Poverty in Kiribati
There is no translation for the word ‘poverty’ in Kiribati, a small island in the Central Pacific. This is because many do not consider themselves or those around them poor. In Kiribati, there is a prevalent belief that you are not poor unless you cannot maintain a subsistence living by going out and fishing or foraging for basic needs from the land. To most of those who call the island home, poverty means having nothing at all.

Despite this positive outlook, many people throughout the country are struggling to obtain basic needs on a day-to-day basis. An estimated 22 percent of the entire Kiribati population was living beneath the “basic needs” poverty line in 2006, according to the Australian High Commission in Kiribati. The households below this line face the struggles that poverty in Kiribati entails on a monthly, weekly and daily basis. Many inhabitants live in unregulated housing without access to clean water, sanitation or other basic hygiene utilities.

The rise in poverty in Kiribati has to do with a few interlinked factors. The first is an increase in cash as a necessity, as opposed to living off of the land. Subsistence farming, once the norm, is threatened by environmental degradation and depletion of natural resources. Thus, this need for cash has increased as the population becomes more urbanized and the expense of living goes up. Means of earning cash are limited, however. These options are particularly limited for women and people with disabilities, and formal employment is sparse. The Australian High Commission in Kiribati reports that only 10 percent of the total population held jobs in 2010.

Low rates of employment are strongly linked to lack of education. There is a cyclical low education rate in Kiribati, with undereducated parents unable to pay their children’s tuition fees. For those who do attend school, schools are understaffed and poorly organized for optimal learning. Without proper education — or, in many cases, any education — it is difficult for children to move out of poverty. Employment opportunities are thus largely limited to low-paying jobs.

Urban poverty, lack of sanitation and overcrowding have given health problems to many in Kiribati. Health and poverty are closely linked in Kiribati, even though healthcare is free. Though there is no out-of-pocket charge for health care, sickness incurs income or education opportunity losses. This can be hugely damaging to livelihoods.

Consequently, the people in Kiribati end up borrowing money from “loan sharks,” or unofficial loan providers. These providers often charge high-interest rates that lead to the Kiribati people remaining in or diving further into debt.

Although they may not have a word for poverty, this does not mean those in Kiribati do not require aid. Currently, the country is involved in the Australia-Kiribati Partnership for Development, which attempts to relieve some of the poverty in Kiribati. This foreign aid helps improve basic education, bolster workforce development and improve infrastructure. Further, non-government organizations (NGOs) and donors provide much of the relief for poverty in Kiribati. International NGOs stationed in the country include Live and Learn, Caritas and Red Cross and Rotary, while local NGOs include Te Tao Matoa, Kiribati Family Health Association and the School for Children with Special Needs.

One way to help those in Kiribati is by supporting bills like the Education for All Act, a low-cost bipartisan bill that would help ensure worldwide educational expansion for children in low-income countries. Improving education is the first step in improving living conditions in Kiribati, as it would give children opportunities for better futures.

Kayla Provencher

Photo: Flickr