Kiribati country brief

Overview

Kiribati comprises 32 low-lying atolls and the raised phosphate island of Banaba. These atolls straddle the equator in the mid-Pacific ocean.  Apart from Banaba in the West, Kiribati has three groups of islands – the Gilbert Islands (16 populated atolls), the Phoenix Islands (8 atolls unpopulated other than for a government outpost on Kanton) and the Line Islands in the East (9 of the 11 atolls are part of Kiribati and two – Palmyra and Jarvis Islands – are US territories).  Only three of the Line islands have populations: Kiritimati (Christmas Island) the largest atoll in the world, Teraina (Washington Island) and Tabeuran (Fanning Island).

Kiribati’s atolls are wide-spread, mostly less than two metres above sea level and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.  They total 811 square kilometres of land distributed over 3.5 million square kilometres of ocean – an area the size of Western Australia and South Australia together.

Population at the last five-yearly census (2010) was 103,500 and is now estimated at 107,000.  The atoll of Tarawa in the Gilberts group is the capital and its crowded southern arm contains half the country’s population. Most of the remaining population also lives in the Gilbert Islands. 

Political overview

Kiribati achieved independence from the United Kingdom on 12 July 1979. It has a 45-member unicameral parliament, 44 members of which are elected and one is appointed: the Member of Parliament chosen by the Rabi Council to serve the interests of those I-Kiribati originally from Banaba, but who now live on the Fijian Island of Rabi. The Speaker is elected ex-officio by the Members of Parliament. While the Speaker must meet the qualification to be a Member of Parliament, he/she is not a Member of Parliament and has neither an original nor a deciding vote.

Members of Parliament are elected for a four-year term by non-compulsory universal adult suffrage. Once parliamentary elections are completed, the MPs meet and nominate at least three and no more than four presidential candidates. A President (Te Beretitenti) is then elected by popular vote, on a first-past-the-post basis.

The President is both Head of Government and Head of State, and holds ministerial responsibility for Foreign Affairs, Police, the Public Service. He/she appoints from the Parliament a Cabinet of no more than 12 others including the Vice President (also a minister) and the Attorney-General.

At the March 2016 Presidential elections, Mr Taneti Maamau was elected President. The new Cabinet has been sworn in by the Chief Justice.

Bilateral relations

Australia and Kiribati enjoy close and longstanding relations based on regional and international cooperation and trade links, a substantial development assistance program, support for maritime surveillance and broader security cooperation, and people to people contacts.

People to people links

Australia is helping Kiribati to build a skilled workforce through technical and vocational training and scholarships (Australia Awards).  These awards provide opportunities for i-Kiribati students to study at tertiary institutions in the Pacific or Australia.  They enable students to gain the skills and knowledge needed to contribute to their country’s development.

Every year around 30 i-Kiribati study at Australian or regional universities supported by Australian scholarships. With very limited tertiary studies in Kiribati, these scholarships are helping the Kiribati Government to meet the training and human resource development needs of the country.

More information on Australia Awards.

Kiribati will participate in a new five-year Pacific Microstates – Northern Australia Pilot Worker Program. This program will provide up to 250 multiyear visas for citizens of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru. Kiribati also participates in the Seasonal Worker Programme, where seasonal horticultural workers from Pacific countries are recruited by horticultural enterprises in Australia to meet their seasonal harvest needs. These initiatives enable workers to build their skills and send remittances home to support their families.

Volunteers

The Australian Volunteers for International Development Australian (AVID) program promotes economic growth and poverty reduction in the Indo-Pacific region through capacity building in host organisations so as to deliver effective and sustainable development outcomes.  Australia’s overseas volunteer program, has a one-stop entry point to Australian volunteering.  See the AVID website for more information.

Development assistance

More information on development assistance to Kiribati.

Economic overview

Kiribati, in common with other small island atoll states, faces obstacles posed by remoteness, lack of scale and vulnerability to external shocks and environmental stress.  Internal and external remoteness and weakness in business climate has kept the private sector small. This constrains economic growth and puts strain on public finances. 

Kiribati relies heavily on fishing revenue and remittances from citizens employed abroad, mainly seafarers. These are both a sensitive to fluctuations, respectively depending on fish migratory patterns and the global economy.

Notwithstanding its limited resources, Kiribati has largely had a solid record of financial stability since independence in 1979. Governments have adopted a cautious approach to domestic spending combined with a deliberate policy of capitalising its sovereign wealth fund, the Revenue Equalisation Reserve Fund (RERF). The RERF is used to supplement recurrent revenues and smooth volatility in other income sources, e.g. seasonal fluctuations in fishing revenue.

In recent years Kiribati has experienced small levels of economic growth. With the strengthening of the vessel day scheme, revenue from fishing license fees has increased dramatically. Donor-financed infrastructure projects (mainly in the road, port, and aviation sectors) have also boosted growth. Steps are being taken to reduce the many hurdles to private growth that Kiribati faces, among which are high transportation and communication costs and the increasing impact of climate change.

Trade and investment:  Australian merchandise exports to Kiribati in 2014-15 (latest figures available) totaled $22.9 million. Australian currency is legal tender in Kiribati. The ANZ Bank is the majority owner of the Bank of Kiribati which provides central and retail banking services and is the only bank in the country.

High level visits

March 2012: Then Governor-General, the Honorable Dame Quentin Bryce, visited Kiribati. She was accompanied by then Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Hon Richard Marles, MP.

July 2012: Then Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, the Hon Bernie Ripoll, visited for the Forum Economic Ministers Meeting

August 2012:  Then Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Richard Marles, MP made a bilateral visit.

February 2013: Then Foreign Minister Senator, the Hon Bob Carr's visit was the first visit by an Australian Foreign Minister since 1998.

May 2014: Senator, the Hon Brett Mason, visited Kiribati for the Forum Trade Ministers’ Meeting.

March 2015: The Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Julie Bishop, visited Kiribati to meet senior Kiribati government ministers and reaffirm Australia’s support for a strong partnership with Kiribati.

Last Updated: 8 February 2016