An information communications revolution already underway could help reduce poverty rates in the Pacific. Mobile phones have already helped remote countries in the region connect with the world and a coming wave of high-speed internet connections could spur additional social and economic development.
Poverty in the Pacific region is a growing problem, and it has been compounded by its remote geography. Countries in the Pacific are comprised of thousands of islands sprinkled across a vast ocean. The region contains some of the most dispersed, remote areas in the world in the 9,000 islands that comprise it.
But a telecommunications revolution in the region is helping address some of these challenges, according to the World Bank. Over the last six years more than two million people in the region have gained mobile phone access. In Vanuatu, a 70 percent increase in mobile phone connections means that eight out of 10 people now have a mobile phone connection. Gone are the days when a basic phone call required a three-hour boat trip to the capital.
After mobile phones, the World Bank said high-speed broadband internet is the next step that will help these island countries continue to move forward. A joint World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded project is extending an 830 km fiber-optic cable underwater to connect Tonga with Fiji, and through Fiji with global broadband networks. Additional countries are expected to connect in the coming months.
Currently, local governments and businesses must deal with astonishingly high transaction costs just to connect to nearby neighbors, never mind engage with the outside world. For example, in Palau a broadband internet connection costs $650 per month. In Kiribati, one of the region’s poorest countries, the same connection would cost $430 per month. Less than 1 percent of the region’s population has reliable internet access. In the modern, connected world that isolation can be costly to development.
The World Bank said it believes that faster, cheaper, reliable internet connections will help the region’s governments, teachers, doctors, farmers and fishermen buy goods, share information and improve services. It will also allow for better monitoring of natural resources and help with the delivery of services like health care and education. The World Bank has projects pending in seven Pacific Island countries, through partnerships with ADB, AusAID and NZAID.
According to OXFAM, basic services like healthcare, schools, telephones, electricity and safe water are serious issues for many communities in the Pacific Islands. Poverty in the region has been worsening, OXFAM said, as a result of over two decades of weak economic health, population growth, urban migration, and increasing inequalities. The Pacific Island countries are also considered highly vulnerable because of their remoteness, geographical spread and susceptibility to natural disasters, among other factors.
The region includes some of the countries the United Nations has classified as least developed, the poorest and potentially weakest in the globe, including Samoa, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. In Vanuatu, 40 percent of the population is living below the National Basic Needs Poverty Line (a measure of the minimum income needed to buy enough food and meet basics needs like housing and transportation), and 40 percent has no safe water access. In Samoa, 20 percent of the country lives below the poverty line. 30 percent of the population in the Solomon Islands doesn’t have access to safe drinking water and only 65 percent of adults are literate.
Even in countries that are considered more developed in the region there are pervasive challenges. In Fiji, 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, 53 percent of the population has no access to safe water, and only 12 percent of the population has access to adequate sanitary facilities. In Papua New Guinea, 38 percent of the population lives below the National Poverty line and 61 percent of the population does not have access to safe water.
The World Bank said it sees huge potential in harnessing the power of technology to help create economic growth and opportunities, and to reduce poverty.
– Liza Casabona
Sources: World Bank, OXFAM