Pacific Scoop

SPECIAL REPORT: Poverty in Paradise – commitment needed from Pacific nations

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Dr Teuila Percival … tourists find it hard to believe that malnourished children actually die in Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomons. Image: Struan Purdie/APJ

Beyond the glossy travel brochures and postcards, a disturbing trend is emerging. Poverty is on the rise across the Pacific region, reports Asia-Pacific Journalism.

Pacific Scoop:
Special Report – By Struan Purdie

The waters surrounding Fiji’s outer atolls are crystal clear and warm all year round, which is just how visitors to Laucala Island Resort like it. But only a select few will ever get to visit the exclusive private island.

Prices start at around US$5520 a night for a one bedroom villa, making it one of the world’s most expensive holiday destinations.

It is islands like Laucala that have put the Pacific region on the map for stunning tourist escapes.

APJlogo72_iconBut beyond the glossy travel brochures and postcards, a disturbing trend is emerging. Poverty is on the rise across the Pacific region, according to recent report published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The State of Human Development in the Pacific 2014 Report estimates an average of one in four households are now living below their country’s national basic-needs poverty line. However, in reality this figure varies hugely from country to country.

In Papua New Guinea for instance, the rate of those living below the poverty line is as high as 39 percent, while in Vanuatu the rate is just 13 percent.

The UNDP’s deputy director for the region, Nicholas Rosellini, says those most vulnerable to increasing poverty include women, children, the youth, the elderly and the disabled.

“Youth and women deserve particular attention,” Rosellini told reporters prior of the report’s release in late August.

“Women have lower access to employment and they often work in the informal sector with no labour rights, social security or welfare.”

And in a region where 23 percent of youth are unemployed, many young people are moving to the main centres in search of jobs that may not exist. But Rosillini points out youth are not the only ones affected.

“They often leave behind their dependents, including children and the elderly who need special care, and this very much disrupts traditional family and community support systems,” he says.

Health in paradise
The report also paints a harsh but perplexing picture of health in the region as levels of obesity and diabetes continue to rise, while others struggle to even afford food.

“You see things like severe malnutrition in children which people find incredible,” says Dr Teuila Percival, an Auckland University-based paediatrician who has worked in the Pacific.

“They’re used to going to beautiful hotel resorts in Fiji or Samoa, and they find it hard to believe that there are, not just malnourished children, but ”

It is currently estimated that one in three Pacific children under the age of five are stunted as a result of chronic under-nutrition.

However, like so many of the figures and statistics, this regional measure hides huge disparities between countries. Some island nations such as Tuvalu, for instance, experience relatively low rates of child stunting while almost half of the children in Papua New Guinea are stunted.

Outliers such as these are easily swallowed up in reports full of averages and statistics. But for those who come face to face with the reality of poverty in the Pacific, it is harder to ignore.

“One of the concerns we paediatricians have is we’re seeing worsening in some areas, particularly in urban areas”, says Dr Percival.

“They’re unable to feed themselves adequately, they’ can’t afford to buy food, they can’t grow anything so you end up with sick malnourished kids [and] malnourished pregnant woman as well.”

Falling behind
While a current snap shot of the Pacific reveals alarming disparity and hardship, a look back in time shows some improvements. Child mortality rates across the region have dropped by a quarter in the last two decades, as have instances of extreme food poverty and starvation.

However, on the whole the Pacific region is falling behind in terms of global development toward the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), something that has become a major concern for many governments.

The sluggish progress of human development in the Pacific has seen the region singled out and even compared to parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

However, the Pacific has something many other developing nations do not.

The UNDP report found the majority of families in rural areas have access to fertile land where subsistence cropping is possible, cushioning the effects of hardship and hunger.

During the 2008 world food crisis, which saw food prices soar, many Pacific countries suffered negative growth rates for two or three years running. While this halted progress towards poverty reduction and other MDGs, many Pacific Island nations fell back on subsistence farming as a coping mechanism.

Today, however, progress remains slow. Currently only two Pacific states – the Cook Islands and Niue – are on track to achieve the first MDG of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.

Natural disasters and climate change present further challenges for those in the Pacific and tend to be issues now front and centre in the minds of governments and NGOs when it comes to small island developing states.

“Their size, remoteness and dependence on sectors such as tourism and agriculture make them vulnerable to global economic shocks,” points out Deodat Maharaj – the man responsible for economic and social development at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

“Their smallness means they are prone to country-wide impacts from natural disasters such as hurricanes, cyclones and floods, affecting both lives and livelihoods.”

Devastating reality
It is a devastating reality, which was seen played out in the 2009 tsunami that swept over Samoa at a cost of almost $250 million – a quarter of the country’s GDP. However numbers aside, those living in the Pacific say the real cost of such disasters cannot be measured in dollars.

“We know first-hand how vulnerability to natural disasters can end human lives and reverse years of hard won development results,” says Ambassador Odo Tevi, Vanuatu’s UN representative.

And while natural disasters remain difficult to foresee, the region’s focus has swung towards the more visible signs of climate change and its potential impact on development.

The issue largely dominated the recent Small Island Developing States conference in Samoa where a number of solutions to climate change were tabled.

One potential option, put forward by the Commonwealth Secretariat, would see island nation’s debt swapped in an agreement to commit to invest into climate change mitigation.

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Samoa’s Upolu Island … many in rural areas still rely on subsistence farming to survive. Image: APJ

In a region where rising sea levels continue to threaten precious farm land, climate change is more than just a topic to debate – it is a growing reality.

“If we don’t act to stop the world’s climate radically warming, we face huge catastrophic consequences for human beings, for species for our whole way of life and development,” warns UNDP administrator Helen Clark.

What’s behind all this?
The reasons behind the persistent and often increasing poverty in the Pacific are complex, however a number of clear factors stand out.

The UNDP report paints a picture of changing economies in the Pacific as the region begins to feel the weight of globalisation take effect.

Although cash currency has been in use for over a century, it has only been in the last 50 years that Pacific Island leaders have begun to commit to a Western economic cash-led market with an emphasis on trade.

The report notes that traditionally Pacific Island Communities tend to be very communal with a strong hierarchical structure. Harvested and crafted goods were traded and allocated within communities.

However, for Dr Percival, a native Samoan herself, this traditional structure does not necessarily equal equality.

“Culturally, we’re hierarchical societies so important people get more stuff. Less important people – they’re not important, so they don’t get much stuff.”

Her voice lowers when she says this as if addressing the elephant in the room in somehow taboo.

“That’s the way our societies are and to turn that around and say that every child is important and every child should be feed well and go to school- that’s a bit of an uncomfortable way of looking at things for some of our societies.”

But despite an effort to steer the region toward more western economic values and growth, some Pacific Island countries are struggling with the transition.

While the agricultural industries may hold the greatest hope for trade, the UNDP says in many countries the primary sectors’ contribution to GDP has actually been declining.

In contrast subsistence farming is on the rise in some areas revealing people’s daily nutritional needs continue to trump a desire for trade.

However, while many cling to traditional livelihoods in rural areas, increasing globalisation and monetisation is increasing the need for cash incomes, driving many into the cities.

The former director of Oxfam New Zealand, Barry Coates, says this shift from trading to employment often leaves people with a raw deal.

“Where people are drifting into the urban areas, primarily younger people, they often have to work for very low wages,” he says. “So what you’re doing is you’re swapping a kind of a low cash income for a very low wage economy where people are often exploited.”

And although a cash-focused economic market holds a chance for some to thrive, the UNDP points out that this is already leading to increasing inequality as many undoubtedly miss out.

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Barry Coates, former Oxfam executive director … young Pacific people are often exploited when moving to the cities in search of work. Image: Struan Purdie/APJ

Tourism- a way forward?
One of the main drivers of economic growth and possibly the Pacific greatest hope for development is tourism. In 2012 the sector contributed an estimated 10.6 percent to the region’s gross domestic product.

And while the tourism industry is expected to grow, questions remain over whether pacific island locals will see any of its benefits.

A report by Massey University, for instance, has described Fiji’s tourism industry as one dominated by foreign ownership of large resorts. It is something Barry Coates is all too familiar with.

“What you have is a cluster of expats and elites around the capital cities while most of the population have little cash and little opportunity,” he says. “So it’s very much a divided society and a divided economy.”

However, there are some examples of large corporates doing their part. The Fijian is a large 1300 guest resort which started a marine conservation programme that provided employment for local people.

Additionally many of the Fiji’s resorts provide donations to local clinic, schools. But beyond plain philanthropy, the Massey report argues joint ventures are needed to help established tourism operators support indigenous start-ups.

Although a number of such partnerships are already taking flight, it is clear that more needs to be done for the tourism sector to turn the tides of poverty.

Unseen hardship
While the reality of hardship and inequality in the Pacific is clearly present, for many the notion of poverty is hard to grasp. For those on the outside looking in it can be difficult to see past the beachfront resorts and laidback island lifestyle says Television New Zealand’s Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver.

“New Zealanders have this image of the Pacific as a holiday destination as opposed to real people with real lives.”

She says it is not surprising that so many people are ignorant of poverty, not only in the Pacific but also back home.

“People still think there’s no poverty in New Zealand, so if we don’t accept that it’s here in our own country it’s not surprising people can’t see it in the Pacific.”

It raises a question over how well issues of human development in the Pacific are covered by local and international media.

Dreaver says on the whole reporting on the region is poor with international gatherings such as the Small Islands Developing States conference and the Pacific Island Forum being the only draw cards for foreign media.

“They do a lot of good, not for the conference themselves but as a platform where foreign media can go and actually bring these stories to light.”

However, often the focus shifts to the leaders in attendance rather than conference agendas.

In July earlier this year, both New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and Australia’s Tony Abbott decided against attending the Pacific Islands Forum – a story that dominated coverage of the event.

“In terms of covering the Pacific in New Zealand, well it’s pretty poorly done generally,” admits Dreaver.

Struggling for solutions
While many Pacific Island states struggle to grasp a solution to increasing rates of poverty, the region’s progress in other areas is improving with many ticking the boxes on a number of MDGs.

When it comes to achieving universal primary education, the vast majority of Pacific island countries are tracking well towards the 2015 goal.

Likewise, 10 of the 14 countries are on track to reduce child mortality and most are expected to meet maternal health targets.

However, the issue of poverty remains a thorn in the side of the region’s long term development plan. A number of solutions have been tabled with the hope of stamping out worrying trend.

Among the possible options is a recommendation by the UNDP to hand out cash grants to all children under five, which would lead to an estimated 10 percent reduction in households living in poverty.

There is also a possibility of free health care for pregnant women and better support for those living with disabilities.

Other alternatives include improved access to low-cost health diagnostics through new technologies, as well as campaigns to encourage better nutrition and exercise.

While such solutions are no-doubt well thought through in the world of analysis and reports, those working on the ground in the region point out an important aspect that often get missed.

“One of the big issues is a [lack of] recognition by countries that poverty is actually a big issue for them and they need to address it as a whole country,” says Dr Percival.

It’s a sentiment that harks back to 2012 when Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi infamously proclaimed poverty did not exist in his country, despite Samoa being listed by the United Nations as one of the 48 least developed nations in the world.

“Samoans who claim to be poor are just lazy,” Tuilaepa said on a government website.

“The problem is too many people are coming into town and loathing around. They are lazy and do not want to go back to their village to work the land. They should stay in their village where their lands are and develop it,” he said.

It’s attitudes like these that some fear could upset development in the region and ultimately see trends of poverty continue.

“I think that countries need to take hold of the big issues for them around disparities,” says Percival. “It’s about bringing us into modern times.”

So while tourists continue to flock to island resorts, local governments and NGOs continue their work in the Pacific in places not seen from $5000-a-night beach bungalows.

And although they are seeing progress in the region, there is still a long way to go before poverty is truly stamped out.

Development goals will no doubt come and go, as will future reports and analysis on the region. However, as the final line on the UNDP report suggests, solid commitment from governments is the only thing that will see real change in the region.

Struan Purdie is a BCS (Hons) student with the Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme at AUT University and on the Pacific Media Centre’s Asia-Pacific Journalism course.


  1. Petelo, 27. October 2014, 16:49

    What is wrong with going back to the village and working the land? Every single samoan owns land in samoa. On that land is free food. The biggest danger to development in my opinion is to have everyone move to Apia, causing massive social and demographic urban problems. You want to see real poverty? It is not in the villages, it is on the outskirts of Suva, where people live in shanty towns, no running water, open sewers. Want to see massive crime and social problems, go visit Port Moresby.

    What this Percival lady seems to want to do is increase mass urbanisation in the pacific. Apia and I suspect other pacific cities cannot handle that influx of people. Apia doesn’t have the governance system nor the resources to handle people from different villages moving in and setting up shanty towns on its outskirts. Villagers do not own land in apia, unless they are in a tradtional village. They must buy it. A lot of the land around the outskirts of Apia and Vaitele is not connected to the power grid or the water supply. Most villages in samoa have water and power. They can provide for their people because every single samoan is genealogically entitled to land. That is not the case in Apia.

    Decentralised and rural development is the model to follow, because if people stay in their villages, they will develop the regional economies, and the villages have a far more cohesive governance system to maintain law and order. If you have everyone move to Apia, you will be increasing poverty, not reducing it.

  2. kendo, 29. October 2014, 12:28

    Absolutely right.,,Most people moving to Apia because they dont want to work on land.,Every Samoan have their own land in their village where they originated. I raised in the island of Savaii. During my early ages while in year 7 & year 8 up to teenage, me and my brothers are always sleep at plantation during holidays helped my father for development root crops, taamu,taro , ufi, also veges as well as ava and tobacco (tapaa samoa).,,
    It was so interested of woke up early in the morning and you can see how beautiful growth of taro and all crops in your farm.,,At the time it would make ourself great encouragement to put a lot of effort to push our taro farm to gain more hectares because we earn thousands of dollars if we keep working and planting more taro.,,What happen now, most people are lazy and dont want to go to the plantation because most are relying to overseas relatives for living.,,.,,Decentralised and rural development is the idea to push back people fom urban to work and develop our traditional land.,,