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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center

With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Researches Study Vulnerability, Resiliency In Vanuatu
Traditional support structures critical during tough times

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Vanuatu Daily Post, Feb. 11, 2013) – Researchers Simon Feeny and Alberto Posso (RMIT University, Melbourne) and Lachlan McDonald and Jaclyn Donahue (Oxfam Australia) provides some details on the results of a research project they are currently working -investigating the vulnerability and resilience of households to global economic events including the rising food and fuel prices and the Global Economic Crisis.

In addition to being classified as the happiest country in the world, Vanuatu has been judged as one of the most vulnerable. It is vulnerable to ‘shocks’ such as natural disasters as well as to changes in the demand for its goods and services and the prices it pays for imports.

Recent hikes in the prices of food and fuel as well as the Global Economic Crisis (GEC) are examples of such economic shocks. Some organisations have monitored the impacts of these events on the economy, for example, documenting how they have impacted on economic growth and government revenues. However, far less is known about how these shocks have impacted on the lives of Melanesian households.

Two years ago, researchers from RMIT University and Deakin University in Australia as well as Oxfam Australia and the University of the South Pacific (USP) surveyed households in both rural and urban communities across the country, including in Efate, Santo, Pentecost and The Banks Islands.

Currently, researchers are revisiting some of these communities. The objective of their research is to understand how households have been affected by higher food and fuel prices as well as how they respond when they experience such shocks. The research is funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).

The research team has found that higher food and fuel prices have led to almost all households finding it increasingly difficult to pay for other essentials such as school fees and health services. As a result, households have responded by sourcing more food from their gardens and the reef, as well as by increasing their income from the sale of food and other agricultural products in nearby markets. It is also common for households to purchase cheaper and often lower quality food.

Moreover, the findings from the research suggest that during difficult times, reliance on traditional support structures, such as friends, neighbours and wantoks, remains particularly important. It also reports on the important role of women who provide a crucial safety net in Melanesian communities; being primarily responsible for the wellbeing of people in their own households as well as selling things in local markets when immediate cash is required.

On account of these responsibilities, women are bearing a substantial burden of the adjustment to the impact of shocks, including consuming less food, working more and travelling less. Information from focus groups also showed that shocks put additional pressures on family structures, resulting in an increase in violence against women, exacerbating one of the most pressing social problems in the country.

The findings of the study highlight a number of policy implications.

Access to markets, for example, is evidently necessary for people to be able to sell their products in times of need. Moreover, people with higher levels of education encounter additional opportunities to deal with adverse shocks during difficult times. Improving access to gardens and financial services should also assist in providing households with resilience when shocks occur.

In addition, by shedding light on the link between economic shocks and women’s hardship (including the risk of violence) it is hoped that this research can make a meaningful contribution to improving the delivery of social services in Vanuatu, in particular to women.

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