Tuesday, 26 September 2017

What to Do About Poverty and Destitution in Fiji

 This is an article I wrote 20 years ago that was intended for publication in The Fiji Times. The statistics are dated but the theme and possible solutions are as valid now as they were then. And they are just as relevant to New Zealand. Croz Pn16.

"Change" was a term also used in last week's NZ election. Pn16
(Unused article prepared for the Fiji Times, based around my presentation. Journalist attended instead, and wrote a very unbalanced article which caused a backlash from the Wesleyan church.)

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 knowing if our guess was correct. Angels are not a daily-sighting in Fiji. Sadly, the same cannot be said for poverty.

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) 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 half 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 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 healthier poor people 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 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.

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