SUVA — Contrary to the paradisiacal palm tree beaches and vacation resorts to which many tourists flock each year, a poverty rate of 28.1 percent afflicts the island nation of Fiji as of 2017.
Similar to other Pacific islands, Fiji’s economy relies heavily on tourism and exports, such as sugar. Compared to other South Pacific island countries, though, Fiji boasts well-developed infrastructure and various natural resources that should support economic development. However, these industries have borne the brunt of racial and governmental instability that often agitates the country, thus leading political turmoil to become one of the dominant causes of poverty in Fiji.
In order to understand Fiji’s history of political turmoil, it is necessary to first get to know the country’s demographics. Like its islands, Fiji’s population is considerably diverse with almost half of its inhabitants being indigenous Fijians and the other half Indo-Fijians. The Indo-Fijians are generally descendants of indentured laborers brought to the islands from India. In addition, the country is home to smaller communities of Chinese and indigenous inhabitants of the island Rotuma.
The two larger ethnic groups, Fijians and Indo-Fijians, are subject to informal segregation that permeates social as well as political life in the nation.
These tense relationships cultivated enough instability to affect multiple coup d’états. In 1987, indigenous Fijians overthrew the elected, Indian-dominated coalition. The year 2000 brought another coup in which nationalists represented by George Speight, an indigenous Fijian, removed Fiji’s first prime minister of Indian descent. The rebels held the prime minister and up to 50 cabinet ministers hostage in parliament.
Following years of prolonged agitation after the coup in 2000, Fiji experienced its fourth coup in 20 years in a military takeover in 2006. Three years later, the Commonwealth suspended Fiji for failing to demonstrate progress toward a democratic government.
These coups, some of which were increasingly violent, not only caused the country’s international reputation to plummet, but also led to sharp declines in tourism and major economic instability. Nondemocratic political regimes and uncertain economic policies are some of the major underlying causes of poverty in Fiji. The volatility of the Fijian government contributed to declining private investments and exports, as well as waves of emigration of skilled laborers.
Although actors in the various governments claimed that the economy would return to healthy growth following the initial upheaval, studies have shown that political instability resulting from the series of coups since 1987 has set Fiji on a lower economic growth path.
One study, which focused primarily on the effects of the 2000 coup, found a strong long-run economy-wide impact consisting of a fall in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by close to 8 percent. In addition, the country will experience a 14 percent decrease in net exports. Real national welfare will fall by around 7 percent while real consumption falls by about 2 percent.
Though it can be difficult to fully comprehend what these numbers mean, it is easier to understand their impacts in terms of how individual people’s lives are affected by these causes of poverty in Fiji.
Due to lack of sufficient employment opportunities in rural parts of the country in combination with unequal access to resources as well as opportunities to gain practical skills, more and more families find themselves moving to shantytowns in urban areas.
Of the families that remain in rural Fiji, more than 75 percent live below the poverty line and only 50 percent have access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation. Additionally, less than five percent of children in these rural areas have access to early education.
However, according to the Fiji Bureau of Statistics, the percentage of its population in poverty has been declining since 2002. Growth in tourism, including record-setting visitor arrivals, in combination with governmental support has the potential to help Fiji combat its current poverty levels and increase equality. Constant exposure to institutionalized corruption, though, has prompted suspicion about the government’s authenticity in trying to alleviate national poverty.
Various international nonprofits and support from neighboring Australia and New Zealand have come to the country’s aid. Organizations such as Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity and Red Cross have focused increased efforts on the causes of poverty in Fiji. In addition, Australia and New Zealand have both committed to partnerships with Fiji in attempts to develop agriculture, create a highly skilled and educated workforce, increase private sector development and cultivate democracy.
With help from these encouraging forces, Fiji has gained new opportunities to combat its poverty rate and vastly improve the everyday lives of its citizens.
– Richa Bijlani