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Keynote address by SG Tuiloma Neroni Slade at UN Association of NZ National Conference

THE UNITED NATIONS ASSOCIATION OF NEW ZEALAND NATIONAL CONFERENCE 2011
6-8 May 2011, Wellington

Achieving the Millennium Development Goals in the Pacific

Keynote Address by Tuiloma Neroni Slade
Secretary General, Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat

 

 

 

The National President of the United Nations Association of New Zealand, Ambassador Michael Powles,
Members of the Association
Ladies and gentlemen

 

1. I want to thank the United Nations Association of New Zealand for allowing me a part in this year’s National Conference. Your President is too much of a Samoan and I am always compelled to respond when a dear friend such as he comes calling, and more so when his request provides me an opportunity to speak on an issue so central to the development and progress of our region.

2. Indeed, the theme that you have chosen this year – Achieving the Millennium Development Goals in the Pacific – is at the heart of the development work that steers efforts of Forum Governments, development partners, non-state actors and regional organisations including my own, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

3. The 8 Millennium goals set in 2000 with the deadline for achievement by 2015 will be familiar to you all. They are time-bound and measurable goals adopted by world leaders, including our Pacific leaders, under solemn commitment. A decade has now passed since the commitment was made in the Millennium Declaration; we have only 5 more years to the deadline.

Regional Progress on MDGs
4. I want to start with an account of what we are doing in the region to reach the MDGs, of progress being made and the challenges being encountered.


Challenges
5. Pacific island countries are disadvantaged by their geographic isolation, small populations and limited resources; conditions which are compounded by their vulnerability to natural disasters, susceptibility to global economic shocks and exposure to the impacts of climate change. These challenges are even more pronounced for the 7 smaller island States of the Forum: Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau and Tuvalu.

6. In their annual meeting in Port Vila, Vanuatu last year, Forum Leaders expressed concern about the region’s uneven progress towards achievement of the MDGs. While there was acknowledgement of the good advances made in some areas, particularly in education, there was general concern in the slow progress made in critical areas such as reducing poverty and addressing gender, health and environmental issues. No Pacific island country is on track to achieve all the MDGs, and no MDG is on track to be achieved by all countries.

7. In general, Polynesian countries are recording steady rates of progress and thus may be seen as performing relatively well. In contrast, political instability in the Melanesian countries is seen as hindering their progress towards the MDGs, while the Micronesian countries of the North Pacific are making slow progress, despite early gains.

8. It is important to highlight the conditions and circumstances unique to Papua New Guinea, particularly the size of the country and large population, which determine its progress and achievement of the MDGs. PNG is home to almost 70 percent of the population of the entire Pacific island countries, and so progress measure at the regional level will inevitably be affected, if not distorted, by PNG’s performance. This is quite evident when we look at the Pacific’s progress on poverty. The vast majority of the region’s poor, around 2 million people, live in PNG, while the remaining island countries account for roughly 0.6 million of the poor.

9. Tracking the region’s progress towards the MDGs poses ongoing issues. A majority of Pacific island countries lack the capacity to systematically provide comprehensive and quality data needed to monitor progress. As a result of the absence of quality data there is a heavy reliance on qualitative analysis and anecdotal evidence to fill in the gaps.

10. Against this background, let me give you a quick overview of the region’s performance against the 8 Millennium goals, starting with the first, on eliminating extreme poverty and hunger.

Poverty and hunger (MDG1)
11. Searching for an accepted definition of poverty in the Pacific has been problematic, as international norms of poverty fail to account for cultural social safety nets and subsistence lifestyles prevalent in the region. Poverty, or hardship, in the Pacific has therefore been defined as inadequate access to basic services such as health and education, as well as inadequate access to income opportunities. This ‘poverty of opportunity’ basically contributes to the inability of people to lead the kind of lives they aspire to.

12. Significant data gaps make it difficult to monitor the poverty situation for the region, but all indications however suggest that poverty is most probably on the increase. This is likely a result of low economic growth, lack of employment opportunities and rising inflation across the region, made worse by the recent global financial and economic crisis, as well as the food and fuel crises before that.

13. Addressing poverty towards the 2015 deadline will remain an uphill battle, in light of the current jobless global economic recovery and the looming threat of another international food and fuel crisis. Together, these global conditions are likely to constrain economic growth and job creation, while sustaining relatively high inflation in the region. They will also affect the level of remittance flows to the region. Lack of job opportunities for the growing youth population in the Pacific could potentially have spillover social consequences linked to increased crime, drug use and general lawlessness.

14. Food poverty has generally not been a major issue in the Pacific, given the largely traditional subsistence agricultural lifestyles of many island countries. However, with increasing urbanisation and growing dependence on imported foodstuff, poor nutrition is a major cause for concern. Poor nutrition has led to the increase, already alarming, in incidences of non-communicable and lifestyle diseases in the Pacific. I will touch again on the problem of NCDs in the context of the health-related MDGs.

15. In considering the broader impacts of poverty, special consideration should be given to the plight of vulnerable groups of society like woman and persons with disabilities. Women, in particular, in some traditional communities in the region continue to suffer from various forms of discrimination. So addressing gender issues has an important bearing for the fight against poverty.

16. While the prospects may seem bleak in progressing achievement of this MDG, Pacific countries have demonstrated their resilience in the fight against poverty, through interventions to facilitate access to micro financing opportunities. The success of the VANWODS programme in Vanuatu and the South Pacific Business Development Micro Finance Scheme in Samoa, have empowered women to access and utilise business development services, where hitherto access to banking services have been limited.

Education (MDG2)
17. As alluded to earlier, the Pacific has been doing well in education and is on track to meet, if not already met, its MDG targets in this area. In the broader scheme of things this is a promising sign against the region’s progress in other MDGs, primarily because it suggests the region is making the right investments in laying the foundations for more skilled and productive communities.

18. Overall, good progress was noted in the level of primary enrolment but there are some weaknesses in primary completion rates. Literacy rates in the Pacific are generally high, averaging around 95 percent in all countries except PNG and Solomon Islands. Pacific island countries, like Samoa, Vanuatu, Palau, Fiji, PNG and Solomon Islands, have either abolished school fees or provided grants to promote and improve access to education. School grants have proved effective in ensuring children are able to access primary education and by extension relieving the financial burden on the poor; thus, also contributing to poverty alleviation.

19. Given the enormity of its geographical size and socio-economic and cultural constraints, PNG recognised early that it would not be able to achieve the prescribed universal primary education MDG targets. Thus, in maintaining the importance given to its commitment to achieve the MDGs, Papua New Guinea instead set its own new targets to better reflect local circumstances and a more accurate measure of “progress” against such circumstances.
20. To reinforce national efforts and sustain gains made in Education, Forum Education Ministers in 2009 endorsed the Pacific Education Development Framework to assist Pacific island countries with the achievement of the MDGs and Education for All goals. This framework recognises that the quality of education is just as important as the access to education.

Gender (MDG3)
21. The Pacific island countries’ performance in promoting gender equality and empowering women is mixed. Most countries are either on-track or only slightly off-track in eliminating the gender disparity in education. In contrast, the majority of countries are off-track with gender empowerment, based on the proportion of women’s representation in parliament, for example, and participation in the non-agricultural labour force. The region has one of the lowest records in the world for the proportion of women in national parliaments and has recorded high levels of violence against women, which has derailed progress in achieving gender equality.

22. While significant steps are still needed to advance gender equality in the region, some encouraging openings are being pursued particularly in the area of violence against women and in efforts to increasing women’s representation at high levels of policy and decision-making, in national parliaments and also in other institutions.

23. Strong examples of this growing shift includes legislation and policies to eliminate violence against women being advanced in Pacific countries recently, including Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Samoa, FSM and Cook Islands. In terms of women in decision making, a number of national initiatives are underway in several Pacific island countries exploring the use of temporary special measures and advocacy and awareness on the need for greater women’s participation in decision making processes.

24. In recognition of the central role of women in all levels of decision making, Pacific island countries place great emphasis on women’s participation in local government as critical to the advancement of gender equality – an indicator currently lacking in the MDG 3. In some Pacific countries, local government have a higher representation of women in elected and appointed decision making positions than at the national level. Although still token in numbers and grossly under-represented in local government, it is an important area for consideration in tracking the Pacific’s progress.


Health (MDG5)
25. The performance of Pacific island countries across the health-related development goals, MDG 4 (child mortality), 5 (maternal health) and 6 (HIV/AIDS, malaria, others), is mixed. We have made good progress in reducing child mortality, with mixed performance in improving maternal mortality rates, while combating HIV and AIDS, and especially NCDs has proven to be more difficult.

26. The region anticipates it will meet its targets towards reducing child mortality rates with countries that are slightly off-track expected to achieve the goal with accelerated effort. Across the region, infant and under-5 year mortality rates have declined steadily with significant declines in Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Measles immunisation rates have also generally improved. On maternal health, most Pacific island countries are on-track to reduce national maternal mortality rates, while progress towards achieving reproductive health targets is slow and hindered again by the lack of data. Teenage pregnancy continues to be a concern in most island countries.

27. The Pacific region is generally off-track in achieving MDG 6 with growing incidences of HIV and AIDS, and NCDs. However, there is progress on the fight against malaria, particularly in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and PNG where malaria is endemic.

28. An emerging threat to the region is the prevalence of NCDs. NCDs are the cause of 75 percent of all Pacific deaths, and NCD-related mortality and morbidity are rising. This is an alarming rate underpinned by unhealthy lifestyles and environmental changes that make communities susceptible to tobacco and alcohol use, unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity. Customary attitudes and practices, especially regarding the use of food in ceremonies and exchanges, are other contributing factors.

29. These issues have not gone unnoticed in the region. There is strong awareness and commitment by governments and communities to addressing NCDs as a serious health issue. The [2-1-22] Pacific Framework for the Prevention and Control of NCDs now includes the preparation of national NCD plans and strategies and the integration of NCD policies on tobacco, nutrition, physical activity, alcohol, diabetes and cancer into national programmes. The Framework supports multi-sectoral approaches to addressing NCDs, given that contributing factors to the NCD problem fall outside the health sector and equally impact on the fight against NCDs.

Environmental sustainability (MDG7)

30. It goes without saying that like all indigenous communities globally, Pacific island countries and their people have a high degree of economic and cultural attachment and dependence on the natural environment. Our natural environment is a source of food and shelter; it is the backbone to sustaining traditional subsistence economies and modern economic practice; and provides the cultural resources that sustain our sense of belonging and identity – in essence, it is who we are as a people and community.

31. Yet, at the same time, it is also what compounds conditions of vulnerability, with natural disasters a common threat across the Pacific, and now climate change. Climate change remains the greatest challenge for the region, as the current and predicted effects are likely to significantly undermine progress towards development and for some of the smaller island countries, survivability and their very existence.

32. Again, as is the case with tracking performance of other MDGs we are hindered by the lack of comprehensive data and given the centrality of environmental sustainability to the region, this is a serious weakness.

Forests and marine resources
33. We are also confronted with several challenges in protecting the Pacific’s forests including conversion of natural forest land for agriculture, as well as guarding against exploitation and degradation, particularly in the Solomon Islands and parts of PNG. The sustainability of marine and coastal resources is equally important as more than 80 percent of Pacific islanders live in or near coastal areas and are dependent on these resources for their livelihood. The potential value to Pacific countries of fisheries and aquaculture production is estimated to be in excess of US$2 billion.

34. Therefore, conservation efforts are critical to the region – the Micronesia Challenge, launched in 2005, is one example of a regional inter-governmental initiative that facilitates the conservation of marine and forest resources in Micronesia.

Water and sanitation
35. At the household level though, the most pressing of environmental issues for most Pacific island families in their daily lives is access to safe water and improved sanitation. Polynesian countries enjoy reasonably good levels of access, while access for rural households is a major concern for Melanesian countries. Micronesian countries are finding it particularly challenging to provide access to safe water and improved sanitation on account of high urbanisation and population densities. Rising urbanisation is also a contributing factor to increasing areas of squatter settlements and very poor housing, particularly in Suva, Honiara and Port Moresby.

Partnerships for development
36. As can be appreciated from this quick account, this is a massive array of the challenges, with inter-acting causes and in almost every case affected by global forces. Without assistance, it would be beyond the capacities of many Pacific island countries to manage alone in achieving the MDGs. By good fortune, the region enjoys a range of committed partnerships with development partners playing a critical role in helping countries achieve the MDGs, which is the premise of the 8th goal of global partnerships for development.

37. Pacific countries would need to continue to develop and nurture their own arrangements of bilateral and multilateral partnerships with other Governments and organisations, and nationally with their own civil society organisations communities – no doubt by the accepted standards of inclusiveness, transparency and accountability. By those same standards it would need to be recognised that political stability and leadership are critical. Improved governance in the allocation and coordination of domestic resources to support the achievement of the MDGs is simply essential.

38. In the longer term there will be real potential in regional economic integration. Although negotiations on trade integration continue to move slowly, Pacific Leaders recognise that trade agreements, fairly and successfully negotiated, will bring significant economic benefits to their countries, particularly through higher trade and investment flows. These economic benefits would, in turn, potentially make a significant contribution to the achievement of the MDGs.


39. In addition, information and communications technology presents significant opportunities for the region to achieve the MDGs as the benefits of the use of ICT cuts across many of the development goals. We know already the benefits of the One-Laptop-Per-Child programme which has positive implications for the welfare of children, access to education, as well as poverty and hardship.

Regional efforts supporting MDGs achievement
40. I want now to say a few words about what we in the regional organisations are doing to support Forum countries achieve the MDGs. The Forum Secretariat is part of 9 regional organisations that make up the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific or CROP, which meets at least once a year under the permanent chairmanship of the Forum Secretary General. The work of the CROP is focussed on implementing the Pacific Plan, the Pacific Plan in turn being linked directly to the achievement of the MDGs.

41. As you will know, Forum Leaders adopted the Pacific Plan in 2005 as the master strategy to strengthen and gain regional cooperation and integration. The vision of the Pacific Plan is for a region of peace, democracy, economic prosperity and good governance, a region that values its diversity, natural resources and human rights. The Pacific vision echoes the fundamental values of the Millennium Declaration – of freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature, and shared responsibility. As such, the Pacific Plan serves as the foundation for the region’s efforts towards the achievement of the MDGs.

42. The Pacific Plan is a ‘living document’, which means that it allows for the implementation strategy to respond to emerging issues and challenges. At their meeting in 2009, Forum Leaders endorsed 5 priority themes for implementing the Pacific Plan, all of which have direct links to the achievement of the MDGs. These 5 priorities are about:

(i) fostering economic development and promoting opportunities for broad-based growth (covering trade, infrastructure, fisheries, the energy sector, tourism, transport, ICT, etc);
(ii) improving livelihoods and the well-being of Pacific peoples (in food security, health, education, gender-based violence and opportunities for people living with disabilities, etc);
(iii) addressing climate change;
(iv) stronger and better governance; and
(v) improved social, political and legal conditions for stability, safety and security.

43. In 2010, last year, in line with the “living” character of the Pacific Plan, Forum Leaders endorsed emerging issues that needed more targeted effort, two of which were directly linked to achieving the MDGs: safe drinking water and basic sanitation services; and increasing literacy and numeracy rates in selected Pacific island countries.

44. Also in 2010, Forum Leaders issued their Port Vila Declaration on Accelerating Progress on the Achievement of the MDGs. The commitment of this Declaration is to accelerate progress towards achieving the MDGs by localising the development goals, advocating for the special needs of the Pacific small island developing States and through better development coordination efforts. Leaders also called on the support of development partners and the international community to develop innovative programmes to expedite MDGs achievement, scale up aid, improve aid effectiveness, support for the strengthening of statistics, as well as supporting Pacific communities through the mainstreaming of the Mauritius Strategy of Implementation of the global programme for the sustainable development of small island developing States.

45. To give you some idea of how we are actually going about this work, I need to refer to the Development Compact launched by Forum Leaders at their meeting in Cairns, Australia, in 2009 in response to concerns that the region was generally off-track to achieve the MDGs despite high levels of development assistance. The Compact is also known as the Cairns Compact, and its key objective is to improve the coordination and use of all available development resources with the central aim of achieving real progress against the MDGs. The Compact focuses on:

• regular peer reviews and reporting of countries national development plans to strengthen planning and implementation processes;
• development partner reporting on the application of aid effectiveness good practices;
• strengthening public financial management systems;
• tracking the region’s progress on the MDGs;
• improving high level engagement with the private sector; and
• tracking the overall effectiveness of development efforts in the region.

As a result of the Compact, the Forum Secretariat is now producing annual reports to track the region’s progress on the MDGs. The report in 2011 will focus on the health-related MDGs.

Civil society
46. An accounting of the regional efforts towards achieving the MDGs cannot be complete without highlighting the critical importance of the work and role of civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations in supporting Pacific island countries. These organisations have been instrumental in areas such as poverty reduction, gender equality, and combating HIV and AIDS. The role and contribution of church organisations and local communities in particular areas such education is widespread throughout the region and critically essential.

47. And that point brings me to the crux of achieving the MDGs in the Pacific – it is work that can only be managed through effective partnerships and collaboration between Governments across the region, among communities, public and private sectors, with non-State and non-government actors, and among regional organizations. For this reason, we feel very pleased in being able to participate in this conference, and again I want to thank the United Nations Association of New Zealand for highlighting and promoting the MDGs, and in such a pertinent manner in promoting the aims and objectives of the United Nations.

48. As I close, I note that 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the Pacific Islands Forum. It is, naturally, a time for reflection: on the journey of 4 decades and on the challenges encountered and overcome; on the challenges which linger, and those to come. For the moment, in the context of the MDGs, we have a target fix on the year 2015. We cannot lose sight of that and the need to re-assert commitment and to capitalize on the collective strengths of our region to achieve for all Pacific communities the Millennium Development Goals.

Thank you.

 

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