75% in poverty are iTaukei: Was it by design, a coincidence or a failure of policy?

 Did the “education revolution” sow the seeds of a poverty trap for the iTaukei?
 Did the VAT exemption on high GI foods generate a NCDs crisis and lock in long term poverty?
 Did the rapid expansion of TV entertainment and rugby programming deep into rural communities divert attention away from productive economic and educational activities?
 Did the lack of socioeconomic data together with process-based evaluation systems prevent early intervention to address the rising poverty in iTaukei communities?

IT is now generally accepted that at least 75 per cent of those in poverty are iTaukei, a benchmark that was first highlighted in the original 2019-20 Household Income and Expenditure Survey.
It was not always like this. Two decades earlier, the “Fiji Poverty Report 1997” concluded that “poverty is not concentrated in rural or urban areas nor in any ethnic group. It is an under-current in all communities in Fiji”.
In September 2021, Prof Wadan Narsey wrote “the number of iTaukei households and persons in poverty has been rising rapidly, relative to that of Indo-Fijians”.
He showed the ethnic shares of those in poverty in the Table.
Prof Narsey also wrote “In 2019-20 some 36 per cent of the iTaukei population were below the Basic Needs Poverty Line, as opposed to (a much smaller) 20 per cent of Indo-Fijians.”       

What changed in the last 20 years? Could it be explained by the oft-repeated reasons as to why there is poverty? A lack of access to government services and infrastructure; lack of opportunity, jobs, and inclusive growth; low incomes; a lack of personal ambition, work ethic and a dependency on handouts; and the impact of climate change.
In the last decade, during the so called “Sayed-Khaiyum-Bainimarama boom era”, the socio-economic situation for the iTaukei deteriorated the most, sending many into poverty. However, as recently as late 2022, Fiji was reporting to the UN that it had delivered the longest stretch of economic growth, rising incomes, an education revolution, 95 per cent mobile connectivity and 96 per cent electrification, a national digital TV platform reaching all population areas, and equal rights for all people.
A common thread and the mantra among the policy elite and leaders during this period was “a person’s ethnicity is of no relevance for the services that a government provides”.
How did the iTaukei come to dominate those caught in poverty, in an environment where equality was the order of the day. Was it by accident or was it by design?

Policy created poverty traps
The purpose of this article is to provide an analysis of some of the policies that would have impacted iTaukei poverty. Answers can be found in deciphering the underlying premise and projecting the behavioural and economic consequences that would emanate from those policies.
We have the benefit of a retrospective analysis, even though those consequences would have been apparent to policy makers when they were designing and implementing the policy initiatives.
If they were not, it calls into question the reliability and robustness of the policy making process then.
If the consequences were known and ignored, it calls into question what was the underlying agenda, knowing that it would create a poverty trap especially for the iTaukei. Were they put in place for political reasons? Of course, some would argue that it was mere coincidence and unrelated.

Education revolution– Case of equal treatment
Education is often seen as one of the best options to lowering poverty and inequities. It lays a platform for continuous economic development, promotes better self-awareness and motivation, and improves the quality of life and resourcefulness of the people.
Investments in education should have helped lift the iTaukei out of poverty, but it did not. Were there policy flaws and built in traps in the much-touted “education revolution “proclaimed by the former prime minister as his “greatest pride”.

Most of the poorly-resourced schools were in the rural areas, especially in the predominantly iTaukei communities. Students from these rural communities had to accept what they were given, and no fundraising could take place to improve their options.
The former government wanted the sole credit for the “education revolution”, where education was free, but remained inherently unequal.
The policy made no accommodation as to whether “high potential students” attending a poorly resourced school would score less than what they could have scored in a better-resourced school.
This “equal treatment” would result in students living in rural areas being placed at a great disadvantage, and would have a major impact on whether they and their communities would fall deeper
into a poverty trap. They potentially would be locked out of the available scholarships and entry into select tertiary education programs, unable to score well while attending a poorly-resourced
Judge Sonia Sotomayer (current Justice on the US Supreme Court) reflecting on equal opportunity (of which she was a beneficiary) and test scores as the basis for entry into higher education said “With my academic achievement in high school, I was accepted rather readily at Princeton and equally as fast at Yale, but my test scores were not comparable to that of my classmates. And that’s been shown by statistics, there are reasons for that”. She has also said “until we get equality in education, we won’t have an equal society”.
Would a policy of “equal treatment” in an inherently unequal system further perpetuate the inequality?
Would it act as a demotivating factor? Would it signal to those in rural schools that no matter how hard they try, they would not be able to achieve, because the unequal education system will
work against them.
If the top students from the rural schools are not good enough to qualify for a scholarship, what hope was there for other less capable students from the rural communities?
Prof Wadan Narsey wrote in 2014 that “awarding of scholarships in select areas based totally on academic merit has meant reduced access to indigenous Fijians in these areas”. The problem and
flaws in the “education revolution” was known, but was largely dismissed by policy leaders.
If equal treatment was to be the policy of choice for scholarships, then the inequality in education should have been corrected as a precondition. This would need upgrading to the same infrastructure and improvement in the quality of teachers in all disadvantaged schools. Communities were not allowed to fundraise in schools to level out the playing field and government was not prepared to, nor able to fund a high-quality level playing field. This created the ideal conditions for a downward trend towards mediocrity rather than excellence.
While the present Minister for Education has repealed the damaging parts of the “education revolution”, there is still much to be done to reverse the negative impacts, and to increase the quality of education.
While the “education revolution” may have helped reduce poverty in one segment of the population, it had the opposite effect on another major segment.

VAT exemption and the NCDs health crisis
The VAT exemption on high GI foods changed dietary habits, decimated the rural agricultural economy, and created a NCDs health crisis that put and kept many iTaukei in poverty.
The exemptions provided the financial inducement and motivated many of the iTaukei to move from traditional foods towards imported high glycemic carbohydrates and foods high in fat, salt
and sugar. People switched from a diet rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals to a diet that is associated with a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart related diseases.
A national NCDs crisis was created. Families and communities would spend significant time and resources caring for those affected.
Current estimates place the cost to the Fijian economy at around $500 million per annum.
Rural subsistence cum commercial farming of traditional foods was hit hard. It discouraged the production of root crops as flour and rice were now a much cheaper subsidised alternative. Economic development in rural communities slowed. Subsistence/commercial production of root crops became less economically viable in the face of competition from the subsidised
VAT exempt foods. Incomes dropped while input costs for subsistence/commercial agriculture remained high and were not subsidised.
A rural-based farming lifestyle quickly became untenable for many.
The decline in the agricultural economy, loss of income and the increasing costs of taking care of those with NCDs helped cement a long-term poverty trap for many in the rural communities.
While opportunities in education gets one out of poverty, poor health brought on by NCDs and the loss of income puts one into poverty. The iTaukei got the short end of the stick on all three.

FBC entry into TV and launch of Walesi
The entry of FBC into television broadcasting funded with substantial government subsidies, grants and preferential treatment, combined with the establishment of the Walesi digital platform,
brought about a major transformation in access to digital entertainment, especially in the rural communities.
Although Walesi was promoted to the public as a means to levelling the playing field in education and internet access, its practical role was providing the backbone to broaden the reach of TV entertainment and sports programming, especially rugby. “It is important for all Fijians to have access to entertainment and the latest news” was the oft repeated stated objective.
The former government also stated that “we are always here to make sure that every Fijian has the kind of access to entertainment and information that they deserve”.
The government grants and preferential treatment enabled FBC TV to power “its way to the number one spot … in record time”, with surveys showing that “74 per cent of Fijians regard FBC as their favourite commercial channel”.
This was done in plain sight of the “independent” Fiji Competition and Consumer Commission.
The competitive structure of the marketplace was unfairly shattered. The incumbent TV station owned by the 14 indigenous provinces was hit hard and was acquired by Fijian Holdings Ltd during
that period.
The former government was able to shape the narrative on both the TV and radio airwaves to suit its own agenda. It did so by providing a heavy dose of entertainment, religion, and sports programming, with a lesser focus on educational and informational nation-building programs.
Television viewing is an alternative to time spent on education, self-improvement and economic activities.
How much of an impact did this have on poverty in the rural communities has not been measured, but it is unlikely that it had a positive impact based on common sense and logic.
How many hours of the 24-hour day was spent watching TV? Medical professionals have generally cautioned that television time for children should be limited because it interferes in their learnings and language development.
While there is definitely a place for entertainment, studies have shown that lower income groups are more receptive to the temptations of television and technological entertainment.
The drop in agricultural productivity, poor educational outcomes  and the rapid increase in poverty in the rural communities would suggest that the rapid and deep penetration of digital television
entertainment and sports programming had negative impacts.
However, it has created a motivating drive for excellence in rugby as a career pathway for many iTaukei youths.

Absence of disaggregated data and policy performance indicators
The former government claimed that ethnicity specific socio-economic data was not collected to track the socio-economic status of the iTaukei. Others speculated that the data was deliberately kept hidden because it would paint a poor picture. Either way, the public was kept in the dark as to how the iTaukei were faring.
The absence of data meant that policy performance indicators would be based on how the process of implementation was carried out, rather than measuring how effective the policies were or the
results that emerged.
Poverty levels amongst the iTaukei were not tracked, until the penny dropped with the release of the original 2019-20 HIES report, showing that the iTaukei comprised 75 per cent of those in
We will not know whether the availability of disaggregated data earlier would have made a difference on the policy front.

Equality v equity Equal treatment or equal opportunity
The former government saw equality as the basis for policy making rather than equality as the destination of a policy initiative.
The policies put in place were more inclined towards equal treatment rather than equal opportunity or equity. “Equity” is more about fairness and justice and is different to equality.
Whereas equality means providing the same to all, equity means recognising that we do not all start from the same place and nor do we all have the same access to resources and opportunities, and
therefore we need to acknowledge and make adjustments to correct the imbalances.
No allowance was made for the imbalance in educational resources available to the majority of iTaukei students compared to others. Likewise, no allowances were made when considering the impact of VAT exemptions on changes it would create in dietary habits that would lead to a rise in NCDs amongst the iTaukei.
The policy elites were more concerned with performance indicators measuring the process of policy implementation, not the effectiveness or results of the policies they helped design and put in
place.  Equality and equal treatment were celebrated over the past 16 years because it enabled those starting off from a better vantage point the opportunity to reap the full benefit. Hence, where
you stand on this issue depends on where you currently sit. Those sitting in an advantageous position, with full access to the media and the corridors of power would more likely promote and support equal treatment rather than equal opportunity. A policy choice was made, and the consequences are clear. The results and increasing poverty in one segment of the population should not have been a surprise.

Leadership and behaviour
While there were structural and institutional issues on poverty that were impacted by the policies, there is also a behavioural aspect that leads to poverty.
Poverty results from the fact that poor people sometimes lack the motivation to work and have certain beliefs and values that contribute to their poverty. If you can raise the motivation and hopes,
and put in a clear pathway out of poverty, you can reduce poverty.
On the flip side if you can lower the motivation to work, lower the rewards for work, and change the values and beliefs as to what is important, you can keep people trapped in poverty.
The polices on VAT, education reform, equal distribution of lease monies, and TV access and programming have all contributed to a change in values, beliefs and behaviour.
It was a perfect storm of flawed policy formulation and process-based evaluations and measurements that created a poverty trap for the iTaukei and rural communities.
The iTaukei had their voices taken away, their traditional leadership structure dismantled, and their cries for information and data shouted down by accusations of racism.
When we look at the possible consequences of the dismantling of the GCC from a management and policy perspective, we need to ask; how important is leadership in mobilising the communal group and resources in socio-economic development? Did it impact on the community’s collective drive to improve their socio-economic wellbeing? Did it fracture the collective economic interest of the group and weaken the community focus on poverty reduction?

Where to from here?
Some have said the iTaukei should not be in poverty because they have ownership of the land.
However, they do not have full access to the other resources that are needed to extract the full value from the land.
On the other hand, those who do not have ownership of the land, but have other resources have managed to put policies in place to ensure they have access to the
land. Pride of ownership is not enough if you do not have the keys to open the door.
Therein lies a real conundrum in policy formulation. Which of these two initiatives have precedence and equity: accelerate the development of the iTaukei, improve their skill sets, and address the lack of other needed resources, or accelerate and improve the access to the land resources for others. Do you prioritise or try to do both with equal or varying levels of intensity?
The answer can be found in understanding what is the “real underlying economic philosophy” of government. Not just what is said, but rather what are the deeply held beliefs, values and motivations that are imbedded in the minds, and that which drives the leadership.
We can take lessons from the world of business. “The purpose of business” Peter Drucker said, “is to create and keep a customer”.
This understanding, simple as it is, has had a profound impact on management, marketing and business thinking. It has shaped business strategies and practices the world over.
Likewise, clarity in understanding “what is the purpose of government”, especially for a small developing economy like Fiji, will determine how well we perform as a nation. It will determine the
choices we make! It will determine how policies are formulated, executed and measured. It will determine how we marshal our resources, focus our efforts and leverage our alliances. It will determine whether prosperity is for the few or for the many. It will determine whether we create a rising tide of economic activity across the board all along the food chain from the bottom up, or whether we create a trickle-down economy from the top down, that trickles very slowly, with only a few at the top of the food chain benefitting substantially with special concessions, tax exemptions, and incentives.
Finally, the strategy to reverse the poverty trends in the iTaukei communities requires a full and candid discussion of the issues, an openness and willingness to face up to the hard truths, an honest and pragmatic approach to policy formulation, the courage of conviction to follow through on policy execution, and the confidence to take stock of the results and adjust accordingly. Alternatively, we can continue to skirt around the edges and just hope for the best because the people are resilient and have gone through worse.

 ROBERT LEE played a key role on the committee that designed and implemented VAT and was also a member of the post implementation review panel. He has worked and consulted extensively in the strategy and policy area. He holds postgraduate degrees from Northwestern and Harvard University where he was a Fulbright Scholar. He is a sometime resident in Fiji and can be reached at robertleefiji@gmail.com

More Stories