Fiji's initial closure of borders allowed the country to keep the COVID-19 virus at bay, a significant accomplishment by any measure, but at a significant economic cost. The development of the last few weeks in Fiji and several countries across East Asia Pacific have not only shown how quickly those early hard-won gains can be reversed but also the heavy toll the virus can take on the macroeconomic situation and the importance of cushioning the most vulnerable against the worst impacts of the pandemic.
According to the World Bank’s most recent East Asia and Pacific Economic Update, Fiji’s economic growth contracted by 19 percent in 2020; one of the worst downturns in growth in the world, and the most severe in the country’s history.
As Fiji battles these unprecedented challenges, this year marks 50 years since the country formally joined the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) – World Bank in 1971.
It is a partnership that began with the World Bank’s funding of the design and construction of the first 67 miles of the Queens Road between Suva and Nadi. That project connected communities to markets, to health care services and schools and created jobs the benefits of which are still being seen today. In 1972, the World Bank-funded its first telecommunications project with the expansion of telephone services to rural areas and connecting the two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. This was just the beginning.
Five years ago, we opened our first office in Suva at Ra Marama House and established the first-ever presence in Fiji, and in 2019 we expanded to our new home at the My FNPF Centre Building, which is now a thriving hub for the South Pacific with 35 staff working across the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), of whom more than half are women, and 24 are Fijian nationals. The World Bank is now better positioned than ever before to tailor support and assistance to Fiji as it seeks to recover from the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year we helped Fiji become the first small island developing state in the world to sign an Emission Reductions Payment Agreement with the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility – meaning Fiji can both protect its beautiful forests while also benefitting from the global carbon market.
And we have supported emergency response efforts in the aftermath of tropical cyclones that have hit the country in recent years.
With recent spikes in the number of COVID-19 cases in Fiji, communities will be facing increased inequalities, exacerbated by climate-related emergencies – like tropical cyclones Harold and Yasa last year – as well as unequal access to social assistance. However, Fiji has proven time and time again that while it may be a small island developing state; it is also resilient, resourceful, and does not stand alone.
On top of funding for the urgent COV- ID-19 response – which is delivering medical equipment, test kits PPE for health workers, as well as inflection control supplies – we have already announced funding of more than FJ$400 million for Fiji as part of our new four-year work plan for Fiji that will be critical to Fiji’s resilient recovery. This includes funding approved through the Fiji Social Protection COVID-19 Response and System Development Project, which improves access to social assistance services and delivers cash transfers through the Fiji National Provident Fund for those who have lost their jobs or have had their working hours reduced as a result of COVID-19.
Additional funding was also provided to support Fiji’s resilient recovery from the impacts of COVID-19 and cyclones Harold and Yasa. This will not only boost Fiji’s recovery but it will also build economic, social, and climate resilience with a commitment to improving Fiji’s debt and public financial management; create opportunities for women in male-dominated sectors; facilitate private sector-led growth, and support a new Social Assistance Policy for Fiji to ensure more of the most vulnerable families in Fiji can get assistance when they need it the most. Importantly, much of this support is made possible due to Fiji’s inclusion in the Small Island Economies Exception, which grants the country access to IDA resources on the most concessional terms offered by the World Bank.
It also allows Fiji to draw on concessional financing from windows such as the Crisis Response Window.
In the past 50 years, Fiji has managed to overcome many extraordinary obstacles and has bounced back from other economic shocks stronger than ever. At the World Bank, we consider ourselves proud partners for Fiji in overcoming those obstacles.
While the road to recovery is challenging, our entire team in Suva, Sydney, Washington, and beyond is committed to standing alongside Fiji as it navigates its way in a post-pandemic world.
Originally published as an op-ed on The Fiji Times.