on the Economic and Social Impacts of COVID-19 on the Pacific was issued by Ministers – the Statement can be viewed at https://www.forumsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/2020-Forum-Economic-Ministers-Meeting-Statement-on-COVID-19.pdf The Statement offers insights on the challenges of COVID-19 on countries in the region and demonstrates consensus agreement by Ministers on a range of measures to be taken to address those challenges. Among the decisions taken, Ministers requested international financial institutions to reassess grant and loan eligibility and utilize all available financial instruments so that Forum Island Countries can fully benefit from the support of those institutions. This call by FEMM has the potential to significantly benefit the Cook Islands which is currently unable to access fully international assistance for its COVID-19 response and broader developmental initiatives because of the OECD’s assessment of the Cook Islands as having graduated to a high level income country. Ministers also called on the international community to provide a temporary suspension on debt service payments in solidarity of the economies that are being affected the most and in recognition of the “three-pronged crisis currently facing the region – the impact of COVID-19, the devastating effects of climate change and natural disasters, and the fragile economic health of the region as a consequence of inherent vulnerabilities”.


Associate Minister of Finance Elikana stated that he is “pleased with the outcomes of the FEMM, the Cook Islands is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19 due to our high reliance on tourism which contributes significantly towards our economic aspirations. The Ministers’ decision to establish a regional COVID-19 Economic Recovery Taskforce is recognition in the value of collective action in addressing common challenges. It is an extraordinary situation that requires unique solutions and collective action.”


Commenting on the FEMM outcomes, the Secretary of MFAI, Ms Tepaeru Herrmann, said, “the Cook Islands welcomes decisions by Ministers on collaborative regional action, including their urging development partners and multilateral development banks to recognise the particular acute vulnerabilities faced by Small Islands States like the Cook Islands and to support us in these difficult times”. While there is a significant degree of uncertainty as to how long COVID-19 containment and response measures would be needed, it was imperative the Cook Islands continue to work closely with key regional and international inter-governmental organisations and development partners to bolster ongoing domestic response and recovery efforts.


Ms Hermann observed, “external co-operation will be of elevated importance in the coming months. We must continue to work closely with development partners and banks to secure what assistance we require to enable the continued delivery by government of a comprehensive fiscal package inclusive debt suspension and grant financing arrangements to assist with the immediate and disruptive financial impacts on the livelihoods of our people for many months to come. We are all acutely aware that no one is immune to the current effects of this pandemic. If we are able to source and secure financial relief for the duration of this pandemic this would greatly assist in strengthening our foundation for national economic and social response and recovery.”

The meeting was attended at Ministerial level by Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. French Polynesia, Kiribati, New Caledonia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Solomon Islands were represented at Officials level. The Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific (CROP) agencies – the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, the Pacific Community, the Pacific Aviation Safety Authority, the Pacific Power Association, the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, and the University of the South Pacific. Special Technical Observers also in attendance were the Asian Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, the Oceania Customs Organisation, the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the United Nations, and the World Bank.

The Government of Vanuatu will host the next meeting of Forum Economic Ministers in 2021.


For further information regarding this media release, please contact MFAI Pacific Division SIS and Regional Co-ordinator Mr Ewan Cameron on phone 29347 or email ewan.cameron@cookislands.gov.ck

Photos:

1. 10 – 11 August 2020, Virtual FEMM 2020 Ministerial Meeting;

2. March 2020, Apia – Associate Minister Finance Tingika Elikana speaking at a UN Human Rights Conference;

3. March 2020, Rarotonga – Financial Secretary Garth Henderson speaking at the COVID-19 Economic Response Plan announcement; and

4. 10-11 August, Virtual FEMM 2020 Ministerial Meeting – MFAI Pacific & Regional Affairs Division staff L-R Ewan Cameron, SIS and Regional Co-ordinator; Dr. Jim Gosselin, Director and Ngakiri Teaea, Foreign Service Officer


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