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Poverty in the Marshall IslandsThe Republic of the Marshall Islands is an island country in the Pacific Ocean consisting of more than 1,200 islands and islets. The Marshall Islands borders Wake Island, Kiribati, Nauru and Micronesia and are home to nearly 60,000 residents. Most of the Marshallese population lives in densely populated areas in Kwajalein and Majuro, the denominal capital city. Some residents living on the outer islands depend on fishing, raising livestock and subsistence farming to survive. However, the country’s primary sources of employment and revenue come from U.S. subsidies under the Compacts of Free Association (COFA). As well as land leasing for U.S. missile testing. As a result, many still live in poverty in the Marshall Islands.

Causes of Poverty in the Marshall Islands

For the Marshall Islands, a major cause of poverty has been the U.S. government’s activity in Kwajalein. The U.S. military performed extensive nuclear testing in the region between 1946 and 1958. This has caused radioactive damage to the region equivalent to “1.7 Hiroshima blasts every day for 12 years”. The resulting fallout of the Ronald Reagan Missile Testing Site displaced many Marshallese residents living on nearby islands to Ebeye. Despite relocating to Ebeye, many hope to find commuter jobs on Kwajalein island.
The unemployment rate in the islands has been as high as 40% as a result of such dependence on U.S. government jobs. The lack of gainful employment on-island has led to a shortage of skilled workers. Furthermore, the island has issues with tuberculosis and infectious diseases in addition to the lack of food security and pervasive poverty.

Changing Weather Conditions Have Impacted the Marshall Islands

According to NewsHour’s Mike Tabbi and Dr. Hilda Hilne, the president of the Marshall Islands, climate change has further exacerbated the shortage of skilled workers. As Mike Taibbi explains, “Climate change is a big issue here, […] punishing king tides combined with persistent drought have wreaked havoc on dwindling freshwater supplies. The view among climate experts […] is that the islands are sinking, if not disappearing.”
Dr. Hilne fears that the rising tides and disappearing land combined with the high unemployment rates will continue the mass exodus. Given that more residents are leaving in search of education and employment opportunities in the U.S. She says, “People are looking for better things, and they think that anything in the United States is better than what we have here.” The troubling emigration rate means fewer educated and skilled workers to help those who stay face the mounting pressure from pervasive poverty.

Poverty and the Marshallese Youth

Poverty in the Marshall Islands has had dramatic effects on the Marshallese youth. According to UNICEF’s 2017 report, more than one-third of children under five showed signs of stunted development. This results from extreme poverty and malnutrition. Such poverty and malnutrition at a young age have drastic effects on a child’s learning and development. This will impair their earning potential and the ability to escape poverty in the future.
The World Bank is working in partnership with the U.S. International Development Association (IDA), UNICEF and the Marshallese government to address poverty through its 2019 Early Childhood Development Project. The initiative hopes to alleviate some of the strain on impoverished Marshallese families by funding social programs. For instance, healthcare, nutrition and education services for children in their first 1,000 days of life. The project hopes that providing support for Marshallese residents at such a young age will give them a better chance at living healthy, educated lives essential to escaping the cycle of poverty in the Marshall Islands.
As of 2020, the U.S. government provides roughly $74 million in funding to help alleviate poverty in the Marshall Islands, predominantly through the countries’ COFA. However, more than half of this funding goes to general budget support for the Marshallese government. Only $20 million is committed to education and $10 million to Marshallese healthcare. The government will need further assistance as well as new sources of revenue and employment to keep its people in the islands and out of poverty.
Andrew Giang
Photo: Flickr

Poverty in Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands are an island country in the Pacific Ocean consisting of 29 atolls and five islands. The atolls and islands form two approximately parallel chains: the Ratak (sunrise) and the Ralik (sunset). Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands lies in the Ratak Chain in the East. The population of the Marshall Islands was 52,993 in 2015.

Before its independence in 1986, the Marshall Islands had been under the governance by Spain, Germany, Japan and the United States. The agreement that granted the Republic of the Marshall Islands its sovereignty — the Compact of Free Association (COFA) — allows Marshallese individuals to easily relocate to the United States and obtain work there. About one-third of the population has relocated to the United States, and more than 120,000 Marshallese live in northwest Arkansas and nearby places.

Poverty in the Marshall Islands

Poverty in the Marshall Islands is an urgent concern because of scarce natural resources, high unemployment rates and wealth inequality.

In the Marshall Islands, only 39.3% of the population aged 15 years and above is employed. For every one thousand babies born, 30 die before their birthday — the fourth highest in the Pacific region.

Wealth inequality and poverty in the Marshall Islands are also significant. The Ebeye city, the second-largest city in the Marshall Islands, is also known as the “Slum of the Pacific.” With a land area of 0.14 square miles, it has a population of about 12,000. This city is extremely overpopulated, outranking New York in the number of people living per square mile.

The Marshall Islands comprise about 750,000 square miles of ocean but only about 70 square miles of landmass. Even though people in Ebeye are surrounded by nothing but water, one of their major daily tasks is to search for clean water. Ebeye is badly polluted, and family members take turns sleeping because of the lack of land and money for housing. Constant floods threaten people’s homes and their possessions. However, a mere 30-minute boat ride away lies the Kwajalein atoll, which the U.S. army rents for the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. In this American middle-class neighborhood, scenes usually include people drinking cocktails and dancing in the warm Pacific breeze, while many of the neighboring islanders live on less than $1 a day.

Massive Nuclear Testing

The Marshall Islands were the testing site for the U.S. of their nuclear bombs during the Cold War. From 1946 to 1958, a series of 23 nuclear devices were tested in these islands. One of the bombs, Castle Bravo, which was a newly designed dry fuel thermonuclear hydrogen bomb, was denoted on an early morning in March 1954. It was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.

Two atolls were destroyed because of the series of nuclear testing. In 1956, the United States Atomic Energy Commission regarded the Marshall Islands as “by far the most contaminated place in the world.” Before the United States conducted its first test in the Marshall Islands in 1946, there were 167 people living on Bikini Atoll, and thousands living on nearby atolls. The Marshallese living on Bikini Atoll were displaced twice because of the testing, but the ongoing nuclear radiation has been causing long-lasting health problems for both the people and the environment — 40 years after the testing, studies still showed that “eating locally grown produce, such as fruit, could add significant radioactivity to the body.”

Climate Change

Floods and droughts are destroying the “islander lives” of the Marshallese. States of Emergency were declared when waves as high as three feet hit the cities and for droughts leaving six thousand people surviving on less than one liter of water per day in 2008 and 2013. If global temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Marshall Islands may disappear. The Marshall Islands are some of the most vulnerable islands to the effects of climate change.

US Foreign Aid & Military Agreement

Direct U.S. aid accounts for 61.3% of the Marshall Islands’ $137.4 million budget for the fiscal year 2010. Under terms of the Amended Compact of Free Association, the U.S. is committed to providing approximately $70 million through 2023, including contributions to a jointly managed trust fund by the U.S. and the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands are renting the Kwajalein Atoll to the US Army, and their national defense is largely dependent on the U.S. On the flip side, the U.S. is benefiting from its unique and strategically important position in the Pacific Ocean.

Reducing Poverty

Forty percent of the total population in the Marshall Islands were under 15 years old in 2011 census, and 14% were under 5 years old. These young people can be great assets if provided good education and development, and they are the primary focus when fighting to reduce poverty in the Marshall Islands.

Helen Yu Tang

Photo: Flickr