Over the month of July, the US government, through USAID and the US embassy, supported various projects to encourage COVID-19 economic and social recovery in Pacific Islands Countries (PICs) represented by the U.S. Embassy in Suva—Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu. COVID-19 impacted PICs in downstream ways beyond public health; importantly, border closures triggered significant economic costs and supply chain stagnation that contributed to rising sovereign debt. For instance, in 2020, Fiji’s economic growth contracted by 19%—among the worst downturns in the world.
To date, all of the countries represented by the US Embassy in Fiji have received US vaccine donations through COVAX. On July 15, USAID and UNICEF announced a $1.5 million partnership to further support vaccine diplomacy and encourage COVID-19 response preparedness in the Pacific Islands. The $1.5 million assistance will focus on increased readiness, delivery, and monitoring of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, as well as support effective public messaging around vaccinations. Following the announcement, on July 16, the US donated an additional 150,080 Moderna vaccine doses to Fiji.
To revitalize Fiji’s economy and combat the surge in unemployment, USAID announced an 840,000 grant to the Fiji-based Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development (FRIEND) on July 8. The monetary support comes from USAID’s Pacific American Fund, a $35 million five-year grant designed to address development priorities in the Pacific region through sub-grants to civil society organizations. The importance of the Pacific American Fund has increased in the midst of COVID-19 as PICs seek to mitigate development backsliding. The FRIEND grant will focus on vulnerable communities in Fiji’s tourism belt; it will encourage Fijian economic recovery by providing alternative livelihoods training and mentorship for those previously employed by the tourism industry. It is expected to benefit close to 2,300 families in Fiji.
On July 19, the U.S. Embassy Suva announced a grassroots economic recovery grant proposal program in Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu. The initiative, which will measure up to USD $40,000 per grant, will be rewarded to innovative grassroots proposals to support local communities. Economic recovery at the grant level enhances civil society organizations in their ability to support local entrepreneurship and promote self-sufficiency. As local organizations and associations find creative solutions to the economic adversities caused by the pandemic, PICs will be able to better focus on redeveloping tourism, bolstering cross-country exchange, and deepening trade engagement with the United States.
For small countries like the Pacific Island nations, successfully navigating the international community and accomplishing regional priorities requires looking to their traditional partners who understand their needs, interests, and concerns. The efforts on the part of the US government reflect the need for a multi-sectorial approach to COVID-19 recovery that addresses social and economic uncertainty along with public health. While vaccine diplomacy helps encourage modernization and resilience in the healthcare sector, grassroots engagement emphasizes democratic civil society and fosters growth that is sustainable and tailored to the on-the-ground needs of the community.
Sophie Glenn is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service concentrating in Regional and Comparative Studies—Southeast Asia.