World Bank proposes some Pacific solutions

Off to work, Marshall Islands. © IOM/Joe Lowry 2013

By Joe Lowry

I am no Pacific expert, but my trips to rural Papua New Guinea, and my marathon flight from Bangkok to Majuro (via Manila, Guam, Palau, Chuuk, Kwajalein, Pohnpei – and then from Majuro to a teeny tiny atoll in the midst of a turquoise ocean) got me thinking.

How do all these people find work?

It’s true that there does seem to be a spirit of mañana permeating the Pacific – on the surface of thing people seem to enjoy a more relaxed pace of life, in keeping with the stunning views and balmy climate. And many people stay busy doing things that are automated in the West – catching and preparing food, market gardening. But people have to eat; they have to have health services, water, shops, television, internet, mobile phones, the same as the rest of us, so you can be sure people are grafters.

Put another way, behind the exquisite Marshallese greeting “Yokwe!” (literally “you are a rainbow”) there is an urgency to keep the wheels moving and development charging forward.

But think of the challenges. First, there’s the distances involved. Then the topography. And the weather. Getting anything, from a frozen pizza to an industrial freezer from A to B is always a complex logistical exercise. These people have to be creative. (Lucking they pretty much invented human mobility, if you look at the historical spread of the Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian people.)

But now they have new factors to contend with, not least among them climate change, which is already causing droughts, floods and increased emigration. Demographics are colliding with higher expectations, a fact recognised in a recent World Bank report: “Wellbeing from Work in the Pacific Island Countries”. It issues a stark warning that increasing employment opportunities, especially for women and youth, will be critical for the sustainability of Pacific island economies, as populations grow, the number of young people increases, and people move to urban areas.

In fact, over half of Pacific islanders are under 24, the highest ratio in the world. More than half of those are out of work, which, the Bank warns, increases the risk of poverty and social unrest.

“The 10 countries studied in the report are all among the world’s 50 smallest and most remote nations, which poses distinct challenges for job creation,” said Tobias Haque, Economist for the Pacific Islands at the World Bank and lead author of the report. “Innovative solutions are needed from governments and partners if economies are to meet the employment aspirations of Pacific people.”

The report underscores the need for new ways of thinking about labour mobility. It is clear that not everyone will find work at home and remittances from large regional economies in Australia, New Zealand and the United States will continue to be of prime importance. Large infrastructural projects like the Liquid Natural Gas programme in Papua New Guinea are pivotal – will it enrich the underdeveloped nation, or will profits be repatriated? Time will tell.

The report hints that Australia could do more if it increased the size of its Seasonal Worker Programme to a par with New Zealand’s Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) programme, proportionally. The authors calculate that were this to happen, it could generate an extre 10 per cent of GDP across the participating countries, saving Australia 60 per cent of its aid budget.

Certainly something to consider.

The study looked at Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.


Joe Lowry is a senior media and communications officer for IOM