Australians have become accustomed to bad news from the Pacific islands. Conflict in the Solomon Islands, coups in Fiji, murders by raskol gangs in Papua New Guinea, and the burning of Chinatown in Nukulofa in Tonga indicate an ‘arc of instability’ at our doorstep. But there appear to be two Pacifics.
One group of islands has managed to grow, if not at the speed of East Asian economies, at least modestly. It includes the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Guam, New Caledonia, Samoa, Tonga and others, that have reasonable education and health with modest socioeconomic outcomes for their peoples.
A second group of islands, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, have stagnated at best. In some cases, they have become poorer. In these islands, governments are largely absent from the day-to-day lives of individuals. For most families, this means no electricity, no running water, no sanitation, and little healthcare. For women, it means giving birth without medical attention. Many villages lack institutions of law and order, and receive scant attention from political elites, who squander public revenues.
The problem for the region, and hence for Australia, is that the second group of countries includes the largest, most populous islands. About 80% of the Pacific’s population is found in the low-growth group of islands, where employment is rare and living standards are not rising. High mineral and timber incomes have not translated to better services or economic growth.
The Pacific is thus bipolar.
The two groups of islands display markedly different demographic characteristics and different employment, social, and educational outcomes. Whereas one group of islands has moderate population growth and reasonable education, the other experiences some of the highest population growth rates in the world and high levels of illiteracy.
Women’s work in gardens has to date managed to keep up food supplies to growing populations, but land shortages are becoming evident at the margin. With little employment in the formal or informal sector, nearly two million unemployed and underemployed men will reach middle age without ever having had an income or experience of work. Nearly 100,000 young men are being added to this number annually. Underemployment and unemployment are the principal causes of high crime levels and political instability. Unless the major Pacific islands reform their economic policies to create agricultural opportunities and overall growth, millions of young men will continue to idle in villages and the region’s capital cities, bored and frustrated. It is not surprising that the Pacific’s labour market problems are creating spillover effects on a scale that proposed ‘guest worker’ schemes cannot abate.
Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. Gaurav Sodhi is a Policy Analyst working in economics and foreign policy at the CIS.