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.

Kiribati's population is estimated at 115,000. 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 (MP) 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 Members of Parliament 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, His Excellency Taneti Maamau was elected President.

Bilateral relations

Australia and Kiribati enjoy close and longstanding relations based on regional and international cooperation, 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 Awards

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 Kiribati's development.

Every year 30 - 55 I-Kiribati study at Australian or regional universities supported by Australian scholarships. With very limited tertiary courses available in Kiribati, these scholarships are helping the Government of Kiribati to meet the training and human resource development needs of the country.

More information on Australia Awards.

Labour mobility initiatives

The Seasonal Worker Programme, led by the Department of Jobs and Small Business, connects I-Kiribati and other Pacific island workers with Australian employers experiencing labour shortages. In addition, the new Pacific Labour Scheme enables citizens of Kiribati and other Pacific island countries to take up low and semi-skilled work opportunities in rural and regional Australia for up to three years.

These initiatives allow workers to build their skills and send remittances home to support their families.

Volunteers

The Australian Volunteers program promotes economic growth and poverty reduction in the Indo-Pacific region through capacity building in host organisations to deliver effective and sustainable development outcomes. The program has a one-stop entry point to Australian volunteering. See the Australian Volunteers program 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 significant challenges because of its remoteness, lack of scale and vulnerability to external shocks and environmental stress. Internal and external remoteness as well as weakness in the business climate has kept the private sector small. This constrains economic growth and puts a strain on public finances.

Kiribati relies heavily on fishing revenue and remittances from citizens employed abroad, mainly seafarers. These are both affected by circumstances outside of the Government of Kiribati's control, in particular fish migratory patterns and the state of 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 investing additional funds in Kiribati's sovereign wealth fund, the Revenue Equalisation Reserve Fund (RERF). The RERF is used to supplement recurrent revenues and smooth volatility in other income sources, for example seasonal fluctuations in fishing revenue.

In recent years Kiribati has experienced modest levels of economic growth. However, 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 sector 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 2017 totaled $24 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 was the first Australian Foreign Minister to visit Kiribati since 1998.

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

March 2015: Then 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.

July 2017: Then Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator the Hon. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells undertook a bipartisan visit to Kiribati with the Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Claire Moore.

Last Updated: 24 October 2018