Turn the page on poverty

Millennium Development Goals in the Pacific

Photo: Kate Medlicott
Almost half the Pacific population lives in poverty. Nearly 18,000 children die every year, many from preventable causes.

The Pacific is falling behind in the global fight against poverty. Along with sub-Saharan Africa, it is the region making the least progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

It is often said that there isn't poverty in the Pacific, generally referring to there being enough food for all. Pride in the Pacific’s uniqueness and strengths means that it is often difficult to talk about poverty in the region, and sometimes the term ‘hardship’ is used instead.

But poverty is not just about having enough to eat. It is also about basic rights for all, opportunities for all and the prevention of unnecessary deaths.

Almost one third of the total Pacific population – 2.7 million people – live in poverty. Poor child and maternal health care, contaminated water, poor sanitation and a lack of education about nutrition are wasting opportunities, wasting lives and killing people.

There are five years remaining for countries to meet the MDGs.

Wasted opportunities – poverty and hunger

A third of the Pacific island population does not have the income
or subsistence opportunities to meet their basic human needs.

Along with countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands are ranked as extremely poor.

In the Pacific, strong clan and extended family structures are a powerful means to avoid some of the marginalisation that affects individuals in many other regions. However, despite these supportive social structures, Pacific nations are experiencing growing levels of inequality.

It is estimated that an extra 5 per cent of the Pacific population will have fallen into poverty in the last two years due to the global financial crisis and food crisis. A further challenge is that sea swells and extreme weather conditions are predicted to grow in frequency and intensity under climate change, with the economic costs likely to be massive.

Wasted lives – primary education and gender equality

Education in the Pacific
One million children are out of school in the Pacific region. In the Solomon Islands the primary school enrolment rate is just 62 per cent.

In PNG the primary school enrolment rate is only 53 per cent – 390,000 children receive no primary education. Only sub-Saharan Africa has lower rates than this. The ratio of girls to boys in primary education is good, though, with 91 girls for every 100 boys.

The Pacific has been the worst performing region in reaching the target of 30 per cent female representation in key political decision-making positions. No country in the Pacific has reached the target, and the regional average is just 2.5 per cent female representation. The next worst performing region is north Africa with 8.3 per cent.

The level of violence against women in the Pacific is among the worst in the world. Over 49 per cent of Samoan women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence, while the figure is as high as 64 per cent in the Solomon Islands.

Poor education and a lack of rights for women and girls is wasting the talents of generations of capable and bright Pacific people. When given opportunities, Pacific youth have demonstrated they can excel in any environment.

Wasted deaths – child mortality, maternal health and clean water

Child mortality rates in the Pacific are high. In 2006, the under 5 mortality rate in PNG was 75 per 1000 live births. This is well off the MDG target of 30 per 1000. If PNG had met this target, then almost 7000 fewer children would die each year, while 8680 fewer children would die each year if PNG had the same child mortality rate as Niue, the lowest in the region at 19 per 1000.

There are 733 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in PNG, and only 53 per cent of births are attended by skilled health personnel. If PNG had the same maternal mortality rate as Samoa (15 per 100,000 live births), approximately 1100 fewer mothers would die every year.

Unsafe water and inadequate sanitation are major causes of sickness and mortality, particularly among children.

The proportion of people with access to an improved water source is just 50 per cent, which is the worst in the world – 10 per cent lower than sub-Saharan Africa. However, this figure is heavily skewed by the poor performance of PNG, Solomon Islands and Kiribati, where the proportions are 40, 30 and 53 per cent respectively . The Pacific is well off track in improving the proportion of people with access to improved sanitation, with only 53 per cent having access to improved sanitation – the MDG target is 76 per cent.

Nearly four million people in PNG, almost the entire population of New Zealand, lack access to clean water and adequate sanitation. Drinking dirty water is a major source of sickness and infant mortality; women spend significant time walking long distances to water supplies; and poor sanitation represents a major disease and personal risk, especially for girls.

Oxfam's work in the Pacific is not only about supporting poor communities with improved water, income, healthcare and education, but we're also working internationally to tackle the root causes of poverty and injustice.

Sources: AusAID; UNDP; UN MDG Report, 2010; Family Planning Int.; PNG Demographic and Health Survey; UNICEF.