Our Perspectives

One number that tells a much bigger story in the Pacific


Samoan children With support from UNDP and funding from the GEF, the Government of Samoa has stepped up to integrate climate risks into the agriculture and health sectors and into forestry management. Photo UNDP/Samoa

Small islands face big challenges. This week’s Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) Conference in Samoa probes some of the most pressing ones. How do we protect our ocean resources for future generations? How do we prepare for the destructive forces of climate change on fragile islands? How can countries find the human and financial resources to sustain productive businesses, homes, schools and health services? How can countries stem rising youth unemployment? The list is as long as the oceans are wide.

There is one important, often overlooked development indicator that lurks behind these larger issues and is a pre-condition for development progress in all countries. This worrisome indicator which is under discussion this week is mentioned in a new United Nations report, The State of Human Development in the Pacific: a Report on Vulnerability and Exclusion in a Time of Rapid Change. The report is being launched days ahead of the SIDS Conference in Samoa.

What is it? Life expectancy. It provides a simple measure of the overall health status of a population. And the picture in the Pacific is not good. An average person in New Zealand or Australia can expect to live about 10 years longer than a person in Vanuatu and about 20 years longer than a person in Nauru or Kiribati.

Low life expectancy at birth in several Pacific Island countries is linked to both high infant mortality rates and high adult mortality rates. These are in turn linked to high rates of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease, and to high levels of tobacco and alcohol consumption.  In addition, some Pacific countries have the highest rates of obesity in the world, while in others children under five are stunted as a result of chronic under-nutrition. The overall picture is that general health standards are under threat across the Pacific.

So, how do countries foster healthier lifestyles?

A number of actions could be considered by governments and national health authorities. They include improving primary health care programmes, expanding access to emergency obstetric care and immunization programmes, and bolstering prevention efforts against HIV and AIDS.

Addressing the increase and early onset of non-communicable diseases requires vocal public campaigns to promote healthier eating habits, physical exercise and food nutrition programmes. The special care and needs of the increasing number of elderly must become a part of national budgets as youth leave their villages and the rural areas in search of employment and the traditional family support systems disappear.

Finally, the adverse effects of malaria and TB on those most at risk of infection is a growing concern that requires new and focused attention.

This initial checklist is a snapshot of what can be done with political will and targeted expenditures to those that most vulnerable. They are investments with big returns. After all, the development of a country will forever be hampered without the physical, mental and social wellbeing of its people.

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