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Outside a busy market in Vanuatu

Commonwealth praised for supporting Pacific trade

Commonwealth in Action: Lainy Malkani speaks to Commonwealth experts about their work in the Pacific.

It is not the first time Adeshola Odusanya, legal adviser under the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC), has lived in Vanuatu. He has left his home in Lagos, Nigeria to work in the country four times before, drawn by its friendly people and natural beauty.

Adeshola is committed to using his skills as a legal expert, specialising in trade, to help the country overcome many economic issues shared by small island developing states. His latest assignment, along with Dr Collin Zhuawu, a trade economic adviser, is to strengthen the capacity of the Office of the Chief Trade Adviser (OCTA) of Pacific countries, and to successfully complete the negotiation of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus.

PACER came into force in 2003 to provide an overarching agreement between Pacific islands to enhance trade. Six years later when OCTA was established to help Vanuatu, along with 14 other Pacific countries, increase its trading potential with Australia and New Zealand, PACER Plus negotiations began.

For the last four years, Adeshola has been mentoring Steve Siro, a former customs officer who joined OCTA soon after it was established. Trade negotiations also involve customs issues, so he was a perfect mentee.

“He had hands-on experience right from the start,” Adeshola said. “He would review current practices and undertake preparatory work. We would discuss the work he had done and he would justify his observations.”

Steve proved to be an excellent colleague and accompanied Adeshola on many national-level consultations, where he closely watched how various negotiations took place. It was with great pride that Adeshola was able to ask Steve to represent him at an intercessional trade negotiating meeting in Fiji in June.

“I didn’t doubt his ability,’ recalled Adeshola. ‘Steve has always been very involved and the feedback that I got was that he did very well. It’s one of the highlights of the impact of the project and shows its sustainability.”

Steve’s current role within OCTA is to help provide high quality policy advice to Pacific countries in relation to PACER Plus negotiations. He says under Adeshola’s watchful eye he has grown into a skilful negotiator.

“Mr Odusanya has guided and helped me to continue to develop professionally. He has always been upfront about the quality of work he expects from me,” said Steve. “Initially I found it quite challenging but I always sought his advice as I quickly realised that I would not survive with the organization if I did not meet these standards. His positive and constructive criticism motivated me to put in more effort and time in my work.”

It is a widely held view that international trade and regional integration underpins economic growth and development of small island states. But physical isolation, distance from main markets, high transport costs and difficulties in attracting foreign investment have long been seen as key elements that prevent trade expansion.

This is why supporting OCTA to establish a strong team that could oversee the full range of advice, negotiation, economic and legal analysis needed to further the long-term goal of Pacific Islands Forum members, was always at the heart of this CFTC project.

The Commonwealth support went even further to assessing the effectiveness of existing trade agreements in the regions. Collin trained junior economic officers in information gathering to produce high-quality analytical pieces. He collaborated with two officers to develop an analytical piece on the PACER Plus Agreement.

Colin led research projects such as the PACER Plus Sustainability Impact Assessment, as well as private sector studies where OCTA Officials were tasked with collecting relevant information and assisting with consultations. The strategy was to learn by doing and it certainly paid off.

“These skills will enable officials to meaningfully participate in negotiations. While Australia and New Zealand have bigger delegations, with experts in various negotiating areas, the Forum Island Countries do not,” he said.

The Commonwealth has been praised for the impact of its work in the Pacific.

Dr Edwini Kessie, Chief Trade Adviser at OCTA, expressed his gratitude to the intergovernmental organisation for its “invaluable support to OCTA over the years”. He added that it “has contributed to progressing the PACER Plus negotiations.”

Dr Kessie said, “Indeed the work by Commonwealth Advisers, past and present, has enhanced the OCTA’s capacity to provide technical support and capacity building to the Forum Island Countries in the PACER Plus negotiations. In this regard, Dr Zhuawu has, in a short space of time, made immense contribution to the work of the OCTA. He has demonstrated his knowledge of trade issues and ably assisted junior OCTA staff members and trade officials of the FICs with their queries on trade issues.”

The PACER Plus negotiations were successfully concluded in Christchurch, New Zealand on 26 August 2016 with the signature of the Agreement expected toward the end of 2016. The project set out to address ‘outstanding gaps’ in the OCTA, in relation to much needed negotiating skills. The economic and legal expertise offered by the CFTC experts has delivered this goal.