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AST week, the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Peter O'Neill, attended a two-day haus krai or a traditional mourning ritual in the capital, Port Moresby. It was however symbolic, O'Neill attended it to say to the women of his country: "Your government says sorry".

People economies

O'Neill apologised for the atrocities PNG women face on a daily basis, in particular the freedom with which they are murdered on the mere suspicion and accusation of sorcery by relatives; he spoke of the "shame" the reported level of violence against women brought to PNG as a nation.

O'Neill also made a public commitment to the thousands - men, women and children - who had marched for women long dead and those who continue to go through some of the most vicious violent acts in the country, that he would "toughen" (relevant) laws.

For the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a commitment from that level of leadership signifies acknowledgement of the impact violence against women has on the nation as a whole, this touches the core of our mandate.

It is the organisational stance that when women and children, particularly the girl-child, are so disadvantaged and discriminated against, this has implications on the health of the population; and when half the nation is weakened, the country's workforce is affected and by extension, government coffers do not realise its full earning potential.

When a state does not realise its full earning capacity, it affects funding for essential services like health facilities or education - this then has an impact on the level of maternal health a country can provide for its women or the level of education of girls (studies have affirmed that when we educate girls, the positive impact this has from family to national level is significant).

The UNFPA executive director, Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, was recently in Fiji as a key member of the G77 High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons where he made an impassioned plea for women and girls during the meeting in Natadola.

UNFPA is present in 150 countries; the G77 therefore represents an important block of nations whose governments we work with, in the areas of maternal health, reproductive health, population and development and gender equality.

It is also a block of United Nations members which represent challenges like the persistent lack of resources (both monetary and natural) or infrastructure which in turn inhibits the proliferation of development tools like water, electricity and/or the internet. Many members of the G77 are essentially ocean people, with geographical realities that cripple most of their good intentions.

Dr Babatunde acknowledged that for climate change for example, those who are believed to have caused global warming are not actually suffering the consequences, like the impact of sea-level rise that has seen Pacific communities considering relocating and nations like Kiribati considering purchasing land as a resettlement option for its people.

Dr Babatunde stressed that with new development challenges like the above in mind, it was critical that any development plans and/or approaches considered by the leadership of the G77, must be people-centred.

The former Nigeria Health minister emphasised that whatever issues countries considered their priority in their national development agenda, they should not forget that everything came down to people, whether one spoke of environment-related challenges or the economy.

Goals cannot be considered and frameworks developed around it without the people at its centre, and people that matter most are women and girls, Dr Babatunde said.

"Women are half the world and responsible for the other half from all perspectives. When it comes to economics, first victims of economic downturn are women and girls. In migration, those who suffer most are women and girls.

"The issue of maternal and child mortality is about the status and value of women and not death of women…it is the way we treat our women, the way we expose them to facilities."

Dr Babatunde who attributes his passion for the empowerment of women and girls to the influence of his mother, pleaded for the panel to consider people as the centre of the development agenda from 2015 onwards.

"The UN is ready to work with each member state to see this becomes a reality," Dr Babatunde, who is also the Under Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) said.

The year 2015 is significant because it marks the new cycle of the global UN development agenda. The UNFPA in this context has conducted a global review of its performance in the last 20 years, the findings of which will inform the new cycle of programming. UNFPA's development mandate is articulated in the International Conference on Population and Development Program of Action document, signed by 179 countries in 1994.

Of our island nations, it is a given that our relative isolation to major markets and the sizes of our economies require an appropriate economics approach. In 2011 (November), the Pacific Institute of Public Policy chairperson. Nik Soni wrote, "We do need economic policies that are tailored to our individual needs" in a paper where he argued that blanket application of modern economics cannot work for our ocean of islands.

Generally-speaking, most of our island approaches are beginning to be punctuated with some of the main causes of chronic breakdowns of our global megalopolis reckless urbanisation, mass production, heavy capital investments (destroying irreplaceable natural resources), centralised planning (usually devoid of resource owners' concerns), increasing household debts, etc.

Modern economics exists for consumption as an end; land, labour and capital being the means to this end. This manner of existence was described by renowned economist Ernst F Schumacher (1911-1977) as "living parasitically on capital instead of income". For example, fossil fuels are treated as income instead of capital, thus the nonchalance attitude to its conservation.

Schumacher's economics of "small is beautiful" places people at the centre of economics, as opposed to treating them as statistics. He was a proponent of smaller enterprises which more than likely utilised people's talents while they provided for their families, on a scale that allowed for the recovery of natural resources being used. Schumacher lamented the obsession of the market economy with "gigantism".

The world is therefore not exactly devoid of an economic model; they exist but they have not really succeeded because people are not at the centre of what currently makes the world go around, in monetary terms.

Change is inevitable but to do so in the existing (world) system may not be as easy as it sounds, but we owe it to humanity, in particular the provision of an empowering environment for women and girls.

Harnessing the sort of courage that O'Neill had, to make his apology last week, was a good start.

  • This is part of a series of columns provided for publication to Fiji's largest national daily newspaper, The Fiji Times, fortnightly.