Kiribati is considered one of the poorest countries in the Pacific region with a high unemployment rate and growing social problems due to the effects of climate change, population pressures, poor infrastructure, pollution, poor health and limited education opportunities.


Kiribati is located in the Central Pacific and comprises 33 (21 of which are inhabited) coral atolls and isles stretching along the equator.  The three main island groupings are the Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands and Line Islands. 

Most of the land on these islands is less than two metres above sea level, making it at risk of disappearing completely this century – due to climate change and sea level rises. 

Kiribati has a total land area of 811km² and extends 2,900km eastward from the 16 Gilbert Islands. 


Kiribati has a reported population of 114,395 (2016 Census).

South Tarawa, the capital, is the most densely populated, home to over 2/5 of the population.  More than 50,000 people live on this tiny atoll. It is one of the world's more overcrowded places, with a population density twice that of New York.

Kiribati Island (only reached by air via Fiji) is the second largest part of Kiribati both in terms of land mass and in terms of population

The people are Micronesian and they speak I-Kiribati and some English, though since post-independence, the level of English spoken has diminished significantly.


Perhaps surprisingly for its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Kiribati has played a significant role in international affairs in history.  Kiribati was the site of extensive fighting between the Japanese and the Americans during WWII and many old bunkers and gun emplacements can be seen as you drive through Tarawa.  In the 1960s the UK and US used Kirimati for nuclear weapons testing and the island has also been used for satellite telemetry with the Japanese satellite launch failing. Although many foreign nations have been heavily involved in Kiribati, it gained independence in 1979 and now only the New Zealand, Australian and Taiwan governments maintain a presence.


Kiribati economy has been largely based on public sector jobs and a much smaller amount of private sector businesses.  Most of these jobs are in South Tarawa and Kiribati. The country imports significantly more than it exports and the government is trying to address this by growing its fisheries, tourism and coconut production. Kopra production is still relatively small scale and not systematic. 

Kiribati is highly reliant on foreign aid and investment. 


Most of Kiribati lies under two metres above sea level and the long term impact of climate change and sea level rises means that in the future it is likely to be underwater.

The land is very vulnerable to both flooding and drought as a result of cyclones in other parts of the Pacific.  The devastation left by Cyclone Pam in 2015 has led to investment in stronger sea walls and mangrove plantation and a focus on resilience.

Social Issues


  • Education is a main priority of the government - particularly in the outer islands to help improve people’s prospects for jobs. But even so, access to learning is difficult.

  • Many children do not even complete primary school – more than half drop out before they get to the end of primary school.

  • Only about half of the population 15 years or older have secondary or higher level education.

  • Insufficient numbers of qualified teachers, particularly for Combined Secondary school

  • Senior secondary schools are concentrated in South Tarawa, many are in poor condition and there are not enough for all potential students coming from the primary schools.

  • Transportation difficulties and water and sanitation facilities, especially in the outer islands;

  • Most children with disabilities do not receive or complete education especially in the outer islands, lack of trained teachers for students with disabilities.

  • Insufficient opportunities for informal education.

  • About 25% of school leavers go on to tertiary education at one of four local training institutions. There is a strong teacher training college focussing on training high quality teachers including English language teaching.

  • Unemployment is relatively high (30%) particularly among the youth (54%).


  •  Kiribati has the highest infant mortality rate in the Pacific. 

  • The prevalence of non communicable diseases is also high, particularly the rate of diabetes. 

  • There are four hospitals over the whole of Kiribati and 103 public health clinics. 

  • There is a focus on reproductive, maternal, neonatal, child and adolescent health but population growth remains a serious concern with the already high density of the population being a health risk for TB, Leprosy and other communicable diseases.


  • Women have less access to employment opportunity, particularly migratory work.

  • Women suffer from high levels of domestic violence - as is common in other Pacific countries. 

  • Kiribati has a low number of female members of Parliament (three representing 9%) and at local government level there are only 10 female councillors out of 332.


VSA and Kiribati

  • Volunteer Service Abroad began working in Kiribati in 1966 and placed 33 volunteers in various roles until 1993.  VSA returned to Kiribati in 2004 and since that time, has placed 28 volunteers there in a range of fields focussing on land management, water and sanitation, infrastructure and health.


Social Development