Knut Ostby: Speech at Poverty Day celebrations

Oct 20, 2010

Excellencies, Permanent Secretaries and Heads of Government Departments
Heads of Non-Government and Civil Society Organisations
Ladies and Gentlemen

Good morning. Thank you for taking the time to be here today and for inviting me, to make a keynote address on this important day. October 17 has been declared as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty by the General Assembly, through its resolution 47/196, 22 December 1992. Since then, every year on 17 October, people of all backgrounds, beliefs and social origins gather together to renew their commitment to the eradication of poverty and to show their solidarity with people living in poverty.

We are here today to commemorate the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. It is an opportunity to acknowledge the efforts and struggles of people living in poverty, to recognize that poor people are at the forefront of the fight against poverty, and to hear their voices and concerns. A poor woman from Latvia says, “Poverty is humiliation, the sense of being dependent on them, and of being forced to accept rudeness, insults, and indifference when we seek help.” An Argentine says, “You have work, and you are fine. If not, you starve. That’s how it is.” A vegetable market vendor in Suva says, “Poverty is having no money, no proper house facility, no job and no decent wages.” 

These voices resonate well with the theme for this year: “From Poverty to Decent Work: Bridging the Gap” and with Fiji’s localised theme of “Working Together Out of Poverty”. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in his message on 17 October 2010 emphasizes that “Decent and productive work is one of the most effective ways to fight poverty and build self-sufficiency. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the number of workers in vulnerable employment worldwide is estimated to be more than 1.5 billion, equivalent to over half (50.6%) of the world’s working population.

The ILO estimates that the global unemployment rate reached 6.6 per cent in 2009, up 0.9 per cent from 2007. Youth have been disproportionately affected by the global economic and financial crisis and the global youth unemployment rate rose from 11.8 per cent in 2007 to 13.4 per cent in 2009. This makes inclusive growth, including full and productive employment and decent work for all, one of the most important goals in combating poverty, both now and in future.

During the implementation of the first Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (1997-2006), several United Nations summits and conferences resulted in negotiated outcomes focused on national, regional and international efforts for poverty eradication. These include the UN Millennium Declaration, the Monterrey Consensus of the International Conference on Financing for Development and the 2005 World Summit.

The good news is that globally, many have been lifted out of poverty. Countries like China, Viet Nam, India and Brazil account for the largest reductions of people living under the international poverty line of US$1.25 (2005 PPP) a day. Even in the most difficult and poorest countries like Sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh, some progress has been made. The developing world as a whole remains on track to achieve the poverty reduction target by 2015. That means; we will have halved the number of people living on less than US$1.25 a day from 1.8 billion people in 1990 to around 920 million.

However, eleven million children die every year, most of them under the age of five, and more than six million from completely preventable causes like malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia. The number of people who are undernourished has continued to grow and progress in reducing the prevalence of hunger is slow. Existing challenges remain and new ones have emerged. The risk of death and economic loss due to natural disasters is increasing globally and is concentrated in poorer countries. Armed conflict remains a major threat to human security and to hard won gains in the fight against poverty. The significant setbacks experienced globally due to the 2008-2009 economic crisis means the need to scale up efforts is very urgent. Climate change is an emergent challenge that threatens the livelihoods of the most vulnerable. In the Pacific, it is a question of survival for some countries. 

But we are not without hope.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has emphasized that “With the right investments and concrete action, we can build upon the gains, fulfill our commitments, and ensure that every man, woman and child has the opportunity to make the most of their potential.”

In December 2007, the General Assembly proclaimed the Second UN Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (2008-2017) with the theme of “Full employment and decent work for all”, reiterating that eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world and a core requirement for sustainable development, especially for developing countries.

For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are time-bound and specific commitments which would bring hugely important change to their lives.  Achievement of the MDGs as a whole is crucial for sustainable reduction of poverty.

When the eight MDGs were launched at the beginning of the new millennium, they were then, and still are, the most comprehensive and universally agreed development goals to tackle poverty across its many dimensions.

They are about eradicating extreme poverty and hunger through the empowerment of women; increasing access to the essential services of education, healthcare, clean water, and sanitation; reducing the incidence of deadly diseases; protecting the environment; and forging strong global partnerships for development.

At the recent UN MDG Summit on 20-22 September 2010, Leaders of member states concluded with the adoption of a global action plan to achieve the eight Goals. The outcome document sets out a concrete action agenda that spells out specific steps such as targeted investments, greater investment in women and girls, effective use of trade and investment opportunities and country led development efforts backed by enabling international environments.

With the renewed vigor by member states the achievement of MDGs are very possible.  With political will, adequate resources and concerted efforts the Millennium Development Goals will be met by 2015.

But to achieve this requires focused and specific action.  It requires that we identify specific bottlenecks, and specific areas that have high impact, and focus our work on them.
The UNDP Administrator, Helen Clark, has proposed the following eight action points to eradicate poverty through the accelerated achievements of the MDGs over the next five years: (i) Support country level  development;  (ii) Foster inclusive economic growth; (iii) Improve opportunities for women and girls; (iv) Continue to target investments in health and education, in clean water and sanitation;  (v) Scale up social protection and employment programmes; (vi)  Expand access to energy and promote low carbon development;  (vii) Improve domestic resource mobilization;  (viii) Commitment by the international community to provide development assistance and improve the predictability and effectiveness of aid.

What do these global goals mean for Fiji and its people and for the World Poverty Day in 2010?  I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Government with producing its 2nd National MDG report. In particular I wish to thank the Fiji National MDG Taskforce for the critical role they have played. The production of the National MDG report is very timely, with only five years left to reach the MDGs, with targets set for 2015.  The report provides a snap shot of progress towards key targets and indicators as well as proposes key policies and strategies towards achieving the MDGs and eradicating poverty. It helps us focus on the key tasks ahead for the next five years.

Some of the key findings of the MDG assessment report include the following:
MDG 1 - Eradicating Poverty and Hunger:  The target of halving the proportion of people suffering from hunger has already been achieved and is likely to remain so for the next five years.  Basic Needs Poverty, however, has increased from around 25 per cent in 1990 to around 40 per cent in 2008. Given the upward trend in poverty, it is currently unlikely that Fiji will meet MDG 1 by 2015. While government has introduced a number of policies to assist the elderly, destitute and disabled, such as the food voucher programme and the social welfare scheme, these have so far been inadequate to arrest poverty.

MDG 2 – Achieve Universal Primary Education: Fiji has a high primary net enrolment rate of 96% (2008) through strong and effective education policies.  However, due to poverty, many families face difficulty in affording education. Government has specifically targeted these issues through free transportation and other policies. Education affordability seems to be well covered under government’s policies and strategies and Fiji has progressed well towards achieving this goal.

MDG 3 - Promote gender equality and empower women:  Fiji has succeeded in achieving gender equality in primary and secondary school enrollments, but is lagging behind in empowering women in decision making and professional jobs. The share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector, increased from 27.1 percent in 1990 to 34.4 percent in 2003, but in 2005 it had declined to around 30 percent. According to the MDG report, Fiji is not likely to achieve this goal by 2015. 

MDG 4 – Reduce Child Mortality: Fiji has made progress in reducing under 5 child mortality rate from 27.8 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 23.6 in 2008. Like-wise, the infant mortality rate declined from 16.8 per 1000 live births in 1990 to 13.1 in 2008. Although there is significant progress, acceleration of the current rates is needed to meet the 2015 expected target.

MDG 5 – Improve Maternal Health: Fiji’s maternal mortality rate has been reduced by around 30 percent, from 41 in 1990 to 32 per 100,000 live births in 2008. Fiji needs to reduce this by another 70 percent to achieve MDG 5 by 2015. The proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel is very high,  almost 99 percent.

MDG 6 – Combat HIV/AIDS and other major diseases:  The report highlights that there is an upward trend in the number of reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Fiji from 4 in 1989 to 333 confirmed cases in 2009.  While overall infection rates are low, the exponential rise in the number of cumulative confirmed HIV cases is a major concern. In Fiji as well as in the rest of the Pacific, there is also a need to focus on non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.  The Pacific experiences a disproportionate incidence of these diseases and the only sustainable remedy is an improvement in diets and lifestyle choices.

MDG 7 - Ensuring environmental sustainability: 
Access to improved water sources for rural and urban populations has increased from 47 percent in 1990 to 60 percent in 2006. Similarly, in terms of access to improved sanitation, the overall access increased from 68 percent in 1990 to 71 percent in 2006.
Positive signs indicate that the consumption of ozone depleting substances is expected to decline with the phasing out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) by 2013. Fiji is likely to achieve this goal, but there is a need for support in delivering on commitments under the number of treaties and conventions Fiji is a party to, including the enforcement of the various legislation and regulations already in place to achieve environmental sustainability.

MDG 8 – Develop a global partnership for development: Fiji has progressed well under this goal in terms of reducing its external debt servicing commitments as a percentage of exports of goods and services, and also in terms of making available to citizens the benefits of new technology. This is evident in the rise in mobile phone and internet subscriptions and access to financial services especially in rural areas.

Challenges to overcome
Overall, since the signing of the Millennium Declaration in 2000, Fiji has made great achievements towards reaching the MDG targets.  However, many challenges remain, as I already have mentioned.  The MDG report, while recognizing major progress in many areas, is also highlighting challenges and constraints.  Some of these are external, such as the global economic crisis or the oil price, but others are internal, such as corruption or other governance challenges.

The report makes a number of suggestions and recommendations towards meeting these challenges and accelerating the progress towards the targets that should be reached by 2015, such as:

MDG 1: Establishing a social policy forum that takes a new look at possible social response plans to tackle issues of poverty and hardship in the country; developing a definition and measures of poverty that are most appropriate for Fiji; and ensuring the newly created National Employment Centre and the Self-Employment Service effectively facilitates the fullest and most productive utilization of Fiji’s human resources.

MDG 2: The need to review the education curriculum to reflect the changing labour market including the demand for workers in areas such as green technology.

MDG 3: To accelerate progress towards this goal, there is a need to work more towards gender equality and non-discrimination which will encourage women to participate in decision making, in politics and in the labour market in general. Greater coordination of activities that focus on women and girls through the advisory role of the newly established Fiji Women’s Federation (FWFW), improved sex disaggregated data, strengthening the capacity of Ministry of Women to undertake analysis and mainstreaming of gender perspectives in government policies, and enhancing women’s capacity and admittance to income generating activities as well as participation in government bodies.

MDG 4 & 5: According to the report, strong and well financed health sector programmes, and legislation to deliver essential health services to the public, are key factors needed to enable Fiji to achieve the targets expected by 2015.  Raising awareness on women’s health issues through greater partnerships with NGOs, implementing the safe motherhood programme, paying closer attention to infant mortality, shortage of general practitioners in the rural areas and urgent attention in addressing two critical issues of staff shortages and investments in health infrastructure, are specific measures needed in the next five years.

MDG 6: To address the exponential rise in the number of cumulative confirmed HIV cases is a major concern, it is crucial that government steps up national level efforts for prevention and for reproductive health. This should be linked to greater leadership at the community level. Voluntary counseling and confidential testing, education and prevention programmes, care, treatment and support should be made available for all those who need it.  Enforcing the National Code of Practice for HIV/AIDS in the workplace amongst other related policies, strengthening reproductive programmes and its linkages to HIV services, and implementing the STI/HIV/AIDS strategic plan that clearly identifies target groups, are necessary.

MDG 7: Enforcing the Environment Act as well as the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. Reviewing and refining legislations that are related to environment management provisions and their enforcement such as the Forest Act, Health Act and the Litter Decree.

MDG 8: Initiating e-government, improving business support services and infrastructure through a review of micro, small and medium enterprise laws and regulations, extending micro finance facilities to all provinces with related training, and encouraging financial institutions to provide and increase access to finance, increase telecommunications coverage especially in rural areas and aligning ICT training to developments in the employment market. 

Finally, I would like to reiterate that while many challenges remain, both globally and locally, it is still possible to reach the MDGs in the five years left before 2015. To do this requires focus and commitment, and I would like to  acknowledge the strong commitment of the Government towards achieving the MDGs. This is of crucial importance but is not enough alone.  To achieve sustainable results requires the commitment, and the concerted efforts of government, private sector, civil society and the population at large.  With everyone working together, the MDG targets are within reach for Fiji.

In closing, I echo the UN Secretary General’s message on this occasion, “Widespread economic uncertainty and fiscal austerity should not be excuses to do less.  Rather, they are reasons to do more. On this International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, let us hear the voices of the poor and strive to expand job opportunities and safe working conditions everywhere."

Vinaka Vaka Levu.

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