The Sources of Poverty in KiribatiKiribati is an archipelago made up of 32 coral atolls and one raised coral island located along the equator in the Pacific Ocean. The total landmass of the islands is slightly greater than New York City, but the islands are stretched out across an area almost as big as the country of India with a population of approximately 112,000. The main island of South Tarawa accounts for roughly half the nation’s population, with a population density similar to that of Hong Kong and Tokyo. English is the country’s official language, but the popular dialect of I-Kiribati (a.k.a. Gilbertese) is commonly spoken. As of 1999, Kiribati is a member of the UN. Today, poverty in Kiribati is prevalent, although unlike many other nations, the causes of poverty in Kiribati are slightly harder to define.

Subsistence Living

Many I-Kiribati lack access to fundamental services like water, sanitation, quality housing and other basic needs. The World Bank classifies Kiribati as “extremely deprived” although exact poverty estimates are hard to calculate because a significant portion (likely the majority) of the islanders practice a subsistence lifestyle, foregoing a role in the formal economy. This is especially true in the outer islands where people rely on fishing and agriculture to ensure their survival. The situation is precarious; however, as there is a widespread lack of arable land, droughts are common. Also, commercial overfishing has greatly reduced the bounty of fish Kiribati has been blessed with. Still, the people of the Kiribati islands find a way to overcome the mounting challenges confronting their lifestyle.

Underdeveloped Formal Economy

When it comes to the formal wage economy (which employs less than one-fifth of all potential workers), the densely packed island of South Tarawa is the home for over half of all jobs. A staggering amount of Kiribati’s income comes from fishing licenses sold to foreign vessels who want to fish tuna in Kiribati’s waters, but this income is highly unstable. Its small tourism industry is inhibited by a limited number of flights and poor national infrastructure. The private sector economy lags far behind its public counterpart. Lack of a diversified economy is one of the causes of poverty in Kiribati.

Reliance on Imports

Most of the food and fuel consumed in Kiribati are imported from overseas. In 2004, a container vessel missed its scheduled food delivery date which caused a major food shortage on the islands. In past decades the population, especially younger people, is increasingly relying on cheaper imports of unhealthy and heavily processed foods. This has led to a rise in diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Kiribati has no domestic source of oil and thus relies on the international market. Direct foreign investment in Kiribati is very low, and in total, Kiribati’s imports more than double the value of its exports. The causes of poverty in Kiribati can in large part be traced back to low food security and reliance on imports.


The government of Kiribati provides free and compulsory primary education for students ages six to 13. Families living in rural areas incur travel expenses and all schoolchildren are subject to fees related to school uniforms and supplies. While this free education is certainly a positive, there is room for improvement in teacher training, curriculum and school facilities. An additional five years of secondary education is offered to students who place highly on national entrance exams. These schools are not free. Those who do not win access to these competitive schools are given the chance to continue with free secondary education for three more years. Nearly all secondary education schools are located on South Tarawa which requires prospective outer island students to move from their families and absorb a sizable financial hit. Around 80 percent of students do not continue on to secondary education after primary school.

Organizations Working for Change

Multiple organizations are working to help uplift locals and alleviate the causes of poverty in Kiribati. GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations) has been working in Kiribati for over a decade. They supply vaccines to the islands and help local medical clinics administer these vaccines to the population. GAVI has committed more than $660,000. As of 2018, 95 percent of the islands have received coverage for critically important DTP3 vaccines (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis).

Teachers are also working to improve the islands’ education system with the Kiribati Union of Teachers (KUT) performing outreach on three major islands. The KUT provides workshops for teachers, has set up a credit union and is attempting to provide social security to its members.

Lastly, the Kiribati branch of Foundation for the South Pacific is working to address the most pressing concerns of food and water security. Working in partnership with The Outer Island Food and Water Project, they teach local women and young people gardening techniques and cooking lessons. They also establish local water points which greatly enhance water security. Thanks to this work, many villagers no longer have to travel long distances for fresh water and one local community has been able to sell extra vegetables for a profit.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

An underdeveloped economy, low food and water security, a developing healthcare system and an education system with much potential to be improved are among the causes of poverty in Kiribati. Despite these challenges, islanders continue to survive off their land and lead the family and community-oriented lives. Organizations like GAVI, the KUT and the Foundation for the South Pacific have recognized the enormous opportunities in Kiribati and are contributing to positive change focused on improving the lives of the remarkable I-Kiribati.

Spencer Jacobs

Photo: Pixabay

Causes of Poverty in Kiribati

Kiribati is an island country, scattered over the vast Pacific Ocean. The people believe in a very simple way of life, peace and harmony. Their traditional dances are a visual delight and a unique expression of their culture.

The economy of Kiribati depends mostly on fishing, cutting copra (dried coconut kernels) and agriculture. In the more urban South Tarawa, land and fishing resources are almost completely depleted, and there is a serious lack of job opportunities.

One in four people live below the basic needs poverty line, and the number is higher in South Tarawa. Female-headed households are more vulnerable to poverty and one-third of children in Kiribati are from households living in poverty.

The unemployment rate in Kiribati was estimated at 30% in 2010. The causes of poverty in Kiribati include factors such as a lack of skilled workers, weak infrastructure and Kiribati’s remote location away from international markets. The causes of poverty in Kiribati can be summed up by these eight issues:

  1. Employment opportunities are rare; only four in ten adults are employed. This is causing per capita income to fall.
  2. Loss of traditional skills among the youth, who are not as ready as their predecessors to live in the hardships that plague rural life.
  3. Internal migration to South Tarawa is increasing, which has caused overcrowding, poor health and sanitation problems.
  4. Degradation of natural resources due to overutilization. This is resulting in climate change that is bound to destroy the fragile ecosystem on which the people depend for their subsistence.
  5. Gender inequality; women have a lower status and lack any decision-making powers. There is also a stigma against people with disabilities.
  6. High debts incurred from informal loan providers give rise to social abuse.
  7. Population growth is one of the most important causes of poverty in Kiribati, as family planning is shunned by the Catholic Church as well as Kiribati society in general.
  8. Kiribati depends on imports for most of its food supplies, which means they are especially vulnerable to price changes. Even a household that does not identify itself as living in poverty struggles with poor diet and inadequate nutrition.

The informal traditional care system characteristic to the Kiribati way of life is disintegrating and remittances from seamen are falling. However, the government has shown its commitment to fighting against the causes of poverty in Kiribati through specific programs aimed to promote equity:

  1. Primary and junior secondary education are free.
  2. Most health services are provided for free through health clinics.
  3. The Elderly Fund is a non-contributory pension scheme for people over 67 years by way of monthly payments.
  4. The Copra Fund Subsidy helps maintain the production level, discourages migration and guarantees a minimum purchase price from the government.
  5. The Kiribati Provident Fund for formal sector employees.
  6. The Import Levy Fund subsidizes the cost of transportation to maintain prices at the same level.
  7. A price control ordinance caps price on basic need commodities.
  8. Water and electricity are subsidized for households in South Tawara.

Poverty in Kiribati is more urban in nature due to the stress it has caused on limited resources of the mainland. Another important factor is that Kiribati is heavily dependent on foreign aid and assistance to cover its financial budget, which is hardly a sustainable solution in terms of development.

The poverty of opportunity is underlying all the causes of poverty in Kiribati. To overcome the current situation, all efforts have to be focused towards the creation of direct employment as well as making the population more employable. The government needs to make major investments in its infrastructure. Also, the growth of private sector industries is very important for Kiribati to become self-sufficient. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, these efforts along with a progressive social policy is Kiribati’s best chance to fight poverty.

Tripti Sinha

Photo: Flickr