When videos of a toddler in the Marshall Islands smoking a cigarette and drinking from a can of beer were posted to Facebook earlier this year, it caused outrage and concern among many local residents. The smoking baby incident, like a number of other recent heartbreaking ‘firsts’ — including a young mother tossing her baby into a garbage dumpster in Majuro — is a bellwether related to social and economic conditions in the country.
‘We have so many neglected children,’ said a high-level government official after the incident with the baby was exposed in July. There is no doubting this observation when child malnutrition, school truancy levels, and high school dropout rates are considered. Many appear to think that it is the responsibility of one ministry or another or a non-government service provider to respond to this type of situation. This misses the point that a growing problem of this nature requires a whole of government approach, with policy focus rather than a band-aid response from one agency.
The deeper issue for the Marshall Islands is the breakdown of traditional family systems, a breakdown that is accelerating because of migration from remote outer islands to the urban centers and the urban poverty that is deepening each year. Many political leaders who are in a position to respond by directing resources and policy focus to social and poverty concerns tend to ignore or discount the issue. A not insignificant number take the view that poverty is not a serious problem in the Marshall Islands.
The problem of increasing poverty was first exposed in a 2004 report that provided a snapshot look at one urban neighborhood in Majuro. This study, which became known as the ‘Jenrok Report,’ described the daily challenge of life for Marshall Islanders in this area of the capital atoll: ‘People in Jenrok do not have access to clean and drinkable water,’ only half of the homes were connected to the city water system, many rely on ground wells that Environmental Protection Authority testing shows are ‘severely contaminated,’ and ‘overcrowded living conditions in Jenrok have led to unhealthy and unsafe environments.’
The same could have been said about other sections of Majuro and Ebeye, the other urban center in the Marshalls. The issuance of this report sparked little government response, other than the provision of donor-provided water catchment tanks to households a few years later and a short-lived recycling project.
Two years later, the Asian Development Bank funded a social and economic report on the country that was titled ‘Juumemmej’ (Stand Awake). The title is a navigator’s term, describing the responsibility of the navigator or captain to guide his canoe for the safety of the passengers, and it was employed to gain attention of leaders to pressing community and economic issues facing the nation. It also zeroed in on increasing poverty and the impact this was having on the country as well as the stimulus for out-migration to the United States. The report was criticised by some political leaders for being off base. While it was obvious the criticism, not the report, was missing the point, at least the public debate over the report raised some awareness about poverty and hardship. In fact, many people in a community that the 1999 census said was experiencing a 30 percent unemployment rate (double that for youth) understand poverty all too clearly.
Despite poverty taking hold over the past two decades, members of parliament rarely talk about the need to create jobs or address poverty reduction. Donors, of course, do talk about poverty reduction and occasional workshops address it. But there has been little government policy or budget response to this looming issue that is driving other problems. Indeed, the slow progress on meeting Millennium Development Goals — the Marshall Islands is only ‘on-track’ on two of the eight goals, and the lack of progress on the first MDG, alleviating poverty — tells the story.
A Graduate School USA economic report issued in August included commentary about growing poverty in the country. ‘While abject poverty, starvation and destitution are not yet present in the RMI, there are clear signs that certain groups are facing increasing hardship. The RMI is demonstrating mixed progress on MDG One (eradicate extreme poverty and hunger), and there are growing concerns over high unemployment, financial hardship (including declining real incomes coupled with large consumer debt), hunger and poor nutrition,’ the report said.
Despite this, there has been little change in budget policy and many proposed government reforms have stagnated. The Graduate School USA report observed: ‘While there is no doubt that the refinancing of the Marshalls Energy Company debt was a beneficial move, the fiscal targets of the Asian Development Bank loan were not achieved. The Comprehensive Adjustment Program has failed to gain any momentum. In addition, tax reform has remained under consideration for several years, and the outcome remains uncertain. Similarly, both the state owned enterprises and external debt legislation appear to be on the backburner…Recent cash infusions for budgetary support, provided by the World Bank and ADB, have, contrary to sensible intentions, enabled the Marshall Islands to continue the current policy regime without need for adjustment.’
Is this what Marshall Islanders want? No one knows because there has not been a national consultation to set development objectives in more than a decade. And the nature of the culture tends to prevent overt questioning or criticism of decision makers. Instead, Marshall Islanders have voted with their feet, with out-migration to the United States averaging 1.5 percent of the population annually over the past 10 years. An estimated one-third of all Marshall Islanders now reside in the United States.
Still, a key point for the country is that money is not the primary problem for addressing poverty and development needs. Resources are available (in fact, virtually every year, the ministries of Education and Health do not spend all of the funding they receive from the U.S. government). The critical challenge has been political will to reform the government’s policy framework to address the changing economic environment in the country, and the management and performance of the government sector, which drives the economy.
It seems unlikely that this will change in the immediate future. In the meantime, the outflow of Marshall Islanders to the United States is expected to continue as people seek a brighter future for their families.