RENO, Nevada — Amid ongoing challenges related to economic development in the Pacific Islands, the Asian Development Bank is making crucial progress toward eradicating extreme poverty and boosting economic resilience in the Indo-Pacific region.
Background of Poverty in the Pacific Islands
According to a U.N. article from 2019, about 25% of Pacific Islanders live in poverty and the Pacific Island countries have a notably high unemployment rate for women and young people. Moreover, around four in 10 children living in the Pacific Islands are vulnerable to falling into poverty, according to UNICEF. While nearly 80% of the Pacific Islands’ inhabitants live in Papua New Guinea, the remaining population occupies the other smaller 14 islands, a 2014 report from the UNFPA notes.
Today, a series of challenges inhibit economic expansion, poverty reduction and development in the Pacific Islands region. Pacific Island nations have been forced to contend with high economic vulnerability due to their small populations and geographic size, physical detachment from key global markets, environmental degradation and vulnerability to changes in the climate and natural disasters.
About the ADB
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is a cardinal institution for international development in the broader Asia-Pacific region. First established in 1966, the ADB issues loans, grants and consultative services to promote regional development. Since its inception, the ADB has overseen rapid and unprecedented economic growth in the Indo-Pacific. The ADB’s “Strategy 2030” seeks to promote sustainable economic growth and resilience in the Pacific Islands over the next decade and beyond, addressing the many challenges troubling the region.
According to the ADB in 2019, the Pacific Islands region has up to $2.8 billion in outstanding annual investment needs, and requires $300 million annually for building climate resilience, through 2030. The U.S. government has given more than $130 million to assist the Pacific Islands in responding to the pandemic, but continued support from the ADB is crucial to helping the region thrive.
The ADB’s Pacific Subregional Office (SPSO) is the central office that coordinates development and aid initiatives for seven nations: the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Niue, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.
In 2018, the ADB announced its intent to expand its presence in the Pacific Islands by increasing the scope of its offices in Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa and the Solomon Islands and by implementing new branches in seven other small nations: Palau, the Cook Islands, Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu. The purpose of this expansion is to “increase ADB’s [developmental]responsiveness,” according to a representative of the ADB. Additionally, this expansion will bolster communication with world governments and help facilitate projects more effectively.
The ADB’s Work on the Ground
Through the SPSO, the ADB provides crucial support for development in the Pacific Islands. This support centers around strengthening national economies and expanding economic opportunities in nations with high poverty rates, such as Fiji, with a poverty rate of about a quarter as of 2019.
According to the SPSO, in nations like Tuvalu, drought and water scarcity have “contributed to a real threat of outbreaks of waterborne diseases,” making the ADB’s development aid and programs all the more crucial. Drought magnifies many challenges. For instance, food insecurity could last for up to one year even after rain returns to drought-ridden areas.
According to the ADB, trade and “open regionalism” are crucial for achieving economic progress. And, equally important to successful development is the role of multilateral alliances, “shared resilience” and “inclusion.”
Additionally, women’s empowerment and gender equality are critical to poverty reduction and “achieving inclusive growth” going forward. The ADB is committed to development plans that reduce risks to the most vulnerable and improve social mobility in the Pacific Islands.
The ADB funded a 2021 initiative to provide vocational training related to disaster-resilient construction skills and carpentry targeting Fijian women, who have historically faced underrepresentation in the workforce. The project helps to “provide women with carpentry skills that they can use to contribute and make decisions around shelter preparedness in their communities.” The project expands employment opportunities for these women. By giving Fijian women the opportunity to learn essential construction skills, the ADB not only allows them to take these skills back to their communities but also to be more competitive in the job market.
In Tonga, the ADB’s regional initiative helped fund ongoing projects that improve energy access, infrastructure, water supply and sanitation. One project that the ADB has co-financed is the Tonga Outer Island Renewable Energy Project. On the outer islands of Tonga, the Tonga Outer Island Renewable Energy Project is helping to build solar-powered plants, both creating jobs and strengthening the nation’s resilience to natural disasters.
Specifically, this project will “install grid-connected solar photovoltaic power systems” on nine of Tonga’s islands, increasing the nation’s capacity for power. The project, which began implementation in 2019, will reach completion in 2023. This effort is also a success story for gender equality through the provision of jobs for women in the male-dominated energy sector. In 2022, the initiative is nearing its goal of having a workforce made up of at least 30% women.
As Tonga faces degraded infrastructure and rising urbanization, integrated solutions to urban development are key to future economic resilience. The Nuku’alofa Urban Development Sector Project (NUDSP) received more than $6 million worth of ADB funding from 2012 to 2020 to improve waste management, sanitation and water access in Tonga. The NUDSP has improved the living standards of residents and set the path toward sustainable development.
The initiatives of the ADB and its regional subdivisions show great promise for alleviating poverty and transforming the economic state of the Pacific Island nations. As the important work of the SPSO continues, these nations will have an increased capacity to face their many challenges head-on.
– Oliver De Jonghe