30 May 2009

'A pattern of islands'

By Marguerite Finn

For anyone who has had enough of the credit crunch, the arrogance of the banking fraternity and the 'snouts in the trough' culture, let me tell you about another island community – The Republic of Kiribati - where they have approached things differently. Yet the problems facing this small nation are almost identical to those facing Britain and other countries – rising sea levels, over-crowding, youth unemployment, pressure on natural resources – making Kiribati a world in miniature.

What is different about Kiribati (intriguingly pronounced 'Kiribass') is their philosophical and forward-looking approach to these challenges.

Kiribati consists of 33 tiny atolls scattered across 3 million sq km of the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, they form the social and political basis of a democratic nation-state, with a single language and common culture. The traditional lifestyle of Kiribati is one of openness and community involvement. The community supports its members. Individuals are expected to abide by community values of equity, sharing and support for those in need. It is expected that one member of the community would not rise above the others in terms of material possessions. The needs of the community are placed above the needs of the individual. It is a lifestyle of reciprocal exchange. Primary education is compulsory and free. The population is young and growing by 2.5 percent a year – one of the highest growth rates in the South Pacific region. It currently stands at 112,850.

But the people of Kiribati face grave problems. Climate change is affecting the islands through rising sea levels and the loss of low-lying land to saltwater inundation. Severe storms cause damage to crops and infrastructure. Longer periods of drought are becoming normal. Fresh water is contaminated, staple crops are more difficult to grow, fish stocks are reducing and coconut palms are dying from saltwater intrusion. Within a few decades, the entire population of the islands may need to be removed.

The government is grappling with the complex question of whether to focus its scarce resources on fighting back the rising seas or beginning the process of relocation. This is a huge dilemma: how to find host countries to take the immigrants and to ensure that they do not sink to the bottom of the pile, losing their self-respect and their culture.

In the best I-Kiribati paternal tradition, President Anote Tong is leading a move towards maximum education for all his people – seeing this as giving them the best equipment for the nation’s demise and their personal futures. He said the time had come for countries to begin admitting the people of Kiribati. He explained: "I don't want my people to be called refugees – but rather immigrants who have the capacity to work on any standard skills for any jobs required in their new homes."

However, such a plan requires funding and one of the most likely donors – the Asian Development Bank (ADB) – would demand a heavy price for its help: the virtual dismantling of Kiribati societal structure, the privatisation of the public sector along with the accompanying insidious stratification of the community. The ADB seems more interested in short-term profits for investors than long-term benefits to the community, indeed it acknowledges ruefully that "Kiribati's communal culture, risk aversion, egalitarianism and disapproval of individualism make them hostile to the idea of free markets".

There is a genuine 'clash of cultures' here. The Kiribati culture served its people well before being undermined by a drastic change in its climate for which it was not responsible. The ADB – and Western-style banking in general - sees expansion of the private sector as the most acceptable way forward. Is exploitative competitive globalisation such an essential banking principle that it must accompany a nation's last breath – or is this just corporate greed in another guise?

Acknowledgements: ADB Reports: Kiribati's Political Economy and Capacity Development (2009); Kiribati Social and Economic Report – Managing Development Risk (2008); The Journal of the Royal Overseas League (ROSL) March-May 2009.

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