MARSHALL ISLANDS PRESIDENT KESSAI NOTE WANTS TO GET IT RIGHT

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By Penny Gibson-Baba

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (June 2, 2000 - Islands Business/PINA Nius Online)---New Marshall Islands President Kessai Note has set himself a huge task.

Although he inherited a financial nightmare, he is determined to make the country financially independent and even create a budget surplus by the end of his four-year term.

Even more, his dream is to make the country self-reliant and end the need for aid and the handout mentality of his people.

Not easy tasks given that he must pick up the reform process started by the first post-independence government but reversed by the second.

Although new to the presidency, Note is not new to politics. He has been involved with independence and was one of the founding parents of the constitution.

He has been a member of the Nitijela - a combination of the United States and Westminster systems - since independence in 1979. He has also been a minister and Speaker of the House since 1988.

He is only the third president of this far-flung country of 60,000 people and its first commoner.

"In the Pacific, in general, a level of tolerance exists for corruption," he said. "However, with the new millennium, new attitudes are coming about, new ways of doing things. It's an awakening and people realize they must do something. Anti-corruption is long overdue."

He is setting up the framework for good governance that will make it very difficult for officials, the judiciary and parliamentarians to be corrupt, including strengthening the Attorney General and Auditor-General's offices and restructuring the Judicial Services Commission.

It's high on his long list of priorities since taking over in January, but not as imperative as getting the country on track financially. Note is confident he can balance his budget with the implementation of the reform program and rightsizing the public service. He aims to initiate a sustainable development strategy to broaden and strengthen the economic base, provide job opportunities and provide better quality public services.

"In the last two months we have managed to stabilize the economy. We are not out of the woods yet, but are now in a position to start steering our way out. We haven't even begun to address the country's immediate needs," he said.

He believes that the private sector must be assisted to become the "engine" of the economy. As such he has embraced the reform program and is working with the Asian Development Bank, other financial and donor organizations and, to an extent, civil societies. He will hold a national economic summit later in the year.

He will privatize transport, civil aviation, telecom and utilities, and reduce the number of civil servants to 1,484 (down from 2,300 in 1995). He will also look at development projects.

"In the past there was misuse, malfeasance. It was not necessarily illegal, but we think it was money not wisely spent. There was no return on state-owned enterprises and investment projects that used a lot of borrowed money. We are now assessing every one and trying to restructure them to keep them afloat," he said.

"It's difficult to lay off people, but we give them redundancy packages based on former salary, years of service and age. They also get a monthly maintenance payment, similar to a social security, until they work again. We are keenly aware of the social and political consequences of our actions. But when people see where we are going, and the long-term benefits, they become supportive (of reform)," he added.

Note said the country has already seen an increase in the numbers of small family businesses, which fits his policies of promoting private enterprise and getting the country working for itself to become self reliant. He believes the American colonizers promoted the handout mentality by training the islanders to live like Americans as part of its plan to dominate the islands for defense and security interests that date to post-World War II and the Cold War.

"We must kindle the flames of national pride and identity and do more for our own selves, even to producing our own food. We have been importing everything that we consume that otherwise we could have produced locally," he said.

Note's other main income-generating target is to attract investment. He is reviewing the laws and regulations to make it easier for investors to invest. Aquaculture, manufacturing and a modernized copra process are all opportunities. Fishing is big in the vast waters around the islands, and Note wants some processing done in the country.

He is particularly excited about the potential for tourism, particularly eco-tourism, diving and sports fishing. A very popular dive-boat model already exists at Bikini Atoll, site of 67 nuclear tests.

But for both tourism and exports there is the huge dilemma of airline seats and cargo space.

"We must develop our airline, Air Marshalls, to make domestic improvements and revive international flights beyond Kiribati. But it's a chicken and egg situation: Does the accommodation or the airline seats and investment come first?" he said

A huge source of income is U.S. government money that funds over half the country's budget. Note has begun negotiations on the renewal of the Compact of Free Association, which expires next year.

"We don't expect the American government to be generous, but hope our points will reach home," he said.

"The past 15 years have not been sufficient to make us a self-supporting country, which was its main aim. In fact, we are not much better off. We inherited very poor and limited infrastructure and had to build our own infrastructure, such as power plants and inter-island transport," he said.

"This meant Compact funds did not go into economic development, which is the priority now. We will give the United States a feasible sustainable economic plan, so we don't have to come back for a third Compact," he said.

He will also demand more compensation for the nuclear testing, which left the country with one of the highest cancer rates in the world. And he will expect more for land rent and opportunities for locals on Kwajalein Atoll, which is a U.S. military base.

There is always the thought that the islands may not even be there much longer given rising sea levels are already eating at some atolls.

"We are very concerned about global warming and are part of regional and international organizations to bring our plight to the attention of the bigger nations and find solutions. We didn't cause these problems and while we are trying to take steps to protect our country, there is nothing much we can do without the collaboration and cooperation of the entire family of nations," he said.

It is just one of the areas where Note is working closely with his Pacific Islands Forum neighbors. More so than the other former United States administrations, he is committed to the Forum and regional organizations. Note is fast approaching 50 and has spent his life, since completing agricultural college in 1975, in politics. He helped build democracy and, as a commoner, is proving it can work.

"Being a commoner has its advantages and disadvantages. But every Marshallese now feels he or she can take part in decision-making. It's a sign of the new thinking, the new age. Although it puts a lot more pressure and responsibility on myself, it proves that people have the right to be who they want to be," he said.

Added Note: "I look at politics and my job as a duty, but I can't say I don't like it."

For additional reports from Islands Business, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Magazines/Journals/Fiji Islands Business.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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