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From the very beginning, the East-West Center has maintained special interest and expertise in the Pacific Islands. Many of the earliest students who received their education through East-West Center fellowships were from the region, especially the then-Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, and shortly after the founding of the world-renowned Polynesian Voyaging Society it was supported by a special Center program. In 1980, under the visionary leadership of Fiji Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Hawaii Governor George Ariyoshi a special Center program was formed to specifically address the unique issues faced by island nations emerging from decades of colonization.

Today the Pacific Islands Development Program (PIDP) conducts a broad range of activities to enhance the quality of life in the Pacific islands. The founding mission of PIDP is to assist Pacific Islands leaders in advancing their collective efforts to achieve and sustain equitable social and economic development. Since 1980 PIDP has served as a forum through which island leaders discuss critical issues of development with interested countries, donors, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector. On four occasions the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders has met with the President of the United States in Honolulu.

PIDP's role as a regional organization includes the following major activity areas:

 

As PIDP was formed at the specific request of the region’s island leaders, it is the only East-West Center program whose activities have a defined geographic focus informed by both the area studies and
disciplinary expertise of its staff and participants.