South-South Champions: H.E. Ambassador Solo Mara,
Secretary-General, Pacific Island Development Forum (PIDF)

“South-South Cooperation is an important development platform for the countries that share the cultural structure and traditional values that are founded on the communities, families, and kinship. This is the opportunity to strengthen the strategy for a people-centered development approach that develops community resilience. That is why South-South Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region is important for some of the shared values are based on kinship and community,” (Ambassador Solo Mara, 2021).

The interview with His Excellency, Ambassador Solo Mara, the Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), held on 3 September 2021, focused on the organization’s role in building a blue and green Pacific based on the culture, values and the shared experiences and aspirations of the Pacific people. In several instances, he reiterated the affinity of the approach to South-South cooperation principles and hence the natural synergy between PIDF and UNOSSC work.

Why do you think South-South cooperation (SSC) matters in achieving sustainable development and what have been the key achievements or past successes in applying SSC?

Ambassador Mara stated that SSC offers a strong platform for collaboration and exchanges among countries of the South, particularly in the area of sustainable development. He believes that most countries in the Global South, especially in the Asia Pacific region, share a lot of development challenges in the political, economic, social, cultural, environmental and technical domains. “These similarities in the challenges make these countries ideal partners for obvious reasons, not the least of which is the exchange of best practices, knowledge, development experiences, and technical expertise,” he added.

Ambassador Mara further explained that PIDF was established to identify and promote local solutions to development challenges in the Pacific island region. Most of these local solutions are common in the Global South and therefore, familiar and recognizable to local communities in the Pacific. “Encouraging and amplifying these local voices in any development strategy can complement the assistance provided through traditional donor countries and multilateral organizations. Some of these challenges are global, for instance, climate change and COVID 19, but the solutions need to incorporate local ideas and remedies in order to be sustainable,” he said. “This is where PIDF is very much involved and the SSC platform is very important in terms of the shared experiences that can be conveyed to the Pacific Island countries.”

Ambassador Mara explained the origins of PIDF. He said that: “In 2015, the Pacific Leaders recognized that the development strategy adopted at the regional level, lacks the recognition of the Pacific cultural values and development agendas. There were suggestions that development in the Pacific then was driven by donor’s needs and interests. There were concerns that there was a disparity in terms of the development assistance that was provided and the development needs of the Pacific island countries. PIDF was established by the Pacific Leaders to raise the interest and the voice of the Pacific Islanders to determine for themselves what they need in terms of development.”

He said that the approach PIDF is taking is “to consult with the local stakeholders; civil society, private sector and the local communities to identify what they need as areas of development that needed to be addressed – a community rather than top-down driven approach,” he said.  Mr. Mara explained that PIDF is engaging with local communities to identify the areas that need to be developed. “These are then taken into the discussions higher-up and inform the policy-making by the governments at every level to the national level.”

The Secretary-General expressed his personal view about the PIDF approach.  “In a lot of ways, it is a different approach to development in that it is driven by the needs and aspirations of communities. Therefore, the aspect of the local solutions which are relevant to the local environment becomes very important.” Ambassador Mara further added that this is one of the attributes of South-South Cooperation hence the natural partnership between PIDF and UNOSSC.

One of PIDF’s core functions is to serve as the Pacific platform for SSC. As a tool for implementation, how has South-South cooperation helped the organization with its mission of enabling a green blue Pacific economy?

Ambassador Mara stated that PIDF was established in 2013 with the key objective of promoting sustainable green blue development principles in the Pacific Island region. Integral to this, is the recognition that of some of these principles already exist in traditional knowledge and cultural practices, i.e., maintaining the intricate balance between the environment, community resilience and economic growth. He indicated that, “In this regard, PIDF has been working with its member states and stakeholders, particularly the private sector and civil society to develop a green growth index and a blue economy roadmap to help members make the transition in a holistic fashion rather than the ad-hoc reactionary approach that is often seen in the region.” This strategic approach, agreed by PIDF leaders to engage with civil society and the private sector in the area of sustainable development goals is groundbreaking noting that there has always been a history of tension between the civil society, private sector and government and for these players to agree to establish a platform to push the sustainable development agenda forward is a great achievement in itself.”

The Ambassador further mentioned that since 2015 there have been a number of groundbreaking policy decisions under the PIDF, such as the Nadi Bay Declaration in 2019 and the Suva Declaration on Climate Change which was taken by the Pacific Island Leaders to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris. Others include the Pacific Blue Economy Conference in 2017 – this conference built on the outcomes of the June 2017 UN Conference on SDG 14 on oceans and other existing Pacific commitments and frameworks. Also, a face-to-face consultation on the blue economy was convened with the Government of Tonga in 2019. The PIDF is also working in the Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) area to complement its work on the blue economy. This work includes the current project on developing a Marine Spatial Plan for Viti-Levu, Fiji and developing capacities of the Pacific people on MSP in the form of training programmes.

Asked whether the blue economy initiative has been received well by external partners, Mr Mara indicated that the leaders’ vision for a blue and green economic growth for the Pacific is new and only advanced with the establishment of PIDF in 2013. He said that the concept is still being finalized and PIDF is continually engaging with the member states in terms of developing the green growth index and the blue economy roadmap. “The post COVID-19 recovery needs to be both green and blue if we are committing to the ocean and other climate change conferences. PIDF leaders have strongly articulated that the return to full economic recovery needs to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. This has been communicated strongly on the PIDF platform to development partners,” he concluded.

How has PIDF’s work, and approach been affected by the pandemic crisis? What would you like to see introduced or changed in the way we have been applying SSC in the Pacific? How can UNOSSC facilitate PIDF’s work to help scale up South-South Cooperation?

Ambassador Mara mentioned that like many other organizations, the pandemic has hampered PIDF operations to some extent, particularly in relation to having their PIDF Summit/ Conference where members gathered to discuss relevant issues and follow up on some major decisions that were made in prior conferences, and to take stock on the status of the various countries in relation to their independent efforts for sustainable blue and green economies within their sovereignty.

He added that PIDF project implementation has been heavily affected. “Travel restrictions and border closures have interfered with the work timeline. Delivery of key project components by the shipping vessels and airlines have been delayed. Technical experts cannot travel, and therefore the training and workshops have been moved online.  The Internet connectivity constraints in the region have been exposed now more than ever.”

However, Ambassador Mara also highlighted some positive outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that the current pandemic has compelled development practitioners to use local talent rather than external consultants. He added that this would be good news for the sustainability of projects going forward. “Now we can rely on the local expertise, prior to the pandemic, project implementation required technical expertise from abroad to advise the national project level implementers.” He also noted that the pandemic has compelled PIDF to convene online training, online workshops, and seminars to build capacities at the national level. This would not have been possible, or effective during normal times. Therefore, the restrictions placed on the travel has forced PIDF to develop capacities and rely on the local expertise.

Mr. Mara explained that monitoring and evaluation of projects was affected. The pandemic has accelerated changes including the development of strong partnerships at the national level and outsourcing some monitoring tasks to the local partners. Ambassador Mara stated that COVID-19 impacts had also definitely provided opportunities for building capacity at the national level. he noted that this was very much in step with the PIDF foundation and South-South Cooperation.

What would you like to see introduced or changed in the way we have been applying South-South Cooperation in PIDF and the Asia-Pacific region, in the field of South-South Cooperation?

Mr. Mara reiterated the need for community -based development. “PIDF would like to see more community-based programmes that are aimed at community resilience, food security and nutrition, costal reforestation, water sanitation, solar electrification. Moreover, development projects that involve people to people exchanges are also needed including social interactions.”.

Ambassador Mara suggested that there is a need for “social engagement at the community level to build resilience at that level. That’s something that we would like to see materialize more through SSC in the Pacific.”

Are there any other thoughts that you would like us to convey to readers?

In his answer, Ambassador Mara reiterated the character of the Pacific and why it aligns with SSC. “South-South Cooperation is an important development platform for the countries that share the cultural structure and traditional values that are founded on the communities, families, and kinship. This is the opportunity to strengthen the strategy for a people-centered development approach that should strengthen community resilience. Therefore, South-South Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region is important as some of the shared values are based on kinship and community.  The PIDF approach is to build on the home-grown solutions with the Pacific Island governments, transform the traditional value and cultural practices into the modern concept of sustainable development.”

Ambassador Mara pointed out that it is important for the Pacific States to acknowledge that there is an underlying thread that binds them together. “Yes we are island states, we are oceanic peoples, we share a common threat which is climate change and we share the largest ocean, the Pacific Ocean. We are dependent on the little that we have, but more importantly we are custodians for the future.” The Pacific traditional structures are founded on clans/ families, talanoa and the importance of kinship and they need to build on the idea of a Pacific Kinship, and have that as a foundation when negotiating with the rest of the world.

How trade and investment could be incorporated in the Pacific in your approach?

Ambassador Mara agreed that the trade and investment are an important part of the overall development progress of the Pacific islands. He noted, however, that still, the commodities to be traded would have to be sustainably produced, harvested, and processed in an environmentally friendly way. He suggested that, “The models of trade and investment that promote sustainable and long-term green and blue growth should be pursued in line with the benefits to the community. That will be ideal for the communities’ recovery plans.”

Do you have any upcoming proposals/ ideas/ projects incorporating South-South cooperation in the next few years?

Ambassador Mara reflected on several projects in support of the blue and green economic growth; for instance, in areas of renewable energy and developing the blue economy roadmap for the member countries.

The ambassador also wished to express his appreciation for the strong, collaborative partnership with UNOSSC during his tenure.  “There are various synergies in the work of UNOSSC and PIDF. Looking forward, he urged PIDF and UNOSSC to publicize and create awareness on building community resilience through the multi-stakeholder’s approaches. He underlined that this work would be very useful in pushing the Pacific member states platform to transition from the impact and recover sustainably from the COVID-19 pandemic while addressing the challenges of climate change.”

Ambassador Solo Mara is the Secretary-General, Pacific Island Development Forum (PIDF) since October 2019. Ambassador Mara began his career in May 1989 as a graduate trainee at the Fiji Ministry of Home Affairs and later on in the Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Over the years, Ambassador Mara rose through the diplomatic ranks to serve as Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2009 – 2011), High Commissioner to the United Kingdom (2011 – 2015) and Ambassador to the United States of America (2015 – 2019)

In recognition of his 20-year contribution in the Diplomatic Service of the Republic of Fiji, Ambassador Mara received from the President of Fiji, His Excellency Major General (Ret) Jioji Konrote, the Fiji 50 Independence Commemorative Medal at the State House in October 2020. Ambassador Maa holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Japan (1997) and a bachelor’s of arts degree in Political Science from the University f the South Pacific (1988). He also received various diplomatic training at the Korean Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (2000) and the Department of Foreign Affairs Affairs and Trade Australia (2006). Ambassador Mara is married to Kerry Megan Mara, and blessed with two daughters and two sons.