The poor are tired of being poor
The poor in Vanuatu are literally tired of being poor. They are tired of being destitute and tired of not being able to enjoy the benefits of development that we always hear about. They are sick of being unable to go to the village shop and purchasing a bar of soap, a match box or some food items that they see others enjoying or taking for granted. For how long will our poor remain impoverished and for how long will they remain poor?
We do not have as yet the sorts ofstreet beggars and their handkerchiefs as we see in big cities, even including Suva – for the many of you who have lived, visited and studied there in the past. But poverty is showing its ugly face in the country on the streets in some other ways.
There are conflicting figures concerning the percentage of ni-Vanuatu that are living below the so-called ‘poverty line’. The website of the Australian Volunteers International(AVI) indicates that in 2011, ‘about 50 per cent’ of Vanuatu’s population ‘live below the $1-per-day poverty line’. The Asian Development Bank reports in its 2011 ‘Fact Sheet’ on Vanuatu that as of 2006, about 16% were living under the poverty line. Whatever the real figures are, it seems poverty is quickly on the rise.
The income disparities are wide, especially between urban and rural dwellers, especially rural dwellers in the outer islands. The usual points put forward to explain why the poor are poor or remain poor revolves around ‘low agricultural productivity and poor infrastructure facilities and basic services in rural and outer island areas’ because of an overemphasis on development within the two key urban centres, as the AVI website notes.
If you are analysis the incidence of poverty from an economic point of view, then the World Bank’s $1 dollar a day measure makes some sense, though it has its own flaws. But if looking at poverty from a social lens, it may be best to just look at and discuss poverty from an ordinary citizen’s perspective, rather than tangle ourselves up with international measures of poverty such as that of the 1-dollar-a-day. Get away from the agricultural and infrastructure facilities type of explanations and just try and see poverty from an old, unfortunate village man or woman’s perspective.
What if he or she is just simply landless, helpless, deserted, abandoned, neglected, rejected and despised? Do you tell him or her about agricultural productivity strategies or about access to markets and infrastructure when deep down within, the poor person knows that he/she can live above the poverty line?
This article is largely targeted at those in society who ‘Have’ a cent to offer the poor. Some of these poor people are their very own grandparents, and even their own parents. I once visited my home village some time ago and happened to come across an old lady. Pitying the ruggedness she was in, I reached into my pocket and gave her a thousand vatu. She held firmly onto my hand and tears welled up in her eyes, then she started sobbing. Eventually, she uttered a few words, ‘your….(she named the son who was related to me) has never done this to me…’, and spoke a few more things amid those painful tears. I continued on my journey that day baffled, wondering about those very heart-broken words the old lady had shared with me.
Today, a week before I walk onto the prestigious platform of excellence to receive my graduation testamur from ANU - one of the world’s top 10 universities, I wonder what my unique, double-Masters degrees will do to the poor in my beloved country. It pains me deep within my heart to see and to know that while many of us enjoy the fruits of development, modernisation, globalisation and all, hundreds of people in our country, especially in the rural parts of Vanuatu, continue to suffer endlessly. They suffer because their very own children have forgotten about them. They suffer for want of the basics of life. They suffer because they are voiceless. They suffer because they have been lied to by politicians who have never delivered to them the promises of development. I ask myself again the questions that bothered me prior to returning to university – what’s the point about education? Of what good is it, if it does not relieve suffering, hunger and destitution among the poor?
To the hundreds of ni-Vanuatu who live in Port Vila and Luganville, think about the poor. Maybe the Vanuatu Government should set aside a time every year with a theme to “Remember the Poor”. We should, as a country, think systematically about poverty alleviation and reduction. It makes no sense whatsoever to boast high GDP growths (economically) while socially, our very own people suffer among us. I shiver within me when I think about poverty, as at one point in my life, I went through that kind of experience – begging for money and soap. Those of you who may have never been poor cannot fully understand what poverty means. It hurts and it leaves scars that if hurtful enough, will never leave your memory for the rest of your life. The reason I have done very well in life so far is because I have suffered in my early years.
Until we ourselves do something about poverty, let’s not talk big about World Bank indicators, ADB indicators, and whatever else. We should ask ourselves some hard and difficult questions first. Are we sure we have helped to relieve suffering in society among our very own poor people? Besides, do the poor care about World Bank, IMF, ADB indicators? No they don’t! In early 2000, the World Bank undertook a comprehensive survey directly with the poor and released a report on it called ‘Voices of the Poor’. If you have time to, download it and read it for yourself. There are lessons in the report to learn from.
I seriously think we need to come back down to earth and rethink development in Vanuatu. We’ve been running after the world for far too long, and we may never catch up. The poor among us are tired of being poor. When will we really listen to them the way we should? When shall we stop pretending and instead put first things first?
>>The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and are not necessarily those of the Vanuatu Daily Post.