New Internationalist

Federated States of Micronesia

December 2011

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.

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.

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.

Mary Warren
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.

Mary Warren
Federated States of Micronesia Fact File
Leader President, Emanuel (Manny) Mori.
Economy GNI per capita $2,220 (Marshall Islands $3,060, United States $47,240).
Monetary unit US dollar.
Main exports Tuna.
People People: 111,100 (2010). Annual population growth rate, 0.3%. People per square kilometre 230 (UK 255).
Health Infant mortality rate 32 per 1,000 live births (Marshall Islands 29, US 7). The main health problems are non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer; 80% of the population aged 35-64 years is overweight. In Pohnpei, a third of adults are diabetic.
Environment Dredging and effluent outflows are harming the coral reefs. And fish stocks are being depleted by overfishing. The islands are also vulnerable to sealevel rise since many people live around the coasts.
Culture All the islands have complex systems of mutual support based on traditional chiefs and extended families. Many people spend their evenings at bars drinking sakau, a mildly narcotic, though not addictive, plant-based drink.
Religion Almost everyone is Christian: half Catholic and most of the rest Congregational.
Language The official language is English, but each state also has its own language, as do many individual islands – there are 21 languages in total.
Federated States of Micronesia ratings in detail
Income distribution
By international standards, not bad. In 2007, the richest 10% of households earned 20% of total income while the poorest 10% had 3.4%. Indeed, income distribution seems to be improving, but 38% of people live below the basic needs poverty line – a consequence of high prices for imported food.
Life expectancy
69 years. Drink driving takes many lives. Suicide rates for young adult males are amongst the highest in the world.
Standards of education are low. In 2008 three-quarters of sixth graders failed basic tests in English. Few teachers have education degrees and around 40% have no qualifications at all.
Position of women
Except in Yap, inheritance is matrilineal and customary land titles pass through women. Even so, most of the critical decisions are taken by men. There are no women senators in the National Congress. Domestic violence is thought to be common.
There are no official media restrictions. But local news sources are limited, with one twice-weekly NGO-run national paper. Radio does not reach every island.
Sexual minorities
There is no legal prohibition of homosexuality. There have been reports of gay and lesbian people being harassed at work but generally the issue is seldom discussed.
NI Assessment (Politics)
There are no political parties. Voters elect senators who then choose the president, a job which unofficially rotates around the states. Politics is based on shifting alliances between individuals who pursue the interests of their own states and extended families. After the 2011 elections for governor in Chuuk, there were allegations of extensive fraud.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 448 This column was published in the December 2011 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 jwells65 08 Dec 11

    Hopefully people don't think of Micronesia as a grim place. A lot of the people don't have very much and many still lead simple lives. The culture also tends to be quite conservative, especially in areas where there's not much contact with foreigners. The economy is very small and a lot of the population still rely on basic hand-to-mouth production (fishing and some farming) though with a population so small its hardly surprising. The big brother of the United States is somewhat dominant (check out the fortress embassy on Pohnpei!).

    On the other hand the people are welcoming and friendly (if a little shy at times) and you can feel safe moving about and mixing with the locals (OK - I didn't stop on Chuuk). I took my (then) 16 year old daughter and she had no issues at all.

    Its a quiet and relaxing place where everyone seems to know everyone. The snorkelling is great (and I am told the diving too). There's also plenty of other things to do to explore the islands. If you are not a 'hardcore' diver, I'd suggest doing a little research and choosing one of the more locally oriented and 'sensitive' resorts located outside the main town centres (that's not hard on Pohnpei or Kosrae). And please be thoughtful and dress appropriately.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution4
Life expectancy4
Position of women3
Sexual minorities3
NI Assessment (Politics)3

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This article was originally published in issue 448

New Internationalist Magazine issue 448
Issue 448

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