What to Do About Poverty and Destitution in Fiji by Crosbie Walsh

In 2004 I gave a public lecture at USP that was so badly reported by the Fiji Times that I was attacked in Senate by the Rev. Tomasi Kanailagi for agreeing with Mick Beddoes that the churches should  pay more attention to the adverse effects of  church donations on the living standards of their poorer members. The Senator said we did not understand the relationship between the lotu, vanua and matanitu, implying, presumably, that the poor welcomed the opportuntity to give to the church whatever the effect on the welfare of their families. 

I shouldn't have worried.  At the same Senate meeting he accused the Fiji Times and Fiji One of being "agents of some powerful foreign agencies planning against Christianity and indigneous people."  (The Daily Post 21.7.04)  The agents on Fiji One who were "poisoning the country",  apparently, were the "biased" and "insensitive" Indian reporteres.  Significantly, he "welcomed the recent decision by Cabinet to review the media laws of the country."  The Rev. Kanalagi is still a Methodist Church leader and a strong opponent of the Bainimarama government.

This paper, based on the 2004 lecture, was intended for publication but I  was never got round to publishing it.  For this reason, and because the issues  raised are even more important today,  I'm taking the opportunity of  publishing it here.

Heavenly angels
Asking how many poor people there are in Fiji is like asking how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. If we accept that there are angels, any number could be the correct answer, but we would have no way of truly knowing if our guess or survey finding was correct. Angels are not a daily sighting in Fiji. Sadly, the same cannot be said for poverty. Asking about numbers is a pointless exercise unless it leads on to ask about causes and answers.

The UNDP/Government of Fiji Poverty Report published in 1997 said ten percent of the population did not have enough money to meet basic food needs; 26 percent could not afford basic general needs; and a further 33 percent could easily slip into poverty. This was the situation at the time of the 1990-91 Household Income and Expenditure Survey. This week Pratap Chand (Fiji Times, 24 July 2004) says poverty has doubled in two years and over half the population now live on incomes below the poverty line. He may be right; he may be wrong, but either way the figure doesn't really matter. Most informed people know that there is poverty in Fiji; that it affects the lives of many people; and the Bureau of Statistics Household survey now underway will almost certainly show the situation has got worse. But whether 20, 40 or 60 percent of the population is poor is really of less importance than working out plans to reduce — and, over time— eliminate poverty. No one wants to be poor, and no normal person wants others to live in poverty.

What is needed are answers, and an understanding of the things which prevent us from seeing them. No one person has all the answers. But these are my ideas on the sort of things we should be looking at.

Correct answers come from asking the right questions. If we're wrong on what causes poverty, we'll be wrong on how to eliminate it. Most of the beggars we see in the street are women, elderly or disabled. These people are not poor. They are destitutes. Nothing we or they do will make them less old or less disabled. They will never be able to fully support themselves. Destitutes need "safety net" support such as that provided by the Government's Poverty Alleviation Fund, but far more of it. No one in an urban area should need to live on $7 a week, the minimum amount of support. The maximum for families is $36, less than half of the UNDP poverty line.

The poor are not destitutes. Most poor people are employed, but the income they receive is barely enough to survive. Some say people are poor because they are lazy but poverty is no more linked to laziness than hard work is to wealth. Many people work hard and never become wealthy. Others say people are poor because they are uneducated or unskilled. But these are consequences of poverty, not its causes.

Over-simplified causes result in the over-simplification of solutions. Projects like improving rural water supply will make  poor people healthier but they will still be poor. Economic growth and more foreign investment may produce more jobs but unless wages are increased, the new workers will still be poor. A thousand quick fix or band aid "solutions" like this have been tried. They have all failed to eliminate, or even significantly reduce, poverty.

To end poverty we need to re-think what we want to do with our lives, and what sort of society we want to live in. Religious people could also ask about the purpose of life, and re-think their obligations to other people. Everyone should ask what it is in this society that keeps people poor, and what can be done about making changes. This may seem rather starry-eyed, but Fiji of all countries should know the social and financial costs of not asking such basic questions.

Government, of course, has a major role to play in ending poverty. It is not up to a vulagi like me to say what should be done, but I think a good start would be to appoint a Commissioner of Social Justice, or make poverty a central concern of the Human Rights Commissioner. One of their important jobs would be to examine all Government legislation to see whether it is pro- or anti-poor, and be the focus, or rallying point, for all pro-poor activity in Fiji.

In a capitalist society, poverty will not end without the co-operation of the Business sector and the wealthy. They need to see that one of the costs of doing nothing (or too little) about poverty is ever increasing levels of crime and violence. A recent New Zealand study found that each murder cost the taxpayer over $1 million. One wonders what the dollar cost would be in Fiji. One must also ask whether poverty played any part in Fiji's recent political troubles and how much money that cost the wealthy and the country.

Poverty will not end until there is some redistribution of wealth in society. The UNDP study found that 25 percent of the population received only five percent of incomes, and the top ten percent 35 percent of incomes. This is a very unequal distribution of wealth. No rich person wants to pay more taxes but they may be more prepared to do so if they can see how much poverty costs them (in tax, security, insurance, and peace of mind) and if they have some say in the way some of their taxes are used. Overseas, some businesses have formed "socially responsible" business associations. Government could reward socially responsible business people with public honours, and tax relief in some areas.
The poverty problem also needs a strong, vocal and active civil society. This means a media that is free and "socially aware", and an education system that prepares young people, not just to pass exams but, just as importantly, to be tolerant of other people and other  cultures. Religious and community leaders have a special responsibility. Reducing poverty should be a central issue of deep concern to them.

With the goodwill of government, business, civic leaders and opinion-makers, and an active Commission of Social Justice (or economic Human Rights) destitution in Fiji could end tomorrow, and poverty could be greatly reduced in the not too far distant future. Fiji has suffered much in the last few years. These wounds need to heal before the country can mount a full-scale attack on poverty. "Fiji the way the world should be" will not be achieved overnight. But with the problem faced and re-thought, and with the goodwill of those with power and influence, the elimination of destitution and extreme poverty is not an unrealistic goal.


Praise Him: said…

Lotu is bull s***. We sing hymns and read King James version everyday but we are ready to support church ministers who have turned God's house into a den of corrupt politicians, thieves, money launderers and leeches who prey on the poor. I hope they have a good answer when God asks them "Did you feed the poor and the hungry, or did you just pocket the little money they had?
Once Upon a Time........ said…
The route to solving the poverty trap in most societies is never a sole, straight one. It must be a multi-pronged approach with coherent processes: an Integrated Approach to Poverty Alleviation if you like. If babies are malnourished from the time of birth, that is a wrong turning. If they also run the risk of serious disease: hiv/AIDs,congenital and neonatal sexually-transmitted disease, are not assured of multi-vaccinations (the list is growing weekly of those now required), their mothers are ill-informed during pregnancy and in hospital and/or subjected to violence physically and mentally that is a Bad Start and it suggests that poverty is already in play. Poverty of education and essential information being perhaps the worst kind of poverty?

Then add: single mothers as young as 12 years of age who have a difficult pregnancy and birth experience, with little or no support from hostile parents, churches,mosques/temples even ordinary members of the public. The mix is evidently toxic and it may never rise to become wholesome bread.

Now: where is the Regional Integrated Approach that one would expect to all this? Because the illness transcends just one nation. It threatens all states regionally: some countries more than others. Look at PNG and weep. So many natural and mineral resources and so much time and energy-wasting politics. All the result of political wrangling and tussling about leadership? It looks and is pathetic. From the original word: 'pathos' meaning


Yes, it is truly sad. Not just because the states themselves are failing but because Regional Powers standby and permit such failure through too-late interventions and costly consultant past-meddling ("It is ten years since we first arrived in Fiji" witnessed exultant quote). To what lasting effect? might be the not-proferred reply.

Not unlike Syria and soon-to- become Lebanon Redux: a beautiful place Once-upon-a-Time.
Anonymous said…
Let's cut to the chase. The Methodist Church is a greedy, nationalist, racist organization, which bears no relationship to the teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ. No wonder so many Christians (and yes, there are many Christians who are not itaukeii) who have voted with their feet and have joined other churches. I see no austerity in the Methodist Church, nor any commitment to eradicating child abuse, domestic violence and stealing from itaukeii society. I see no commitment to anything other than swelling the church funds.

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