The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is an equatorial nation of 29 scattered coral atolls and five islands in the Central Pacific Ocean. RMI is a former Trust Territory of the Pacific under United States Administration. Since 1986, the relationship between the two countries has been defined by the Compact of Free Association whereby the U.S. provides annual payments and defence in exchange for continued U.S. military use of the Kwajalein Atoll.
The legacy of U.S nuclear testing in RMI has adversely affected human security, public health, and environmental safety and caused the loss of customary land and cultural heritage. RMI is highly urbanised with around three quarters of the country’s 58,791 people (World Bank, 2019) resident in the two urban centres of the capital Majuro and Ebeye, the most densely populated island in the Pacific.
There is incomplete analysis of hardship, but basic needs poverty and hunger is rising. The young urban poor are among the most marginalised with dependence on the cash economy, but fewer social welfare protections. The economy is weak and highly reliant on development assistance. RMI’s rapid population growth and the contamination of its natural environment have made subsistence farming and fishing unviable for the vast majority of Marshallese. The UN has been present in RMI since 1984, with 11 agencies implementing programs: IOM, ILO, UNDP, UNESCAP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNISDR, UNOCHA, UNODC, UN Women and WHO.
Development goals and objectives
The United Nations Pacific Strategy (UNPS) 2018-2022 is a five year strategic framework that outlines the collective response of the UN system to the development priorities in 14 Pacific Island countries and territories, including RMI, and supports governments and peoples in the Pacific to advance a localised response to the global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The UNPS complements the National Strategic Plan 2015-2017 (NSP) – Republic of Marshall Islands – “In our hands, our future”; particularly in the areas of environment and natural resource management, climate change, resilience, governance, economic and infrastructure development, social development, and governance.
RMI remains one of only 10 countries globally with no confirmed cases of COVID-19. A national State of Health Emergency was declared by the RMI government on 7 February 2020. RMI is currently operating at a ‘level 4’ or ‘yellow’ alert. Schools were closed for several weeks with some restrictions on public gatherings. There has been a significant impact on the economy, particularly tourism and fisheries. International flights are reduced; only outbound and domestic flights remain operational. Repatriation flights for stranded citizens have commenced.
The UN’s system-wide and multi-sectoral approach provides a coordinated and comprehensive response that complements the RMI government’s COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan through three targeted components.
- Health response: stop virus transmission and care for affected people Guided by the regional Joint Incident Management Team; the UN, led by WHO, is supporting RMI to prepare for COVID-19 identification, mitigation and containment including: technical assistance to government partners, procurement of medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE), capacity building of healthcare staff, and risk communications and community engagement. WHO and UNICEF procured four GeneXpert machines, 30 testing kits and 19,285 pieces of PPE. Further supplies are being procured through global COVID-19 Supply Chain System established by the UN Secretary-General’s Supply Chain Task Force. WHO deployed two technical officers to support infection and prevention control and case management. IOM supported the installation of one shower room in the airport lounge quarantine facility in Majuro. IOM reached more than 5,000 people with COVID-19 messages through 20 community billboards, risk communications materials, three videos and two radio campaigns.
- Humanitarian response: address immediate multi-sectoral needs Under the Pacific Humanitarian Response Plan the UN is supporting RMI to respond to urgent humanitarian needs of those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Priority needs in RMI include education, food security and livelihoods, safe water and sanitation, and protecting women and girls at increased risk of gender-based violence. IOM and UNICEF supported a rapid vulnerability assessment reaching 2,750 households in Majuro and 750 households in Ebeye. IOM, in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, provided 400 people with Private Sector Toolkit training and advice. IOM, in partnership with the National Emergency Operations Centre, supported 10 women entrepreneurs to improve their livelihoods. IOM also strengthened the capacity of 12 Division of Immigration staff by facilitating training on managing ill travellers with COVID-19 and distributing two VHF radios, 30 lifejackets, 30 rain jackets and 30 work gloves to maritime surveillance officers.
- Socio-economic response: address immediate social and economic impact The UN reprogrammed US$6.3 million (41%) of programs and activities from a total of US$15.5 million from the 2020 UN RMI Joint Country Action Plan to increase support for the response to COVID-19, in consultation with the RMI government. A planned socio-economic impact assessment will identify vulnerabilities in RMI across five pillars of the UN Framework for the Immediate Socio-Economic Response to COVID-19 to guide response plans for the next 12-18 months; including health, social protection and basic services, economic recovery, macroeconomic response and multilateral collaboration. A regional report will be completed for RMI by September 2020.