New Internationalist

Country Profile

Issue 282

Country profile: Nauru

Where is Nauru? Nauru is one of the world’s most fascinating yet least known countries. This island in the central Pacific is one of the world’s most isolated – its nearest neighbour (Banaba) is 300 kilometres away. With a land area of only 21 square kilometres, Nauru is the world’s smallest independent republic.

Yet it is also, extraordinarily, the richest. Totally undeveloped in the early 1900s, Nauru has flown up the development ladder and now has the highest per-capita income in the world. Its dizzying journey through the development process is based on just one commodity – phosphate.

Phosphate fertilizers are the lifeblood of modern agriculture and the Nauruans have the highest-grade phosphate in the world, so for 70 years or so they have been living on a gold mine. Typically, when mining commenced, Nauruans hardly benefitted, receiving a meagre halfpenny a tonne from the joint colonial administration of New Zealand, Australia and Britain. By 1967, half the reserves had been mined.

In 1968, following years of struggle, Nauru gained independence. From then on, the annual income from phosphates of around $100 million was shared between the Nauru Royalties Trust Fund, Nauruan landowners and the Government. By 1976, the annual tax-free income for every Nauruan had reached $37,000. They can still afford virtually anything they like and their living standards have improved beyond belief. But progress has had a price. Nauru is far from a paradise.

The island has no forests or timber. It has no indigenous mammals. Bird life, which has contributed to the island’s wealth since guano is a major source of the phosphate, has been decimated. Mining, which has ravaged the whole interior, turning it into a moonscape (see above), has reduced rainfall by destroying vegetation and creating bare rock. As a result Nauru has to import virtually everything for survival, including al-most all its food and fresh water.

At the moment this poses no problem: the Government has money to play with and Nauru leads the world in per-capita public expenditure. Electricity, water, education, medical and dental treatment are all free. The Government even runs an international airline.

Health, however, is a major problem. Most of the work is done by immigrant labourers, and Nauruans have been suffering as a result of increasing inactivity and a diet of imported, processed food. Obesity is now a major problem: Nauruans are renowned in the Pacific for their bulk. A 1989 survey found that a third of the population were suffering from diabetes (the worst incidence in the world). Heart disease, alcoholism and heavy smoking are also prevalent. Since the early 1970s, traffic accidents have been the major cause of death and disability – on an island with only one 16-kilometre road.

Huge funds have been set up to ensure an income after the phosphate disappears – it is unlikely to last out the century. These should help the islanders to maintain a good living standard. But the funds, estimated to contain one billion dollars, are shrouded in mystery and ripe for plundering. Investments have been made all over the world. But many ventures, including hotels and, bizarrely, the short-lived London show Leonardo da Vinci, have lost millions.

Some money is being used well in an attempt to ‘recreate’ Nauru. In 1987 Nauru took its case for compensation for its lost resources to the International Court of Justice. Australia eventually settled out of court, agreeing to pay $1.7 million a year for 20 years; New Zealand and Britain will each pay eight million dollars. But restoring the island’s ravaged interior by filling it with imported soil and compost will cost $230 million over the next 23 years.

Andy Crump


LEADER: President Lagumot Harris

ECONOMY: Still totally dependent on phosphate mining and export, the country’s only industry.
Monetary unit: Australian dollar
Main exports: Phosphates (100%)
Main imports: Food and beverages (34%), fuel and machinery (18%), manufactured goods (8%).

PEOPLE: 10,149 (1995 estimate), of whom 8,123 are native Nauruans.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 41 per 1,000 live births (Canada 6 per 1,000). The health system is among the best resourced in the world: Nauru leads the world in hospital beds per capita, and is among the leaders in numbers of nurses and midwives per person. Health is, however, ravaged by the diseases of wealth (see above).

CULTURE: Inheritance is matrilineal, with family property being inherited by the eldest daughter. The family unit remains very strong and Nauruans tend to live as one large family. Polygamy is condoned, divorce carries no social stigma, and co-wives and stepchildren have equal status. Few of the islanders leave permanently.
Religion: Christian – Protestant 67%, Catholic 33%.
Languages: English (official), Nauruan.

Sources: UN Statistical Yearbook, Asia & Pacific 1994; UN Statistics Pocketbook 1995; The Asia & Pacific Review 1995; CIA World Factbook 1995; Far East & Australasia 1996.

Never previously profiled


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Wealth is apparently evenly distributed with each adult Nauruan qualifying for around $30,000 royalties annually.
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Almost 100%. Education is free and compulsory from 6 to 16.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Financially secure in the short-term despite the total dependence on imports.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The constitution protects basic rights and freedoms. Elections are held every 3 years and voting is compulsory for everyone over the age of 20.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Society is matrilineal but women hold few positions of authority.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
67 years (Aotearoa/New Zealand 75 years).


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The Government of 18 independent members has fought for the welfare of the people but mismanaged foreign investments. It has vociferously opposed France’s nuclear-testing in the South Pacific and campaigned against the global warming that could cause the island to be swallowed by the sea.

NI star rating

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[image, unknown] NI Home Page

[image, unknown] Issue 282 Contents

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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This article was originally published in issue 282

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