Tuiloma Neroni Slade

Pacific challenges

There are few places in the world where population growth and urbanization collide more starkly with vulnerability to climate change and disaster risk than in the Pacific region. This confluence of issues is central to the focus of the Pacific Plan, the master strategy for regional development endorsed by leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2005 to promote economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security. As increasing numbers of Pacific Islanders move to towns and cities, the region’s long-standing tradition of rural ‘subsistence affluence’ is being eroded, and societies are grappling with new aspects of urban poverty, including undernutrition, youth unemployment and crime.

Almost a quarter of Pacific Islanders live in urban centres (up from only 8.5 per cent in 1950), and half of the countries in the region already have majority urban populations. While Vanuatu and Solomon Islands remain predominantly rural – 74 per cent and 81 per cent, respectively – their urban growth rates are among the highest in the world. In Fiji, urban growth has been compounded by the termination of land leases in some rural areas, which pushed renters to seek employment and shelter in towns and cities. Migration, both rural-urban and international, has resulted in the decline of stable populations in parts of Polynesia. Rapid urban growth is particularly significant in the context of the geography of Pacific Island countries. For example, the Tarawa atoll in archipelagic Kiribati includes some of the most densely populated islands in the world, with certain areas reaching a density of 7,000 people per square kilometre.

While urbanization affects all members of our communities, it is clear that its manifold social, environmental and economic consequences significantly affect the lives of children and young people. A recent study conducted by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the Pacific Centre of the United Nations Development Programme, Urban Youth in the Pacific: Increasing resilience and reducing risk for involvement in crime and violence, documented a wide range of links between urbanization and social problems, with a particular focus on young people’s heightened exposure to crime and violence. Another research study found that one third of all children in Port Vila, Vanuatu, live in poverty – a rate nearly 20 per cent higher than the national average.

Traditionally, the land and the sea have provided generations with shelter and sustenance. The links between urban communities and the environment are weaker. People are more dependent on store-purchased commodities and, consequently, are vulnerable to the vagaries of global economic fluctuations. The knock-on effects are felt as children are taken out of school, families cut back on food, and financial worries lead to increased domestic violence and youth crime.

Despite the disadvantages, the possibilities offered by the urban environment attract young people over any other group. These include opportunities for artistic expression, forging of new identities, better access to technology, wider social networks and new forms of entertainment. At the same time, the combination of elevated school dropout rates, unemployment and the absence of stabilizing traditional social support structures renders many young people vulnerable to destructive influences.

Proactively addressing the challenges presented by urbanization will have a great impact on the well-being of children and young people – the major players in building the future success of our communities and ensuring the continued viability of our environments. The situation demands a holistic and equitable approach, beginning with critical issues such as access to safe water, housing and schools. Disaster mitigation and preparedness strategies are also of fundamental importance in densely populated areas. At the same time, a deeper understanding of the push and pull factors that result in the rural-urban drift may enable us to develop sustainable, targeted and practical policies to better harness the potential of our young people in both the formal and informal sectors.

Pacific leaders need to make a determined effort to tackle the challenges of urbanization, because unless we address what is one of the most pressing forces of our time, the vision of the Pacific as a region of peace, harmony, security and economic prosperity – where everyone can lead free and worthwhile lives – will remain illusory. The future of the next generation is at stake.

Tuiloma Neroni Slade is the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. He was formerly a judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands; Ambassador/Permanent Representative of Samoa to the United Nations in New York and, concurrently, Ambassador to the United States; as well as High Commissioner to Canada. Justice Slade has also served as Attorney-General of Samoa and as senior legal adviser of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.

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