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The Contemporary Pacific 17.1 (2005) 118-140

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Governance, Corruption, and Ethics in the Pacific

The governance agenda came to the Pacific in the 1990 s as a "polite" way of dealing with corruption. It originated from the World Bank's assessment that a failing and inadequate political environment was the underlying cause for sub-Saharan Africa's unsuccessful response to structural adjustment reform. In the Pacific, the governance agenda has been taken up by the region's main bilateral and multilateral donors, as well as by international agencies. They have been concerned about the region's lack of sustained economic development (particularly, its lack of consistent growth); its rising political instability; the increasingly visible mismanagement of public funds in many countries; and an upsurge in the so-called ideology of traditionalism. The recipe put forward to cure these ills, in the Pacific as in Africa, has been to promote liberal democracy, the rule of law, government workforce reduction ("right-sizing"), and more open markets.

The donors and international agencies are not mistaken about the deteriorating political and economic conditions in the region, and they certainly have a role to play in (if not a debt toward) assisting Pacific Island countries to enhance governance and socioeconomic development. However, real transparency on the part of the agencies would require them to assess and publicize their motivations in promoting the governance agenda. A more explicit explanation of why greater democratization and economic liberalization in the Pacific suit their interests and an honest assessment of how they may benefit Pacific Island states would be a start. A second step would be to work in tandem with Pacific Island communities to build a more prosperous and harmonious future. This would require listening to alternative views and becoming serious about dealing with the social consequences of economic and financial change. Since it is [End Page 118] unlikely the agencies will take the lead on this, it falls to regional academics to deconstruct the agenda, and to help explore alternative ways of achieving better governance.

Many aspects of the governance agenda in the Pacific have already been critiqued,1 but little has been said about the agenda's silence on the causes and manifestations of corruption in the Pacific, and its inability to reach beyond standardized corrective measures to governance problems. The lack of attention to the causes of corruption is a major flaw in the agenda, which was designed to fix corruption in the first place. How can it aspire to "fix" a problem if it doesn't know what the root causes of the problem are? Little in-depth analysis on corruption in the region has emerged; instead, the tendency is to assume that the basis for corruption lies in culture or tradition. Fingers are generally pointed at tribal, clanic, and family ties; the lack of a national identity and of a developed and effective contractual civil society; and "bloated" civil services that lack a public service ethic. Ultimately, "Africanisation," or the development of a "culture of political corruption" (LeVine 1993, 274, quoted in Szeftel 1998, 223), is seen as the destiny of the Pacific.2

The second major flaw in the governance agenda is its almost exclusive reliance on western thought and the accompanying policy of political and economic liberalism. Proponents of the agenda fail to sufficiently question how liberal democracies actually function today. This is particularly so with respect to the subservience of present-day democracies to market forces, which has led to widening social inequalities, a general deficit of political participation, and an increasing role of wealth in determining electoral outcomes. Some debate takes place in liberal democracies regarding how to address this situation (although in the United States, for instance, this is not a mainstream debate). But so far, the governance agenda has done little to provoke substantive thought about what political values and systems would best serve contemporary Pacific societies. At best it has reluctantly accommodated "native" institutions, some of which may be more reflective of the colonial heritage and the interests of entrenched elites than of contemporary...


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