Tuvalu is a Polynesian micro-state, formerly known as the Ellice Islands, comprising nine dispersed, low lying islets and atolls in the South Pacific Ocean. At 26 sq. km, it is one of the smallest and most isolated countries in the world. Formerly a British colony that included the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati), Tuvalu achieved independence in 1978. More than half of Tuvalu’s 11,646 population (World Bank, 2019) live on Funafuti, the main island. The remaining islands are sparsely populated and some reefs are inaccessible to large boats.
Poverty has increased in the last decade, particularly in urban areas. Tuvalu is classified as a Least Developed Country (LDC), but has met the threshold for graduation to developing country status based on its human development indicators and high per capita income. Tuvalu has requested a postponement to its LDC graduation because of extreme economic exposure and the immediate threat of climate change and natural disasters.
Tuvalu has few exports and depends on revenues from fishing license fees, overseas remittances, dividends from the Tuvalu Trust Fund, and income from rent of the “dot tv” Internet extension. Around three quarters of the labour force works in the informal economy, primarily subsistence farming and fishing. Most of the islands are built on coral and are not suitable for crop production beyond household needs. Underemployment, particularly of young people, is fuelling urbanisation of the capital, Funafuti.
Life expectancy and adult literacy are comparatively high for the region. Tuvalu has achieved gender parity in primary education although there is some concern that fewer boys are accessing secondary and tertiary education levels. During periods of drought, water security is a critical health issue in Tuvalu.
Due to its low-lying geography, Tuvalu is at acute risk from natural disasters, including rising storm surges, cyclones, and tsunamis. Seawater infiltration has already increased soil salinity, limiting the range of plants that can be grown on the islands. Increased water temperatures and ocean acidification have affected coral ecosystems that serve as fish nurseries, making it harder for Tuvaluans to catch and eat fish.
Tuvalu has a mixed record on promoting gender equality, despite ratifying The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Women’s participation in the paid labour market is increasing, including a high number of women in the public service. Women’s political participation is limited, with one woman national Member of Parliament. Almost half of women report experiencing some form of gender-based violence.
UN presence in Tuvalu
The UN has been present in Tuvalu since 2000, with 18 agencies implementing programs: FAO, IAEA, IFAD, ILO, IOM, UNCTAD, UNDF, UNDP, UN Environment, UNESCAP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UN-Habitat, UNICEF, UNISDR, UNOCHA, UN Women, WFP, WHO and WMO.
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 Tuvalu, 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 Tuvalu Te Kakeega III National Strategy for Sustainable Development; particularly in the areas of environment and natural resource management, economic growth and stability, migration and urbanisation, education, and governance.
Tuvalu remains one of only 10 countries globally with no confirmed cases of COVID-19. A national State of Emergency was declared by the Tuvalu government on 20 March 2020, in place until 26 September 2020. Emergency regulations impose strict penalties for spreading misinformation. Schools were closed and there were restrictions on public gatherings for three months. Tuvalu is currently operating at a ‘level 2’ alert. International flights are suspended and borders remain closed to all vessels, except for delivery of essential supplies. There have been significant impacts for businesses, with the Tuvalu government announcing an economic relief stimulus package in response.
The UN’s system-wide and multi-sectoral approach provides a coordinated and comprehensive response that complements the Tuvalu government’s COVID-19 Talaaliki 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 Tuvalu 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 15 testing kits and 9,999 pieces of PPE. Further supplies are being procured through the global COVID-19 Supply Chain System established by the UN Secretary-General’s Supply Chain Task Force. WHO deployed four technical officers to support surveillance strengthening and case management, and trained four medical professionals on Medical Certification of Causes of Death for COVID-19.
- Humanitarian response: address immediate multi-sectoral needs Under the Pacific Humanitarian Response Plan the UN is supporting Tuvalu to respond to urgent humanitarian needs of those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Priority needs in Tuvalu include education, food security and livelihoods, safe water and sanitation, and protecting women and girls at increased risk of gender-based violence. UNICEF provided essential nutritional supplements to 1,100 children, and 60 pregnant and lactating women, and reached 7,475 people with awareness-raising messages and resources on COVID-19 and child protection.
- Socio-economic response: address immediate social and economic impact The UN reprogrammed US$882,000 (13%) of programs and activities from a total of US$6.9 million from the 2020 UN Tuvalu Joint Country Action Plan to increase support for the response to COVID-19, in consultation with the Tuvalu government. A planned socio-economic impact assessment will identify vulnerabilities in Tonga 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 Tuvalu by September 2020. FAO and IOM received US$300,000 from the UN Secretary General’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund to support communities in Funafuti and outer islands with food security and infrastructure preparedness.