A quarter of Pacific islanders live below ‘basic needs poverty lines’, top UN development forum hears

UNDP/Silke Von Brockhausen Children riding a bicycle in Tuvalu.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


While progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been made over the past four years, some vulnerable island States are losing momentum in the race to 2030, according to discussions at the United Nations’ annual High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) on Wednesday.

In 2015, the UN set out a vision for “people, planet, peace and prosperity” through partnership and solidarity, when it adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

To date however, many small island developing States (SIDS) still face persistent challenges linked to poverty, inequality and climate impacts.

Speaking on behalf of the members of the Pacific Islands Forum, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, Samoa’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, painted a picture of dying corals and increasing numbers of cyclones, flooding and droughts.

“One catastrophic event is undoing decades of progress, claiming lives, destroying vital infrastructure, homes, biodiversity and adversely affecting food security and the delivery of services and livelihoods”, she spelled out.  “Furthermore, our waste generation is outpacing our capacity to manage and are impacting our environment, ocean and marine life”.

Climate crisis snapshot

  • Cyclone Pam led to a 64 per cent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) drop in Vanuatu.
  • Cyclone Winston cost 30 per cent of GDP in Fiji.
  •  Cyclone Gita cost 38 per cent of GDP losses in Tonga.
  • Rising seas have displaced populations in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati.
  • Overall sea levels in the Pacific Island have risen more than 50 per cent higher than the global average.
  • Four of the nine tropical cyclones in the South West Pacific in the last 12 months were severe Category 3 storms, or greater.

As SIDS grapple with the externally induced impact of the climate crisis – the chief cause of land-loss due to rising sea levels – amplifying their challenges and vulnerabilities, the reality of poor development outcomes and insecurities in many of countries prevail.

“Despite sustained economic growth…our people are struggling to make ends meet with one in every four Pacific Islander, living below national basic needs poverty lines”, Ms. Mata’afa lamented.

“Unemployment, particularly of women and young people is high, with youth unemployment at double the global rate” and “Pacific men outnumber Pacific women in paid employment by two to one,” she added.

Moreover, some of the highest global rates of violence against women are in the Pacific. At 7.7 per cent, women’s representation in Pacific parliaments is the lowest globally.

“Of the four countries globally that are without women parliamentarians, three are in the Pacific,” she asserted.

Turning to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), she pointed out that regarding diabetes, seven Pacific countries are in the top 10 globally. And in 10 SIDS, five out of 10 Pacific islanders are overweight.

“Moving forward, Pacific leaders are committed to more targeted support to enhance opportunities for women, youth, and persons with disabilities; addressing gender gaps in employment and decision making; enhancing sustainable tourism and fisheries while conserving the Pacific’s rich biodiversity; tackling NCDs and the dual threats of climate change and disasters more effectively”, she informed the meeting.

She expressed the Pacific’s gratitude for $1.57 billion from the Green Climate Fund and said, “our challenge now is implementation ensuring we better utilise existing funding; strengthen capacities, institutions and partnerships; and increase investment in statistical systems”.

‘A holistic approach’ needed

Turning to Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the HLPF evaluated progress and challenges in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries where populations are at high risk of being left behind, many in conflict or post-conflict situations.

Many people in LDCs and landlocked developing countries (LLDCs) are disempowered by poverty and the lack of access to basic services.  They not only do not benefit from economic growth but high annual population growth rates present challenges for enrolment in higher education, and in training a skilled workforce.

Moreover, climate change and its associated risks have put additional pressures on households and government resources in LDCs and LLDCs.

To achieve sustainable results, development must be “a holistic process”, Saad Al Farargi, Special Rapporteur on the right to development told the meeting. One that requires the input and involvement of diverse groups, including States, international organizations, civil society, academia and the private sector.

“Development programmes and policies can only succeed if they are addressing the right priorities”, he maintained. “To do that, participatory consultative processes, open for all segments of the society, have to be envisaged, budgeted for an implemented at every step of the way”.

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