Opinion: So much we can do working together

National Federation Party president Pio Tikoduadua (right) with leader Prof Biman Prasad at the party’s annual general meeting in Lautoka. Picture: REPEKA NASIKO/FT FILE

The coronavirus is the most challenging epidemic the world has faced in 100 years. And for us in Fiji, it has created our worst economic situation in our 50 years of independence.

More than any time before, this is a time for us to work together. But, you may say, politicians always say that. What does that mean?

This is what the NFP and I mean by working together:

  • A COVID-19 national summit. We must bring people together, first to understand our situation, then to share ideas, then to agree a plan we all understand. Then we must allocate resources and tasks – not just to governments, but to businesses, non-government organisations, school committees, religious organisations and other community organisations;
  •  Food and sanitation. Government needs to support community organisations, their networks and skills with public money to ensure that everyone has access to nutritional food and basic sanitation;
  • Cash. We need to work out what cash we can afford and how to distribute small amounts in a regular way to those who most need it; and
  • Building skills and human resilience. Not every solution needs money. People without jobs have time on their hands. Time represents opportunities – to teach and learn new skills, build physical and mental health and fitness and awareness. If Government and community organisations work together, this can be a time to build up Fiji’s most important asset – the skills and resourcefulness of its people.

In the best-run, most successful countries in the world, it is the people who lead, innovate, employ and create.

They are empowered and supported by the government they have elected. It is what I call “the power of all”. And for the last 10 years, this is what Fiji has lost.

You may say “don’t attack the Government, focus on solutions”.

And that is true. But before we can find solutions we need to understand our problems. And our current governance is part of the problem.

Our two leaders (and there are only two) refuse to listen to, work with or co-operate with anybody else.

For them, leadership means “do what I tell you”.

Only their ideas are good.

Only their solutions are right. They must control everything. And when things go wrong it is never their fault. Someone else is always to blame.

And every day this mentality and leadership style continue, opportunities slip away from us. Let’s talk about what we could do if this attitude was to change.

What is our situation?

First, we need to understand where we are.

The Fiji economy was in decline before anyone had heard the word “coronavirus”.

The Government had run out of money and could no longer prop it up with its own spending. The Government needed to tax tourism to stay afloat.

But those same taxes were killing the same tourism industry.

But if the economy was in bad health before, it now needs intensive care. The world has changed beyond recognition. The tourism industry is dead.

The aftershocks have spread widely. Tens of thousands of people have lost jobs paying low but stable wages.

Because wages were low these people never saved money. So the current crisis has created instant poverty.

Even now, the depth of poverty the West is feeling has not hit Suva and the Central Division. Even while many have suffered pay cuts, Suva’s main business – Government – pretends that everything is normal.

The North has always been poor. Its smaller tourism industry is also dead. Government projects are at an end. There is little private investment.

But even in Suva deep problems are now appearing. We are used to collecting money and food for victims of natural disasters but usually this is only temporary – after a few weeks people find their feet again.

But this time the demands are not stopping. Thousands of people are depending on charity just to eat. And this will only get worse as the money runs out.

The Government has no solutions except to hand out money – mostly people’s own money at FNPF. The Department of Social Welfare operates like every other civil service department – it just opens files and pushes paper around.

Many NGOs have, for years, minimised their criticism of the Government hoping that they can work with it for the greater good.

But even they have now given up. They are now openly criticising the Government for failing to respond to the crisis with sustainable solutions.

Earlier this week the Fiji Council of Social Services (FCOSS) called the Government’s connections with grassroots people as “broken”, saying the Government simply does not understand what people needed right now.

We agree. Every day in the media we see government ministers (with the regulation salusalu of course) wandering around the country opening things and giving speeches – as though everything is normal. When will they realise that right now we need more than speeches?

What is our immediate future?

Even the most optimistic tourism industry operators accept that Fiji tourism will not spring back to its previous size for at least three years. But there are other dangers.

The whole world will be competing for tourists. Countries which are bigger and cheaper than Fiji will be cutting their costs. But our Government refuses to commit to cutting tourism taxes.

Suddenly, everyone is talking about agriculture. But agriculture is not instant. It needs overseas markets to sell to. It needs infrastructure, much of which is gone.

And most of all it needs farmers with twenty-first century skills, enabled by science and technology. And for 20 years we have done nothing to create these skills.

Thousands of people depend on remittances from their relatives overseas. But a collapsed world economy means cash from other countries will also be scarce.

And of course finally, the “Bainimarama-Sayed-Khaiyum Solution” to everything – Government borrowing and spending – is no longer available. Our national debt is already at dangerous levels. We will have to borrow more just to keep a functioning government going. There will be no money for freebies.

What do we need now?

A summit: Yes, a summit is sometimes criticised as a talking shop. But we need to get people’s representatives talking to each other.

We are better together, listening to people with skills and experience share solutions and agreeing on a plan.

Leadership means ensuring that everyone understand our situation and agreeing how they should work together.

In a crisis a well-run organisation will bring its people together and work out what resources they have and how to use them best.

One person cannot do everything; the tasks must be shared.

This is what we want the Government to do. Bring people together. Let’s understand what resources are available that we can share – cash, goods, human capital.

Then let’s work out to get those resources to the people who need them the most.

Food and sanitation: For the next two years, we will need to support people at the most basic level – with food and sanitation. Thousands are hungry. For the foreseeable future, they will stay hungry.

Even before 2020, thousands more people were on the margins of good nutrition, eating cheap food that will worsen their long-term health.

Many school organisations already understand this. They are preparing low cost but nutritious school lunches for school children.

But what about other meals? What about their parents and grand-parents, who have lost everything? What about the people who are isolated and lonely and without family?

We may need food kitchens to feed the hungry. In one way, this is a sign of deep failure, which the Government may not want to admit.

But this is not the time for pride and ego and running away from reality by opening school projects.

There are community organisations, charities and religious bodies who are able to respond if we co-ordinate this help – and give them financial support.

These are people with deep networks, knowledge and the passion to help others. Why aren’t we giving them public funds so that they can do what is needed?

We also need to support people’s basic health with soap, basic medications and feminine hygiene products. We may have defeated coronavirus. But diseases such as leptospirosis and dengue are still threatening lives. People who are poor do not have the means to fight back.

Cash: The Government has responded to this crisis in the way it always has – opening up FNPF accounts and giving people big cheques. That seems to be the limit of its imagination.

Big sums of money are quickly dispersed as people who need to save it come under pressure from their peers to share it. Money that should have sustained them for weeks is gone in days. And then what will these families do?

And not everyone is a worker with an FNPF balance. Thousands of people are unsupported – farmers, food sellers, those with small businesses. Who is helping them?

First we need to know how much cash we can make available to share. Then we need to work out the best way to share it. Our community organisations know who is in need.

Our banks and their ATM networks know how to get the money out. The idea is to get smaller amounts, distributed regularly, to the right people.

Building skills: Many of Fiji’s deepest problems are not economic. They are social. Poor nutrition and attitudes to exercise create NCDs.

Domestic violence is at national crisis level. Many of our people lack basic literacy and life skills. Modern life threatens the mental health of many young people.

Not everything that improves our quality of life requires a cheque. All around us are people with the skills, the time and the willingness to help – and also to learn. Unemployment has given them more time.

Why aren’t we using people’s “down time” in an organised way?

We can run sessions to improve physical and mental fitness, provide counselling, and teach people how to improve their writing, how to build a kitchen garden, how to budget or how to re-cycle.

Thousands of people young and old, have skills and passion for issues such as the environment, mental health, financial inclusion and safety for women and children.

How can the Government support and channel this wealth of information to be shared with people who need it?

Just the beginning

This is just the beginning of the ideas that we have and that we want to share.

We know from listening to others about how many ideas and practical suggestions there are to share and how many people want to help.

Many people and organisations have already started. They are not waiting for the Government.

Imagine how much more we could do if the Government could give us a common vision, the information we need and a plan that made sure we could find and support everyone who needed help.

Let’s imagine how we can use “the power of all” to get to work to help others. Will the Government step up?

  •  Professor Biman Prasad is leader of the National Federation Party. The views expressed in this article is not necessarily the views of this newspaper.

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