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The tiny nation of the Cook Islands is set to become the first among the Pacific islands to graduate to “developed” status, in a move that some government officials are calling their “worst case scenario”.
Some 99.99% of the Cook’s territory is made up of ocean, with its 15 islands spread out over an area of nearly 2m sq km.
The Cook Islands has a free-association agreement with New Zealand, meaning it is self-governing but its residents are entitled to New Zealand citizenship, receive NZ$25m (US17.6 million) in aid per annum and are expected to share common values.
In the last decade the Cook Islands has made substantial progress in becoming financially independent with the Asian Development Bank recording six straight years of economic growth.
More than 150,000 tourists visited the island last year attracted by airfares subsidised by the government and the country has also earned increased revenue through better management of the fisheries sector.
This progress has resulted in the tiny nation qualifying to move from “developing” to “developed” status, however the government is not celebrating.
Tepaeru Herrmann, the foreign affairs secretary, said the change in status was concerning. “We have decided as a government that we are are going to prepare for the worst case scenario which is we do graduate next year,” she said.
“Some of our concerns is that moving from a mid income to a high income country does not take into account our constant vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change. Even though we have a strong economy at the moment it would take one cyclone of a certain magnitude that could potentially set us back a number of years.”
Half of the Cook Islands’ population lives on the main island of Rarotonga, with the rest scattered around a vast area. Some atolls are home to fewer than 100 people who continue to live traditional lives based on fishing and subsistence farming.
“Some of these islands, their contact with the outside world can be every two to three months when the ship gets up there to drop off supplies, this is very much the other side of Cook Islands that the OECD and the rest of the world don’t see.” said Herrmann.
Mark Brown, the finance minister, said the news that the Cook Islands were on the cusp of graduating to developed status had been met with a mixed response by islanders, with some celebrating the substantial achievement but many concerned about how the new status would affect the country’s ability to access aid.
Brown said the change meant it was likely his country would no longer be eligible for United Nations funding and discussions were already underway with major regional donors such as Australia and New Zealand to address what continued support they would be able to offer.
Herrmann said initial talks with the New Zealand government have so far been positive and she didn’t expect any funding cuts in the immediate future.
“Although we are now considered a prosperous nation the cost on a per capita basis is very high for basic infrastructure like airstrips, ports and medical and education facilities, we have to replicate these services on all these islands even though some of them have tiny populations.” said Brown.
“This impending status is something we should celebrate but it essentially means that development assistance we have had in the past will no longer be available to us, so we need to think of different ways to do business and engage on the international stage.”
Although the Cook Islands would not officially be declared a developed country until the end of 2018, Hermann said the government had begun reaching out to bilateral partners around the world to establish partnerships of mutual benefit, rather than aid dependence.
“Through my eyes the Cook Islands looks very much as it did 34 years ago, and that is probably not what someone would typically consider developed,” said Hermann.
“The support we have received from the international community has helped the government address the challenges we are faced with in terms of isolation from the rest of the world and within the country itself. Most of our revenue is generated on the main tourist island of Rarotonga, so we are very much exploring avenues to help generate enterprise on the other islands but some of these are flat atolls and the options are very limited.”
The Cook Islands became a New Zealand colony in 1901 but after a push for self-determination in the 1960s it became self-governing in free association with New Zealand in 1965.
More than 60,000 Cook Islanders live in New Zealand – only 21,000 remain in the country.
The Cook Islands looks to New Zealand to import the bulk of its fuel, food and machinery, and in the 2015/2016 year received more than NZ$25m in aid from the New Zealand government.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS
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