Opinion: Poverty amidst plenty in the Pacific

For most of us, the Pacific means exotic islands where the people are happy, beaches are lined with coconut palms and there is a unique genetic sequence for rugby players. In many ways the Pacific has huge wealth – natural resources, cultural diversity and resilient, capable people. These are vital ingredients for a decent standard of living for all.

But for those who look behind the tourist enclaves, particularly in the poorer Melanesian countries and the vulnerable atolls, there is a different Pacific – dirty water, no toilets, no jobs for young people and too many children dying unnecessarily. The Pacific is falling behind in the global fight against poverty.

The Pacific ranks with sub-Saharan Africa as the two regions in the world making the least progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the internationally agreed targets for poverty reduction by 2015.

It is often said there is no poverty in the Pacific, since there is enough food for all. Pride in the Pacific’s uniqueness and strengths means that it is often difficult to accept that there is poverty in the region. The term ‘hardship’ is often used instead.

But poverty is not just about starvation – the most common image of poverty – it is also about basic rights for all, opportunities for all and the prevention of unnecessary deaths. There is poverty in the Pacific. It comes in the form of one million school age children out of school, around one third of the population illiterate in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, and half of the Pacific’s people without  access to safe drinking water (the lowest of any region in the world).

Nearly 18,000 children die each year in the Pacific, many of them from preventable causes. As is often the case, women bear much of the burden – some of the highest levels of violence against women; and, of the ten countries in the world with no women in parliament, five are in the Pacific.

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Murray McCully joins world leaders at the United Nations summit on the Millennium Development Goals in New York, September 20-22, and they will sign up to solemn promises. But with just five critical years to meet the targets for reducing poverty that were set in 2000, actions would speak louder than more words.

New Zealand, along with 190 other countries, has agreed to play our part in achieving goals to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015 and support basic rights. But progress in the Pacific is patchy. Around 2.7 million of the Pacific’s people, one third of the population, are still unable to meet their basic needs. A further 5 per cent of the Pacific population is estimated to have fallen into poverty in the last two years due to the global financial crisis and rise in food prices.

Those falling furthest behind the Millennium Development Goals are the large, low-income Melanesian states (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu). They are characterised by high population growth, most people living in rural areas with semi-subsistence livelihoods, low levels of income, little formal education and poor health indicators. With its growing economic and political problems, Fiji is rapidly slipping into this group.

While other Pacific states have a higher standard of living, the small island states are also vulnerable. They are typically dispersed across huge tracts of ocean, crowded, urbanised and highly vulnerable to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change. The more economically advanced island states (Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga) have higher levels of income and social well-being, but they are also highly dependent on remittances and opportunities to migrate to developed countries.

Facing up to these challenges will require an extraordinary commitment from governments, civil society, the people of the Pacific, neighbouring countries and the international community.

Pacific governments must strengthen their economies through sustainable resource management of their valuable natural resources; improve government accountability and participation from civil society, women and young people; and deliver essential services for all their people – affordable education, health care, safe water and sanitation.

The government and people of New Zealand have an important role to play. We often think of ourselves as a part of the Pacific, but if we are going to be good neighbours we need to scale up the level of aid we provide. We have promised to give 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income in overseas development aid by 2015. We give less than half of that (around 0.3 per cent GNI). We are well off-track and need to do far better.

Article type: 
Press release