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Poverty and affirmative action: facts, not prejudices [The Fiji Times, 11 June 2007]


Who are the poorest in the country?   Who are the largest groups of poor?   How much “affirmative action” resources should government give to each group to close the “poverty gap?”  InFiji, these are politically charged questions that are asked all the time.

And politicians love to give their own answers, often without the benefit of any facts what-so-ever, to suit their own political agenda.

Well, hopefully, not  any more.

The Fiji Islands Bureau of Statistics has published two survey reports which provides hard facts to the above questions and many more.  Using the survey data, I will soon publish a new book,  An Analysis of Poverty in Fiji.

Here are the highlights of my lecture at the launch of the two Bureau Reports written by me.

Who are the poorest?

   In 1991, the national incidence of poverty inFiji was 29 percent (not 25 percent as has been quoted for more than a decade)- this is the percentage ofFiji’s population considered to be below the “Poverty Line”.

Using the same values for Poverty Lines as was used in the 1997 Fiji Poverty Report (but adjusted by the Consumer Prices Index), we get a figure of 34% of the overall incidence of poverty inFiji, in 2002-03.

But who were the groups most in poverty?  More so the rural people.

Rural Indo-Fijians:     47%

Rural Others             45%

Rural Fijians               39%

Urban Indo-Fijians      26%

Urban Fijians              23%

Urban Others              12%.

It is not surprising that Rural Indo-Fijians were the most in poverty, given the decline of  the sugar industry, the collapse of the garments industry, and the expiry of land-leases.

Who are the largest groups of poor?

   While the incidence of poverty is higher (36%) for all Indo-Fijians compared to all Fijians (33%), note that Fijians are in the majority in terms of population.

Not surprising therefore that Fijians also have the largest share of the poor people

(at 53%) while Indo-Fijians have a slightly smaller 44%.

So, if you gave “affirmative action resources” to bridge the poverty gap only on the basis of need, Fijians would still get 54% of the resources and Indo-Fijians would get 43%.

Fiji does not need Poverty Alleviation Affirmative Action based on race.

It is therefore a national tragedy that our blind politicians act as if it is only “their own” ethnic group that deserves poverty alleviation, and not the others.

Note also that some 71 percent of the poverty alleviation resources should go to the rural sector (only 29% to the urban).

And that the Western division should get about 38%, and the North (which has the highest incidence of poverty amongst the divisions) should get 32% of the resources. We not only need a  “Look North” but also a “Look West” policy.

Which Gap for Affirmative Action?

   For decades, politicians have shouted, if you want political stability, “you must bridge the gap between Fijians and Indo-Fijians”. But where exactly is the gap?

For the first time in Fiji’s history, the average reported household income for Fijians is shown to be higher than that for Indo-Fijians.

And if you rank Fijian and Indo-Fijians households by Income per capita, then 90 percent of the Fijian households are somewhat better-off than 90 percent of the Indo-Fijian households.

Only at the Top 10 percent of the households, do the Fijian households lag behind Indo-Fijians – by about 15% in Income per capita).

Making rich Fijians richer?

   So if Affirmative Action has “to close the gap” for political stability, then government has to make rich Fijians even richer.

Politicians must therefore stop complaining that some governments’ policies were only helping the elite Fijians.

Of course, the Affirmative Action policies should not be hand-outs but reward Fijian entrepreneurship.

And the real unemployment rate?

   According to the 2004-05 Employment and Unemployment Survey), the official rate of unemployment inFiji is around 5%- 3% for Fijians and 6% for Indo-Fijians.

Technically, these  numbers are correct survey results.  But they do not take account of the thousands and thousands of workers (mostly Self-employed, Family Workers, or Community Workers) who work much less than 8 hours per day, and/or who work much less than 240 days in the year.

When all this massive underemployment is taken into account, the shocking estimates for “effective unemployment” are:

Fijians                      32%

Indo-Fijians              22%

All Fiji                        27%.
Now we can understand the large numbers of unemployed people we see around the country.  And why thousands of people suddenly appear for police, army or security guard jobs.

Men and Household Work?

   For the first time in Fiji, there is national data to show that working women (as wage earners, salary earners, or employers) do some 15 hours extra of household work, compared to working men.

Is it any wonder that women lag behind men professionally?   Where can they find the time to develop themselves professionally, or in leisure activities.

If men were to do their fair share of household work, women would have on average 7 to 8 hours extra a week to devote to their own personal development.


Do we value our Bureau of Statistics?

   There are many other juicy stories in the two survey reports.  For example there is data on the provincial distribution of  foreign remittances, which are far greater than loans from banks to the rural areas.  There is rich data on our consumption habits, savings habits, modes of transport, daily traveling times, etc.

It is a terrible pity, therefore that the Bureau is too under-resourced to do more surveys and analysis that are taken for granted inAustraliaor NZ.

It is a pity that the Fiji Public Service for decades has refused to recognize the extremely valuable and simply irreplaceable technical contribution that the Bureau staff make to the country’s ability to monitor developments and formulate correct policy.

The Bureau staff are given ranks whose salaries are three levels lower than comparable staff in other departments who do much less valuable work.

These Bureau staff are extremely marketable regionally and internationally, and they have been leaving in droves over the last twenty years.

They will continue to be encouraged to leave, as long as the PSC does not upgrade their positions to their appropriate levels.

What a pity.

For in these troubling times, with our country even more polarized ethnically and politically, we need to face facts, not our prejudices.


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