Flag of Kiribati

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 44-member unicameral parliament, 42 members of which are elected and two appointed: the Attorney-General and the MP chosen by the Rabi Council who serves the interests of those i-Kiribati originally from Banaba, but who now live on the Fijian Island of Rabi.  The Speaker is elected to office by Members of Parliament.  While the Speaker must meet the qualification to be a Member of Parliament, he/she is not an MP and has neither an original nor a deciding vote.

MPs 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.

Presidential elections were last held on 13 January 2012. Anote Tong of the ruling Boutokaan te Koaua (Supporting the Truth) party was re-elected for a third term as President. Tong has been in office since 2003. As mandated by Kiribati's constitution, this will be Tong's final term as President. Parliamentary elections are due by early 2016 (within three months of the fourth anniversary of the first sitting of the last Parliament). Subsequent presidential elections are usually held within a month of candidates being nominated.   

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 extensive 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.

In 2014, Australia provided 30 long term awards (10 Australia Award Scholarships, and 20 Australia Award Pacific Scholarships). Another 4 awards were made for short term fellowships.

More information on Australia Awards.

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

Kiribati faces significant development challenges.  It has high child mortality, poor access to potable water, high population density on South Tarawa (50 per cent of the population), vulnerability to storm surges and rising sea levels, and limited opportunities for economic growth.  Australia is working with the Government of Kiribati to improve economic opportunities and development outcomes in Kiribati.  

Under the Australia-Kiribati Partnership for Development (signed in January 2009), Australian aid focuses on the four priority outcomes of improving basic education, developing workforce skills (in areas of local and international demand), strengthening economic governance and improving infrastructure services (improving the main road and sanitation services, and increasing access to telecommunications).

Major aid investments include strengthening technical and vocational training institutes in Kiribati to deliver courses of an international-standard and working with primary schools to improve the literacy, numeracy and enrolment rates among school-aged children. Australia is also improving performance of Kiribati’s state-owned-enterprises and the government’s capacity to manage public finances sustainably and effectively.  The aid program is also supporting other areas including health, disability and the elimination of gender-based violence. Australia has been a major contributor to the World Bank's Kiribati Adaptation Project (KAP) to reduce Kiribati’s vulnerability to environmental stresses and protect economic infrastructure and livelihoods.

Additional support, through regional programs, is strengthening the Kiribati Police Service through the AFP’s Pacific Police Development Program (PPDP); reducing the vulnerability and impact of HIV and sexually transmitted infections through the Pacific HIV and STI Response Fund; working with UNICEF to improve immunisation coverage and with UNFPA to improve adolescent reproductive health and access to basic emergency obstetric care. Australia has funded a new maternity ward in the urban centre of Betio to improve obstetrics care. The facility will serve up to 2,500 women and help to relieve congestion at the main hospital.

Australia's Defence Cooperation Program provides ongoing training and support for Kiribati’s Police Maritime Unit through the Pacific Patrol Boat Program. Two Royal Australian Navy personnel are based permanently in Tarawa. The Australia-Kiribati Security Partnership, signed at the 2010 Pacific Islands Forum in Port Vila, Vanuatu, fosters strengthened security cooperation between the two countries.

Table of proposed expenditure for 2014-15 and actual expenditure for 2013-14 for DFAT's aid program.

Economic overview

The IMF Article IV of 2014 states that Kiribati’s key economic challenges are: to reduce large structural fiscal imbalances and to increase growth and employment opportunities. 

In common with other small island atoll states it 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.  Continuing the fiscal and structural reform program in Kiribati is essential.

Kiribati relies heavily on fishing revenue and remittances from citizens employed abroad, mainly seafarers.

Notwithstanding its limited range of economic assets, 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.

Trade and investment:  Australian merchandise exports to Kiribati in 2012-13 (latest figures available) totaled $20.7 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.