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Reunion, an Indian Ocean island and overseas department of France, is a small and ethnically diverse nation.  However, Reunion’s dominant sugarcane industry results in poorly-distributed prosperity. As a result, poverty in Reunion affects its 840,000 inhabitants disproportionately.

While striking volcanic activity and frequent shark attacks lend the island fame, everyday activity in the country depends on agricultural exports and tourism.

When assessing poverty in Reunion, social gaps between economic groups and higher poverty among minorities are prevalent issues.

The resulting social tensions have manifested through riots and other demonstrations in recent decades, particularly the 1990’s.

However, groups like All Together in Dignity Fourth World have made progress. Aid organizations create youth groups, cultural activities and human rights support. Consequently, they help bridge the gap between economic and social incorporation for impoverished groups.

6 Things to Know About Poverty in Reunion

  1. Much of the population lives near or below poverty line. While conclusive data remains difficult to locate for the small country, by some estimates, nearly 50 percent of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. Minority groups face particular disadvantages. Young people are also more likely to face poverty due to the growing number of 15-25 year olds competing for scarce employment.
  2. 60 percent of the population receives welfare benefits. For many inhabitants of the island, state welfare benefits remain crucial to their wellbeing. High unemployment rates force over half of the population to utilize these programs.
  3. Low employment rates are a cause of concern for the young population. Due to high birth rates and low death rates, Reunion is home to a large young population. Unemployment is therefore a large issue: in 2013, the overall unemployment rate was 29.6 percent. As a result, the government has worked with other organizations to establish programs that will integrate individuals into the workforce. These programs can include assisted contracts and other specific measures. This is especially important because 26 percent of Reunion’s population is under the age of 15 and will soon enter the workforce.
  4. Education is affected by drop-out rates and brain drain. Reunion’s education problems only contribute to the unemployment and poverty issues. After the age of 16, school is no longer mandatory for Reunion’s students. Only 84 percent of students remain in school past this point: a rate much lower than France’s 93 percent. As of 2009, 15 percent of 16-35 year old inhabitants in Reunion were illiterate. Brain drain also affects the education level of the country’s workforce. It is not uncommon for 35-40 percent of island-born residents with tertiary education to move to mainland France.
  5. Tensions often amount to riots. In 2012, a four-day series of riots spread through half of Reunion, sparked by discontent with the cost of living and lack of affordable petrol. These demonstrations are not uncommon on the island. A combination of social and economic unrest has led to rioting several times before, most notably 1991 and 2009.
  6. Wage gaps perpetuate inequality. The disparity between wages felt by various classes causes much of the social tension and rioting. Minimum-wage workers in Reunion make 10 percent less than those in mainland France. Caucasian and Indian residents tend to be notably wealthier than residents of African descent. In addition, French immigrants typically hold the high-ranking administrative positions. Closer assessment of socioeconomic trends in Reunion reveals inequality stemming from a variety of causes.

Understanding the role of ethnicity, education background and wage division provides a platform for assessing poverty in Reunion. With increased awareness of these factors and foundational support for ameliorating inequality, the potential for progress will only grow.

Charlotte Bellomy

Photo: CTV News