2011 Human Development Report: Pacific Islands' progress jeopardized by inequalities and environmental threats

03 Nov 2011

(Nouméa, New Caledonia) - Despite impressive human development rankings in some of the Pacific Island countries, the region faces a future of rising sea-levels, reduced fresh water sources, and diminishing fish stocks. The 2011 Human Development Report—Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All—argues that environmental sustainability can be most fairly and effectively achieved by addressing health, education, income, and gender disparities together with the need for global action on energy production and ecosystem protection.

This year, the Human Development Index (HDI) contained in the report covers a record 187 countries and territories, up from 169 in 2010, reflecting in part improved data availability for many small island states of the Caribbean and the Pacific. Nine Pacific Island countries are ranked in the Report. Two countries, Palau and Tonga, ranked 49 and 90 respectively, are part of the group of “high human development” countries.

"There will be no sustainable development if the way we live and grow destroys the ecosystems in which we all live on this planet. There is no Plan B for Planet Earth, and for the people of the Pacific, that message is loud and clear as their very existence is threatened," says Ajay Chhibber, UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

“This Report is important for the world right now, and is certainly important the Pacific. Now that we are 7 billion people living together on earth, increasingly we will feel the consequences of everything we do on everything else around us. We must look carefully at our actions, at how they affect our own environment, how they affect others, and how they will affect future generations,” said UNDP Resident Representative Knut Ostby at the Asia Pacific launch of the report, which took place at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community headquarters in Nouméa, New Caledonia before representatives of 22 Pacific Island Countries and Territories.

The Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and Kiribati have been included in the Human Development Index for the first time. This Index is a yardstick that focuses on the human elements of development, combining indicators of health and education with the more traditional economic indicators. This gives important insights that may be used to identify key development needs and recognize strategies that are cost effective for human development.

“Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and Kiribati are in the Human Development Report for the first time due to available data. Congratulations to you!, said Director General of Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Jimmie Rodgers. “I cannot overemphasize the importance of accurate and relevant data. As you know, we work with governments across the region to improve data and statistics on human development issues. Data availability is important for taking stock of where we are and where we want to go, as well as comparing where we were before,” he added.

Where the Pacific stands

Pacific Island countries have varied levels of human development. Most of the Pacific Island countries appear in the “medium human development” category. These include by rank Samoa (99), Fiji (100), FSM (116), Kiribati (122) and Vanuatu (125). Two Pacific Island countries – Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, ranked 142 and 153 respectively, form part of the “low human development” category.

The Report highlights that environmental degradation and climate change will have adverse effects across groups. In the Pacific, climate change is expected to lead to major declines in fish stocks, an important source of livelihood and export income for many islands.

Low lying Pacific Island nations like Republic of the Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu and Kiribati are seriously threatened by the possibility of a 0.18-0.59 meter sea level rise by the end of 21st century, the Report notes. Kiribati can expect a 10 percent drop in rainfall by 2050 - reducing fresh water 20 percent.

Moreover, salt water intrusions are increasing due to sea level rise and frequent coastal flooding, further contaminating ground water wells, the primary fresh water source for its rapidly growing population.

Sea level rise is not just an issue for the Pacific. Across all of Asia and the Pacific, nations are the most vulnerable to projected sea-level rises, with more than 100 million people at risk, says the Report, noting that since 1870 the average sea level has risen 20 centimeters, and the rate of change has accelerated, threatening to swamp populous, low-lying areas in, for example, Bangladesh, as well as island nations in the Pacific.

Community management of natural resources has been highlighted as an equitable way of protecting the ecosystems while at same time supporting livelihoods. The Report cites the example of Fiji’s locally managed marine areas in which long practiced traditional systems that include seasonal fishing bans and temporary no-take areas provide an equitable model of marine resource management.

The Report also highlights an example of conserving biodiversity at the level of landholders in Vanuatu where conservation sites were established, and these reduced poaching, enhanced fish stocks and incomes for local communities.

Small Island Developing States Comparison

When compared with other small island developing states contained in the Report, Pacific Island countries are generally performing well, with three countries having higher than average life expectancy than other small island development states. These include Palau, 64, Tonga, 63 and Fiji 62 years respectively. While most small island development states spend between 3-5 percent of their gross domestic product on heath, Palau spends 11.2 percent and Samoa 7 percent.

In some categories, the Pacific is not doing as well as other small island developing states. The Report highlights two Pacific Island countries- Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands as having high rates of natural resource depletion. In Solomon Islands, 80 percent of the land was covered by forest. In the last two decades (1990-2008) this has decreased by 4.3 percent. Similarly, in Papua New Guinea the forest area of 64 percent has been reduced by 8 percent.

In the small island developing states, remittances inflows accounted for 6.7 percent of GDP, the highest when compared to other regions. The small island developing states are closely followed by South Asia 4.5 percent. This clearly indicates the high dependence of SIDS on remittances and consequent vulnerability to global economic and financial trends.

What next?

The Report calls for electricity service to be provided to the 1.5 billion people who are now off the power grid— and says that this can be done both affordably and sustainably, without a significant rise in carbon emissions. This new UN-backed ‘Universal Energy Access Initiative’ could be achieved with investments of about one-eighth of the amount currently spent on fossils fuel subsidies, estimated at US$312 billion worldwide in 2009, according to the Report.

The Report adds its voice to those urging consideration of an international currency trading tax or broader financial transaction levies to fund the fight against climate change and extreme poverty. A tax of just 0.005 percent on foreign exchange trading could raise $40 billion yearly or more, the Report estimates, significantly boosting aid flows to poor countries - amounting to $130 billion in 2010 - at a time when development funding is lagging behind previously pledged levels due to the global financial crisis.

The Report is an important contribution to national governments’ preparations for the“Rio+20”conference in June next year. This landmark conference will be about sustainable development solutions for the future.

The Report advocates for global sustainability policies that take equitability and long-term human development progress fully into account, including through needed legal and political reforms Giving poor individuals and countries a greater voice in decision-making at the local, national and global levels is a prerequisite for ensuring that development becomes both more equitable and more sustainable in the decades to come.

Contact Information

In New Caledonia, Shobhna.decloitre@undp.org, +679 992 6396

In Bangkok, Cherie.hart@undp.org, + 66 8 1 918 1564