Prime Minister Bainimarama is saying that his regime will meet the Millennium goal of reducing poverty to “negligible levels” by year 2015.
This is indeed laudable. But the regime’s record to date shows it has a somewhat unique way of achieving this target. Let’s examine some of their policy initiatives in poverty reduction:
• 20% devaluation of the Fiji dollar which forced prices of food, clothing and other imported items to escalate making life more difficult for the poor
• increasing VAT to 15% which sent a ripple effect down the economy forcing increases in the cost of basic food items and all other goods and services including the utilities such as water and electricity
• withdrawing family assistance allowances from 3000 recipient families who are now left without adequate means of support
• Reducing FNPF pension rates by 50%, sending 90% of our retired elderly citizens into financial distress
• constantly delaying or denying pay increases awarded by Wages Councils to poorly paid non-unionised workers, fully knowing that low wage rates are the root cause of poverty in Fiji
• allowing massive tariff hikes to FEA as well as a restructuring of its tariff regime which took some 100,000 poor families off the Authority’s life-line tariff
• promulgating anti-worker decrees which deny workers in the public sector and the 10 designated essential industries their right to collective bargaining and freedom of association
Such policies and decisions of the regime have seen an escalation in social distress in the past 6 years and it would not be surprising if poverty levels have now exceeded the official figure of 45% of the population – this is the number of our people living in absolute poverty, unable to meet the basic needs of their family members.
At this rate, many of the current poor would be dead by the time the regime gets around to providing some relief for their sufferings!
A recent survey showed rising poverty in the rural sector put at about 40% of the population – this is clearly a regressive step as in the past poverty was largely a social evil confined to the urban sector.
Rural-urban drift as a result of the depressed rural economy is now a major social problem reflected in the mushrooming of squatter settlements on the fringes of our towns and cities. According to the latest statistics, 25% of our people now live in squatter settlements in squalid conditions.
In his message to mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Bainimarama said empowering the people to “be heard” in the formulation of a new constitution would contribute to alleviating poverty. Perhaps the Commodore would care to explain how?
He speaks of writing off $14m in water rates arrears, $1.5m for individual home loan accounts and $1.2m owed under the Village Housing Scheme accounts, as evidence of the regime’s effort to fight poverty.
To the discerning they sound more like vote buying for the 2014 general elections!
The Prime Minister ought to know that handouts and write-offs do not alleviate poverty or empower people in the long run. Only a vibrant economy with robust investment levels will create job opportunities and raise wage levels as an effective means of poverty reduction. This, is unlikely under a dictatorship.
One wonders whether the Prime Minister took note of the increasing number of ordinary people who in their submissions to the Constitution Commission spoke of their hardship and the problems of daily living. This served as a severe indictment of the failure of the regime to deliver on its promises to the people.
Even Commission Chair Professor Yash Ghai, was forced to observe that government services were not getting through to the people.