Marshalls' president calls for change in mindset
The Marshall Islands' newly elected President hopes to build on international awareness about the effects of climate change created by her predecessors.
One of Hilda Heine's first acts as the Marshall Islands' new president has been to sign off on a state of emergency to deal with the severe drought that has been plaguing the country.
Dr Heine signed the proclamation on Tuesday.
She is the first female president of an independent state in the Pacific and her election follows the November polls which ousted 40 percent of the country's legislature, the Nitijela, and saw half the cabinet lose their seats.
The long-time climate change and anti-nuclear campaigner Tony de Brum is among those now out of power.
Dr Heine, who's a former education minister, told Sally Round she sees her biggest challenge as changing mindsets about what it means to serve the people.
HILDA HEINE: I mean there are many issues that are currently facing the country but I think fundamentally we need to take a look at how we do things in order to improve services to the people. I think we tend not to put people at the very front of our thinking when we provide service so we need to look at how we help the people, you know how we do our jobs so that the end-user, the customer, the people are better served. You know there are other challenges that we face in the Marshall Islands for example right now we're looking at the drought, the severe drought that is upon us. It's a major issue for us. The last drought we had in 2013 was an example and a reminder to us of how important fresh water is for our basic survival.
SALLY ROUND: How do you plan to tackle the drought?
HH: Already we've done quite a number of things to improve our drought resilience. We are improving our conservation efforts and have taken steps to increase the capacity of our water storage systems, and for the outer islands we installed solar reverse osmosis units so that they can produce fresh water year round for the people. Also introducing drought resistant crop varieties for people and what makes me most proud is our engagement with the younger generation. We've actively sought to involve schools, training teachers and children in raising awareness on the drought. Of course there is a lot of work to do yet. We have declared a state of emergency on the situation right now, so we will be kicking in all the systems that we have on hand to help our people.
SR: Marshall Islands has been one of the countries at the forefront of raising global awareness about the effects of climate change. Will this be a focus for you as president or will you be putting effort into resolving other pressing domestic issues?
HH: Of course climate change is a threat to the Marshall Islands, we hope to continue to build on what the former government has done in this area.
SR: Do you think perhaps the former government put too much effort into the international profile of the Marshall Islands over climate change and not enough on domestic issues?
HH: I think it was important to raise awareness internationally but at the same time we also have to focus on our domestic issues as well in this area.
SR: You're the first woman to be elected as head of an independent state in the Pacific. So it appears the Marshall Islands is leading the way for a region that has very poor women's representation in parliament. What factors in your country helped see a woman elected to this highest position?
HH: Of course women's groups in the Marshall Islands have been very active to raise awareness about gender and leadership so that has helped. But I think it's important first of all to have committed leaders who have the interest of the people at heart. Whether male or female I don't think it's the most important question. And then looking at my own work moving forward in this role I know that expectations for a woman leader would be twice as much as that for a male leader and I hope that I can be a part of this role for younger women and men who aspire. I think the more successful I am in this role the more our people will be willing to give women a chance to govern and to lead.
SR: Marshall Islands has lost its vote at the United Nations for not having paid its bills. I believe there is about 47,000 dollars outstanding. What are you as president going to do about this?
HH: I believe this is an accounting mistake and I think taken care of. Of course we don't want to lose our voice in the UN. We have taken care of that issue.
SR: Will you be continuing the fight against the world's nuclear powers? The former foreign minister Tony de Brum was spearheading this but he has now lost his seat.
HH: Well it was an important work that our former foreign minister was engaging in and my administration still has to review this important matter so for now I will refrain from commenting further on it.
SR: So there is perhaps some doubt as to whether you want to continue this work?
HH: No there is no doubt, but I do think we need to do our homework so we are in a better position to move forward.
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