Picture Pacific Island life and idyllic, sultry afternoons come to mind. But the reality is that for many living on these small, dispersed island nations, life is hard, particularly when it comes to making ends meet.

“Due to the isolated nature of these islands, it’s very difficult for people who live in rural areas to come to urban areas where banks have branches,” explains Haoliang Xu, Assistant Secretary General of the UN and Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and Pacific, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This means that they struggle to save money.

Xu tells GovInsider how UNDP is using tech to reach out to rural, ‘unbanked’ Pacific Islanders – and changing their lives.

Getting financial services to the islands

Xu and his team tried two methods to get financial services to the unbanked. First, they created a mobile payments network, with mini-kiosks providing support in post offices and community stores. “Over the last five years, we connected more than one million unbanked to banking services through mom-and-pop shops, through really low- or no-cost bank services,” Xu explains.

In Fiji, the locally-owned bank launched a financial inclusion scheme in March, allowing customers to carry out transactions via mobile or through POS machines available in more than 1,000 outlets across the country.

Second, they worked with local governments and central banks to tweak regulations so that private banks could offer free checking accounts to people living in the rural areas of these islands, he explains.

Sustainable development in three words

As nations develop, it falls to the government to ensure that no one gets left behind. “In ASEAN, extreme poverty is now single-digit, but there still a lot of inequality,” Xu notes. “There is a lot of dissatisfaction that breeds instability.”

Governments must develop sustainable policies that preserve the planet for future generations, he notes, and they should also boost resilience in their cities and communities. “A single disaster event can wipe out decades’ worth of development,” Xu points out.

Governments should build “early warning systems”, which could go a long way towards reducing loss of life, he says. “You can work on building awareness about self-preservation among school children, so that they can better respond to disasters,” Xu suggests.

Governments must also invest in response and search-and-rescue capacities, preparing for extreme weather events, and exchanging knowledge and experience on an international level, he adds.

These actions are all set out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which set out core aims to be achieved by 2030.

Financial inclusion is just one of those actions. And for people on islands such as Fiji, small tweaks and techniques could make a fundamental difference.