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Federated States of Micronesia

Shelter from the rain by the walls of the Spanish fort, look up at the ruins of the German Bell Tower, glance left at the Japanese war memorial, then turn right to see the crowd cheering at a game of baseball. You are in Kolonia, in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), one of the world’s most frequently colonized and loosely assembled nation-states.

FSM encompasses more than 600 islands and 110,000 people, scattered across 2.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. Often spectacularly beautiful, the islands range from vivid coral atolls to volcanic outcrops clad with dense tropical rainforests and drenched in some places with up to 400 centimetres of annual rainfall. Few people bother with umbrellas, they just get wet.

Flag of Micronesia

There are four island groups, each of which makes up a state. A quarter of the population live in Pohnpei state. More than half are in the poorer and relatively lawless and violent state of Chuuk. Around a tenth can be found in the far more placid and orderly Yap, with the rest on the quietest, two-island state of Kosrai.

There are four island groups, each of which makes up a state. A quarter of the population live in Pohnpei state. More than half are in the poorer and relatively lawless and violent state of Chuuk. Around a tenth can be found in the far more placid and orderly Yap, with the rest on the quietest, two-island state of Kosrai.

Map of Micronesia

Each state has its own language and culture. The indigenous Micronesians probably arrived by canoe a thousand or more years ago. Their most impressive legacy is Nan Madol on Pohnpei – a mysterious collection of stone ruins and canals dating from the 12th century. The islands were officially taken over by Spain in 1885, then sold to Germany in 1899. After World War One, they were seized by Japan, and after World War Two became part of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, administered by the United States.

In 1986, the islanders achieved independence as a federation. But the US, keen to retain a strong influence in the Pacific, offered a Compact of Free Association which pays for around 60 per cent of the government budget and allows FSM citizens access to some US federal programmes, as well as the freedom to live and work in the US.

Inheritance is matrilineal but women have relatively little say in decision-making.

Mary Warren

Governance is intricate. Interlocking layers of administration establish checks and balances between the states. The ‘national’ government, with an elected Congress, is based in the capital Palakir, a sedate, purpose-built campus in the hills of Pohnpei. But each state also has its own elected governor and assembly (Chuuk’s legislature building was burned down in May 2011). Each state is divided into municipalities with an elected mayor. Overlaid on the official administration are various and mutating systems of traditional leadership. In Yap, traditional chiefs also have official powers.

The government, which employs half the formal workforce, is the source of most economic activity. Business is dominated by a few extended families. There is one large foreign-owned tuna-fishing company but most local entrepreneurs concentrate on importing and selling goods to each other or government employees. This creates few jobs and, with unemployment at around 20 per cent, young people often choose to work overseas or join the US Army.

Some tourists visit FSM, particularly for the spectacular diving sites. But transport is difficult. Even getting from one island to another can mean flying to nearby Guam and coming back on a different flight. State governments have also been wary of foreign investment. Proposals for Chinese-backed casinos, in Pohnpei or Yap, jetting in high-rollers from Macau and mainland China, are opposed by a powerful church lobby that raises the spectre of prostitution and mafia control.

FSM is surviving on a cushion of US funds. Some of the $90-million annual support is being channelled into a Trust Fund, the income from which is supposed to support the government when the Compact expires in 2023. But few people believe that this will make FSM self-sufficient.

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At a glance

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  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)