The United Nations has identified tackling basic needs poverty and improving youth employment as the two priority areas Tonga needs to work on in its attempts to achieve millennium development goals.
A report on the nation’s progress was launched last week by Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu.
Its the second status report produced by Tonga since 2005.
In 2000, Tonga was one of 189 countries which signed a United Nations Millennium Declaration to work towards achieving progress in the basic areas of human development.
They include the targets of eradicating poverty and hunger, universal primary education, promoting gender equality and reducing child mortality.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Knut Ostby, United Nations Development Program’s Resident Representative based in Fiji
OSTBY: We have supported the production of this MDG report, and they have identified with government data a number of key issues that needs improvement. Of course a number of success stories are there as well, but one of the issues is the increase in basic needs poverty, which has increased from 16 to 23 per cent from 2001 to 2009. Basically poverty is a common problem across the Pacific, and Tonga also has this problem. Other issues identified is the participation of women, it’s the non-communicable diseases, and the increase in deaths and the fall in income from remittances and tourists. Some of the success areas include education and child mortality, other health indicators, and they’ve done good things also in the area of environment. But these areas, including the basic needs poverty remain to be addressed.
COUTTS: Are we tilting at windmills when we talk about combating basic poverty, I mean the Pacific it’s a subsistence lifestyle in many parts, there is the cash economy, but what should they be doing that they’re not?
OSTBY: We think that one of the key areas to work on is to include anti-GE concerns in policies, in plans and in budgets, in budgeting, and there’s a great opportunity now for the new parliament and the new government to do that, when they engage in their budgeting processes to have these human centered priorities at the centre of their planning. And also when there’s growth, when there is economic initiatives to make sure that these are inclusive, that one takes into account employment opportunities when you plan economic growth.
COUTTS: But what are the practical concerns, what can actually be done? We’ve been talking for some years about the Millenium Development Goals, which we need to applaud and herald, because they’re all areas that the world needs to look at. But we’ve spent a lot of time talking with it, producing policy, but on the ground and practically what actually is being done and can be done?
OSTBY: Well as I said when the government makes its budget it has to make priorities. It can prioritise between roads or schools…
COUTTS: But we’re also talking about budgets that aren’t very large?
OSTBY: This is true and it’s about the aid budgets and the government budgets are not very large, and there’s a question of making do with what you have. And of course as you said there is a significant subsistence economy. But the indicator of basic needs, poverty takes that into account. And what is needed is to make sure that we go back to the human needs when the planning takes place. That you don’t plan for big projects that have an effect only on a limited number of people.
COUTTS: Now how much of an impact have the things that we can’t have any control over, like the global economic financial crisis, the climate change concerns, natural disasters such as 2009 tsunami which hit Niuatoputapu, resulting in loss of life and physical damage. I mean that must have an impact, and also be a considerable hurdle for not just Tonga but other governments in achieving their development goals?
OSTBY: Yeah I think they have been hit by the global economic crisis quite visibly in the last three years. It’s the increase in external debts that have gone up from 30 per cent of the GDP to almost 40 per cent of the GDP over the last three years, and then significant drops in income from tourism and trade and remittances. These are impacts that they don’t have much control over, but in terms of the debt issues, there are things that can be done to manage the debt better in terms of focussing on that management inside the government machinery, and to review the recurrent spending of government. These are a couple of things that probably needs to be looked at in relation to the debt problem.
COUTTS: Well this is a second stage report for Tonga, we’ve talked about some of the downsides of it, but there must be some positives that have come from it as well?
OSTBY: Yes they’re doing very well on education, there’s progress on environment, although as you said there’s these external factors like climate change that is also outside the control of government. On health issues outside of non-communicable diseases, there is good progress. But there’s of course the remaining issue of non-communicable diseases; diabetes in particular that needs to be combated.
COUTTS: Now just moving off Tonga for a moment; the Pacific as a whole, how are they going? Is it fairly similar to Tonga?
OSTBY: There is a pattern across the Pacific that is basic needs poverty. It’s difficult to tackle. The absolute poverty there is very little, but the basic needs poverty is difficult to tackle. Also issues of gender and the participation of women in political life, and also violence against women is a Pacific-wide issue. And then of course everyone has problems with the climate change and so on. There is overall progress, it appears that Polynesia is doing better than the other parts of the Pacific.
COUTTS: Why is that?
OSTBY: I’m not sure if we can conclude exactly why that is, we think it goes back to government policies, but I hesitate to come with a very concrete diagnosis about why this. But I think it’s useful for the countries to exchange experiences on government policies, and I think other countries would fine that some government policies from Polynesia it could be used for other countries to learn from.
COUTTS: Now the 64-thousand dollar question Mr Ostby, are any of the Pacific nations likely to reach their development goals by 2015?
OSTBY: Yes I think some of the Polynesian countries for sure have a good chance. There’s also one Micronesian country, Palau, that are doing better than the others. So there is a good chance. I think what is needed for the next five years is to focus, to pick key issues, such as for example gender and for example basic needs poverty, and invest in these, and to focus attention both from donors and governments on these, and they will have a ripple effect across the whole MDG network of all these goals. And at least there is a good chance that a number of the countries could reach.
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