David B. Cohen deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Insular Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior spoke with the Journal on Nov. 16 from Saipan on his way to Palau to attend the biannual Conference of the Pacific Community on Nov. 18 in Koror.

Cohen spoke of the intent of the compact impact funds dispersed to the insular areas.

“The two top priorities are helping the islands develop the private sector economies and making sure funds are spent wisely.

In an effort to aid economic development the department hosted two conferences and one mission in May to Guam the Northern Mariana Islands and Palau.

A second mission is planned for the U.S. Virgin Islands in March and a third to American Samoa in May (See www.islandbusinessopportunities.com) “We are currently accepting applications ” Cohen said.

John G. Carlson president of Bridgecreek Development International; Gerhard “Gary” Sword senior vice president of marketing for Express Electronics; Larry Ball president and chief executive officer of Global General Technologies; Paul Harvey vice president for Japan & Micronesia for Hilton International; Dickson Lee chief executive and founder of L&L Finance Holdings and Sedy Demesa-Bernabe executive vice president of Pleasant Care Corp.; had all either returned to the region and/or had developed relationships following the May mission.

“It’s very early in the cycle ” Cohen said. “There’s a long lead time between one of the businesses coming to one of our conferences and when they are ready to commit resources. Part of the due diligence is coming out and seeing the places meeting potential local partners — kicking the tires — and getting a feel for the place.”

The department he said maintained ongoing relations with a number of participants.

“We’re in constant contact with a number of our conference alumni and certainly the mission alumni. Just marketing the missions and conferences have gotten people interested in pursuing opportunities in the islands. Even if they couldn’t join us they have gone out on their own.

“It’s a continuous process — one of those things where you have to keep ploughing those fields.”

Cohen continued to talk to trade groups and visit individual targeted companies to interest them in doing business in the islands he said.

“I have a whole presentation. When I “sell” the island I like to point out the unique advantages of each destination.

Another component of the effort he said “Is working with the governments to make sure we can help them improve their business climate — in an advisory mode— letting them know what businesses need in order to prosper in their islands and how win-win situations can be created through a good policy.”

A conversation with Cohen inevitably turns to compact funds.

He told the Journal “Education employment economic growth and health are all areas where Pacific nations are facing difficult challenges notwithstanding a significant amount of aid.”

The amended Compact agreement with the Marshall Islands signed May 1 2004 Cohen said “requires that health and education receive top priority and that public infrastructure receives priority as well. The Marshall Islands has implemented that requirement by constructing a number of schools. There are serious education challenges in the Marshalls that we are working together to address.”

In the Federated States of Micronesia Cohen said “We found many challenges as well in the education system especially in the outer islands. Many of the schools are substandard and school children don’t have proper text books or other materials. Again we’re trying to address these problems with compact funds.”

He said federal funding was aimed at boosting the economy.

“We hope that compact funds and the infrastructure that they fund can stimulate jobs and more importantly long term development. The infrastructure has to be planned wisely and we have to fund properly — plans have to be submitted for infrastructure that puts current year budgets into a longer-term context. We want to see what the vision and the plan is and we expect the budgets that are submitted for the use of compact funds to be consistent with long term plans.”

Although Cohen said his emphasis in some areas was on independent nations rather than Guam “The whole region faces challenges and is very much interconnected.”

Cohen had a definite agenda for the conference.

“I’d like to raise issues relating to better utilization of aid funds. We’re focusing on the fact that many nations in the Pacific are high-per-capita recipients of aid but that human development measures are still lagging.”

Other topics Cohen wished to raise included regional preparations for avian flu and youth empowerment.

Cohen said of the SPC “The SPC utilizes their resource very efficiently. They are a very lean organization. They are also very important because they include the United States government as full members and it is very important for the U.S. government to have a seat in nonpolitical organizations such as this one.”

On Nov. 9 Cohen was also appointed for a two-year term as the U.S. representative to the conference. MBJ