Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Pacific Nation Aims for Self-Reliance. KIRIBATI: PRESERVING INDEPENDENCE

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Pacific Nation Aims for Self-Reliance. KIRIBATI: PRESERVING INDEPENDENCE

Article excerpt

ON a sultry equatorial afternoon, Ieremia Tabai welcomes guests to his presidential office. He is dressed in a pin-striped shirt, shorts, and bare feet. He exudes quiet confidence and a down-to- earth pragmatism.

In a decade of leadership, such traits have made Kiribati's President one of the most respected of the Pacific Island leaders.

Where many resource-poor island nations have become dependent on infusions of foreign-aid money, Mr. Tabai still bangs the drum of self-reliance. "It is better to subsist on your own than to rely on someone. It is hard for the people. But I am convinced we can do it," the bearded leader says.

Many might consider President Tabai's optimism unrealistic. In addition to typical problems of crowded, typhoon-prone island nations lying thousands of miles from major markets, the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass) has its share of unique development hurdles:

The size of Kiribati poses challenges for transportation, communication, and government management. The micro-state consists of 65,000 people living on 33 coral island specks strewn across an ocean area as wide as the continental United States.

In 1979, when it gained independence from Britain, Kiribati lost its largest revenue source, when mining of phosphate ore from Banaba Island ceased because of a dispute with landowners. Government income was halved, and export earnings fell 80 percent. The nation was left with coconuts and fish as exports.

Scientists are now warning that rising sea levels, due to the so- called greenhouse effect, could flood low-lying atolls. Kiribati could become a nation of "environmental refugees."

Yet Mr. Tabai insists Kiribati will overcome these hurdles. His attitude is typified by his now legendary refusal of certain aid.

In 1985, he canceled a multi-million dollar British aid agreement. He decided to curb spending rather than to continue reliance on foreign handouts to subsidize the government's recurring operational costs.

Recently, Tabai gave a polite "no, thank you" to Australia's offer to give 20 cars for chauffeuring regional leaders when they gather in Tarawa for this year's South Pacific Forum meeting in July. "It's embarrassing for me to receive [Australian Prime Minister] Bob Hawke in my country in his car. I prefer to receive them in a car I've bought myself."

Tabai has a commerce degree from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and keeps a tight hold on his nation's purse strings. Government spending has been slashed, in real terms, by 5 percent per year since 1979. But spending is still more than the revenue from the nation's limited sources. Budgetary shortfalls are covered by interest from the $185 million (Australian; US$148 million) in the Revenue Equalization Reserve Fund. The fund, an accumulation of phosphate royalties, has been praised as a model for developing countries. …

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