Expanding social safety nets

President Hilda Heine during the three-day Cabinet-sponsored three-day consultation with all government ministries and agencies. Photo: Kalani Nii.

GIFF JOHNSON

President Hilda Heine remains focused on social protection programs for the Marshall Islands population. Continuing the theme that guided her first term in office, the President and her new government is focused on a series of initiatives to fill gaps that currently leave segments of the population in difficult circumstances.

“We are getting the World Bank to look at our social protection system to see if there are any holes,” President Heine said in an interview with the Journal last week.

In the meantime, President Heine highlighted some of the social protection initiatives that are moving ahead:

  • The non-contributor social protection bill that was passed last year is in progress of implementation with the aim to roll it out October 1. This new system, which will be administered by MISSA, will provide a monthly stipend to retirement age Marshallese and people of any age who are disabled, even though they have never contributed taxes to the retirement system. The government needs to set aside funding to support this program for the upcoming fiscal year. “The process (for establishing the new system) could delay implementation but we are ensuring that it moves forward,” she said.

Heine made the point that many people who are disabled “have nothing to support themselves with. We want to make sure we are leaving no one behind.”

  • The Early Childhood Development program, that Heine engaged the World Bank to support during her first term, will continue. But, she added, “we need reassess it at some point” to ensure implementation is meeting the expectations established for the program.
  • The universal basic income program, that the government also hopes to roll out by October 1, the start of the new fiscal year. “We can only do so much with wages,” Heine said, in reference to the announced government plan to incrementally raise the minimum wage. “It’s still not enough and when we increase the minimum wage there are other consequences. In the meantime, people are suffering.”

The universal basic income program, which the government plans to fund using Compact trust fund money, “will go a long way to shoring up families,” the President said. “It will bump up their standard of living by helping with everyday needs.” She said this will really help citizens here in RMI. The universal basic income program is targeted to citizens residing in RMI and legislation will be introduced to move the plan ahead. While some political leaders want it to include Marshallese in the US, the president made the point that “the new Compact provides assistance” for Marshallese living in the US.

  • In a new development, the President said the country “needs to look at how well we are taking care of our children.” The ECD program is for children under five years of age. “We don’t have a good sense of how we’re doing in the five-to-18 age group,” she said, adding that she wants to evaluate the situation of young people in this age group “to get a better understanding to target assistance.”

What worries Heine? “What I see is kids not in school,” she said. “It worries me, not being in school. It’s an area that needs attention.”

All of these initiatives are feeding into the Heine administration’s developing Agenda 2030. The consultation held with RMI ministries and agencies late last month fed information to the President and Cabinet that is being used to develop the plan of action that is in the process of being drafted.

Heine said the new Agenda 2030 will be introduced to Nitijela in the August for endorsement. “It’s a good opportunity to take a look at where we’re at and where we want to be by 2030,” she said.

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