How we are planning to shake up public finance in the Pacific

Authored by the Vaka Pasifika Team

December 4, 2023

Supporting the transformation of PFM systems in Pacific nations, ensuring they are more accountable and effective, is the Vaka Pasifika project’s mission.

Photo: UNDP

“The system isn’t broken, it was built this way”

Pacific Islands Countries (PICs) possess vibrant “big ocean” economies, characterized by young and mobile populations and highly resilient, adaptable societies. However, past and recent investments have failed to foster sufficiently diversified economies that offer inclusive services and opportunities, leaving them vulnerable to external shocks and the escalating pace of climate catastrophes.

Pacific Leaders have stated that “securing the future of the Pacific cannot be left to chance, but
requires a long-term vision, strategy and commitment ”. That said the vision of the recent 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent is for a “resilient Pacific Region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity, that ensures all Pacific peoples can lead free, healthy and productive lives”.

To realize this vision as a united Pacific, a delicate and diverse ecosystem of interventions – from advocacy, policy, on ground implementation – must work together at the national level in each country. One of the most underrated yet fundamental mechanisms in order to make this vision a reality may indeed come back to money. In this instance, the focus lies not on the volume of finance available, but rather on optimizing the activation of Public Financial Management (PFM) systems within PICs to facilitate effective action.

The concept of public finance alone might be exclude some (“I don’t have the expertise”), scare some (“I don’t want to get in trouble”) or bore some (“I’ve never been interested in numbers”), but it has never been more important than it is now.

Supporting the transformation of PFM systems in Pacific nations, ensuring they are more accountable and effective, is the Vaka Pasifika project’s mission.

For the past four years, since its initial phase of activity, the project has been working and learning alongside the gatekeepers, champions, leaders, and dreamers who support Pacific civil society organizations (CSOs), media, Supreme Audit Institutions, public service officials on different initiatives who are doing just this (read more about the big bets and experiments we have undertaken with our partners in this prior blog). It is on hearing our partners’ needs for coaching and the establishment of a regional community of practice, we dreamt of a Pacific-based Fellowship Program that can offer them support in these, and other ways.

What will we explore?

Through the Fellowship we will overarchingly explore how public finance systems, which manage money on behalf of people and a country, in different national contexts, can be part of “securing the future” as laid out in the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, alongside national strategies for each PIC.

Some of the key questions that will be explored via the Fellowships are:

  • What are the leverage points for change within the PFM system to align it to contemporary socio-economic challenges and successfully reach the most vulnerable?
  • How can this work explore different models of inclusive and participatory practices that go beyond surface level?
  • How can people and government engage and inform each other on the issue of public finances? 
  • How can the participating Fellows have access to professional development opportunities and adaptive leadership coaching?

What does the Vaka Pasifika Fellowship look like?

The journey we are putting together to do this is called the Vaka Pasifika Fellowship, and it has already gone through several iterations of growth.

The Fellowship was originally conceptualized as 15 Fellows from around the Pacific, all focused on radically reinventing PFM, so they, in turn, can adapt to the scale and urgency of the climate change challenge. The idea was they would all gather three times during each year for collective learning and knowledge exchange, and then following this return to their countries to action pilot projects.

Throughout 2023, we had conversations with potential participants in different countries, conducted political economy analysis in several PICs, and held a local three-day pilot workshop in Suva in March – with the intention to test our potential Fellowship content, methods, and exercises with participants from Fiji.

While there was much insight and positive feedback from these three elements, two of the most significant pivot points that became very clear to us were:

  • The 15 potential Fellows were coming from different countries, different professional backgrounds, having differing levels of PFM expertise. So, while this would lead to diverse discussions at Fellowship gatherings, it would be hard for people to action pilot projects by themselves back home. To have a better shot at the Fellowship translating into action, we needed not to have single national participants but a national cohort of Fellows who could be supported to collectively intervene in the PFM system of their country.
  • While climate change is of regional relevance, it might not be the most pressing national issue Fellows want to focus on. For relevance and sustainability of pilot projects, each country cohort should have the agency to select its topic, while having a joint overarching regional theme to facilitate relatable cross-country learnings.

Ultimately, we were challenged to have deeper discussions on what locally owned and led might mean for the structural and conceptual design of the Fellowship, and pivot accordingly.

What might a locally owned and led PFM Fellowship mean in practice?

The year-long Fellowship has now been designed to be practical and action-research based, and to operate at three levels:

At the individual level - Fellows will be provided with 1:1 adaptive leadership coaching, recognizing that exercising leadership to progress on the complex challenge of PFM in the Pacific requires a creative and collaborative approach that centres on learning versus the command-and-control style of directive leadership, where power sits with one person. This individual coaching component was one of the clear lessons learnt from past exercises of similar nature in the Pacific.

At the country level - where an annual a cohort of influential stakeholders from various angles of the PFM accountability ecosystem (civil society, government, media, parliament, Supreme Audit Institutions, faith-based organizations, Chiefs, other groups e.g., Youth) are convened in at least three countries each Fellowship cycle. Over the course of a year, the cohort will collaborate on a practical PFM case study of their collective choice. The teams will also formally document this case study. The applied work will need to be relevant, useful and have a visible change on accountability within public finance systems over the course of the year in the country. The work will be gender informed, and issues selected will be reflective of longer-term requirements and interests of communities versus short-term, immediate needs and interests.

At the regional level - building a Pacific PFM community of practice where broader group of participants from the region (not just those from the country cohorts) engage with each cohorts’ case studies, and different knowledge and learning can be shared to extrapolate ideas and insights that can contribute to more accountable and transparent public financial management.

We have stress-tested this iteration of the Fellowship design through conversations with partners in multiple countries, and through getting buy-in during a week-long in-person mission to Tonga to follow-up on specific national efforts related to Community Development Funds.

The Fellowship is set to take place in at least six countries over the next three years. The expected locations are Tonga, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and Kiribati. The overarching focus is on how PFM can support the actioning of the 2050 Strategy so public finances can reach everyone, especially the most vulnerable. The specific focus of the fellowship in each country differs based on ongoing PFM work that already has momentum, interest, and relevance.

This is just the start, so please stay tuned for our next blog post where we will get into the national nuance.

Systems transformation work is not for the faint of heart, it may be driven by optimism, but it is fueled by clear vision, perseverance, and dedication to a larger goal.

We look forward to this journey with the Vaka Pasifika PFM Fellows.

This piece was co-authored by Marine Destrez - Vaka Pasifika Project Manager, and Prateeksha Singh - Learning and Design Consultant with the Vaka Pasifika Project. 

This blog post will be part of a series of posts chronicling the journey of the UNDP Vaka Pasifika Public Financial Management Fellowship in the Pacific. The Vaka Pasifika Project is funded by the European Union.