Hon. Dr Mahendra Reddy, Minister for Agriculture, Waterways, and Environment.
International IDEA together with our implementing Partner, Dialogue Fiji, held a “Talanoa with the Minister” webinar, on Friday 5 June 2020, under the “Upholding Citizens’ Constitutional Rights for Democratic Consolidation in Fiji” project (C3- Fiji Project) which is part of the activity “Public meetings between citizens and MPs at local level”. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions imposed on social gathering, a zoom meeting was organized so that this very important Talanoa—a traditional word used in Fiji to reflect a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue—could be organized between public representatives and the Minister. A total of 36 invited participants were online for the Talanoa; the actual number was somewhat higher as several people—mostly women from the rural areas—were online together via one device. Fiji is a developing country and many people are unaware of the online meeting platforms, or own a smartphone.
According to Mr Nilesh Lal, the Executive Director of Dialogue Fiji—a C3- Fiji Project partner, “Talanoa with the Minister is a unique concept and is especially valuable because there is limited opportunity for ordinary citizens to have such a direct interaction with the Minister”. The objective of this activity was to increase engagement between the electorate and elected representatives which in turn strengthens the accountability relationships between the two. Three more meetings as such will be conducted soon.
The reason for engaging with the Minister of Agriculture, Waterways, and Environment, Hon. Dr Mahendra Reddy was because the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of the Fijian economy which is heavily dependent on a volatile sector like tourism. Following a halt on tourism activities; drastic reductions in foreign earnings and government revenue, a fresh impetus to diversify Fiji’s economic base and reduce over-reliance on one sector was decided by the government. As the economy continues its freefall, businesses are closing and labor market conditions deteriorating, livelihoods of a significant number of Fijians face an unprecedented threat. In such a grim context, food security has become a real concern and several Fijians have turned to agriculture to safeguard their sustenance.
On 20 April 2020, the Minister announced a comprehensive range of policies and initiatives that aim to bolster agricultural output growth at different levels and scales. Dialogue Fiji’s preliminary scoping revealed that majority of ordinary Fijians were unaware of this initiatives and assistance packages that the ministry is offering. Most Fijians are also unaware of this shift in the government’s development approach or the plans and strategies that the government has to achieve this.
This online discussion created a platform for the Minister to inform participants of the work of the government, in particular, the government’s efforts to address the impact of COVID-19 and allowed opportunities for Fijians to interact with government, question government policies and actions, and to articulate their issues.
“I am happy to come on board again maybe in few months and collect as many questions and get any remaining people who want to come on board I am happy to come and share what the plans that we have and also listen to people and their views and some very good contributions are coming…”, said Hon. Dr Mahendra Reddy.
As the C3- Fiji Project aims at promoting accountability of Fijian citizens, this activity delivered an avenue for the citizens to engage with the elected representatives and an opportunity to understand their role as a responsible citizen and how to engage and input into policy and decision making. The C3-Fiji is funded by the European Union.