Countries, History and Culture, Uncategorized

Nauru: When Development Goes Wrong  

Imagine an island lost in the middle of an Ocean where people have lived in peace and harmony with the local nature and wildlife for centuries. Then imagine the damages of colonialism and the exploitation to exhaustion of the local natural resource. Then what? Well, everything, from the local culture, wildlife, source of revenues and chance for a bright future have disappeared. This is what happened to several isolated places around the world. The most extreme case is, however, that of Nauru. This little island of 21 square kilometers located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Australia and Hawaii, has been through it all, from peace to war, from a quiet traditional life to extreme westernization, and from wealth to poverty.

Nauru, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Nauru, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Discovered in 1789 by a British Captain who nicknamed it ‘Pleasant Island’, Nauru was then colonized by Germany in 1888 and taken over by Australia after World War I. The Japanese occupation during World War II dramatically reduced the local population by deporting two-thirds of them to Micronesia for force labour, or because of starvation and bombings during the war. After the conflict, Nauru became a trust territory administered by Australia. The island finally seized its independence in 1968, thus becoming the world’s smallest sovereign entity of the time.

From ‘Heaven’ to Hell

In 1900, it was discovered that Nauruans were sitting on large amounts of phosphate, a highly demanded natural resource used as fertilizer for agriculture. The exploitation of the mineral thus started. The production became more intense with the development of new means of transportation and the modernization of the industry. Australia was the main importer of the resource. The entire economy of Nauru adapted to the wealth of their soil: all traditional occupations disappeared and everyone reconverted into the production of phosphate. As the local population was not sufficient, foreigners arrived on the island, mainly from neighboring islands but also from Asia. At the end of the 1990s, it was estimated that “out of a total population of 12,000, some 4,000 are foreigners. Australians serve as managers, doctors and engineers, Chinese run the restaurants and shops, while other Pacific islanders do the dirty work in the mines.”

Phosphate made Nauru extremely rich: in the 1970s, the island even became the second largest country in the world, with three times the GDP of the United States. The island quickly developed, and the newly founded sovereign state took it upon itself to offer the best services to its population, possible thanks to the revenues generated by the mining. With the feeling that the wrongs of the past had been corrected, namely that the local resources were finally in the hands of the local population after decades of foreign rule, the Nauruans were now able to consume to their liking, and did not need to work to enjoy a high quality of life. The government could indeed provide free health care and education to everyone without imposing taxes.

This situation lasted as long as there was phosphate left: being a finite resource, phosphate eventually ran out. The ‘resource curse‘ had stricken.

A Series of Poor choices

Nobody was oblivious: it was clear from the very beginning that the phosphate would not last forever. A series of measures to continue benefiting from the revenues of the mineral were put in place such as a diversity of investments abroad. Most of them, contracted by the Australian authorities and the Nauruans government both seemed to have met misfortune, thus shrinking the long term revenues for the island. In addition, eager to enjoy their wealth, the Nauruan governments made some poor choices which cost them later on: the creation of a local airline, Air Nauru, was clearly not adapted to the needs and size of the island with its 7 planes even though the local population was around 10,000 inhabitants. When the revenues came to lack, Nauru was no longer able to pay for all the services it had previously offered, and accumulated large amounts of debt it tried to cover by asking for loans from the Asian Central Bank, but also by trying to become an offshore banking center, and tax haven for the Russian mafia, without success as the G7 quickly put an end to it. Nauru even sued Australia in 1989 in front of the International Court of Justice asking for repair for the destruction of one third of the island during the colonial era. Australia settled the suit for about $75 million. The fall of the price of phosphate in the 90s only worsened the situation, until it ran out in the early 2000.

The story of Nauru’s descent from prosperity to penury is one of the most cautionary tales of modern development

Dramatic Consequences

Beyond the impact on the local economy, the exploitation of phosphate irreversibly affected numerous aspects of Nauru’s life. First, the local population seems to have forgotten how to do anything with is not linked to mining; fishing has long been forgotten and replaced by imported processed food and the excavation of the phosphate has destroyed all possible arable land. As a result, the island entirely depends on imports for its food and the population presents high levels of obesity and diabetes and high blood pressure, and the life expectancy has dramatically dropped to 50 for men and 55 for women. It is estimated that 95% of the population is overweight.


Nauru from the sky – Photo: Radio Australia

The consequences for the local climate are also worth mentioning: the deforestation on 90% of the islands have induced a continuous drought and is struck by heat waves. In addition, the local population lives on the coast, which is only 10 meters above the sea level, making them very vulnerable in the face of climate change and the rising of the oceans. For that reason, Nauru has joined 44 other small countries like Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) who fight together to ensure the survival of their threatened nations. The Maldives are on the forefront of the battle, hoping to put pressure on the big countries to halt the already ongoing global warming process which is already harming many in small islands around the globe.

Today, “seen from the air, Nauru resembles an enormous moth-eaten fedora: a ghastly grey mound of rock surrounded by a narrow green brim of vegetation.”

All in all, Nauru has become “case study for environmentalists and anthropologists in how easy it is to destroy a tropical ecosystem and crush a native culture.”

Finding Something Else To Do

The phosphate age is over and Nauru has needed to find new sources of revenue, which it has found by working with Australia. “Under former Prime Minister John Howard, the nation introduced the now-infamous Pacific Solution, a policy of diverting asylum seekers to detention centers on nearby Pacific islands.”

As a result, Nauru has become a refugee camp for all those got caught while trying to reach Australia by the seas. Since 2001, the Nauru Regional Processing Center has been hosting around 650 refugees at a time in unsanitary barracks. “In addition to the unnecessary and excessive processing period for asylum seekers, the camp has been singled out as substandard and inhumane by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees” which corroborates with the numerous cases of violence and rape which have become public.

Although it does not come close to the revenues once generated by phosphate, supporting ‘Solution Pacific’ is what Nauru has found to get some revenues. Who knows what will happen when the UNHCR will finally act and close those camps and Australia addresses their refugee crisis…

More about Nauru

I recently finished reading a novel taking place in Nauru titled “J’ai entraîné mon peuple dans cette aventure” (I led my people in this adventure) by Aymeric Patricot. Based on the history of the island, the story shows through the eyes of the main character how he experienced the changes the island was confronted to, how the local life evolved and how the local authorities, Australian than Nauruans exploited the phosphate and led the country to its loss. Although romanticized, the book appears to give a clear image of what happened in Nauru and how the local population who were eager to have access to more led their country to their doom.


Ted Talk of the Week

How a truely global ethic can save us all

A few weeks ago, I decided that I would listen to a Ted Talk every morning while having breakfast. The point is to keep my brain going from the beginning of the day, but not necessarily on political or topical subjects. Every week, I will pick the one that made me reflect the most. I will post it here, and share my views with you.

The talk that marked me this week was given by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009. National politics does not matter here, which is for the best as I am far from being an expert in British politics. You will also tell me that the speech is old, 6 years old to be precise. To that, I reply to you that old does not mean bad. And if you watch the video, you will probably notice that most of what G. Brown discusses still applies today. And this is exactly for that reason that this speech caught my attention.

The first part of the speech is made to captivate the audience, to appeal to their memories, to remind them of the horrors of the past that shocked them, of the pictures which changed the West’s perception of the world and triggered the intervention of the international community in crises abroad. This first part reminded me of a picture that was all over the internet a few days ago: the image of a little boy who was found dead on the Turkish shore after trying to cross the Mediterranean with his family in order to escape the war tearing apart Syria.

As Brown put it,

What we see unlocks what we cannot see

And although this picture is ethically wrong on many levels, it appeals to our humanity, which Europe seems to have had a hard time finding to come up with appropriate solutions to the continuous wave of migrants landing on our Southern borders.

The most important difference that I see between the picture of the little boy stranded on the Turkish beach and all the other examples given by Gordon Brown, is that this crisis has reached and directly affects the West. It is not in Africa or in the Middle East. It is right around the corner from us, within the borders of the EU. What this means is that the effects of decades of foreign intervention in the Middle East has caused a (predictable) crisis that is now asking us to correct our wrongs. It is also demonstrating that Europe is no longer immune to the problems the rest of the world is facing. And this time, sending off aid will not suffice, as it will have to be deployed within our direct realm, thus demanding extreme levels of understanding, cooperation and collaboration.

What this picture also suggests is that, we, the international community, have been unable to address a crisis that everybody knows exist. Gordon Brown rightly points to the failures of our institutions which have been created to advance human rights and human dignity, in order to create global and lasting peace. We have clearly failed, just like in Rwanda we failed to prevent a genocide, to rescue those who would rather risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats than stay in their country where their lives are at risk at every instant. And despite the importance of the media coverage relaying the information from Syria and other striken countries, we have failed to appropriately respond to their distress.

We need to tackle problems that everybody knows exist

We also fail to think global, to grasp the implications a foreign crisis could have on us. We forget that in this time and age, was goes around comes back around. Failing to support an underdeveloped country will have medium to long-term consequences that will be felt at the international level. Failing to think global, which also means diverse, compromises our chance for peace and stability. Ultimately, helping others also means helping oneself.

The example of global warming is a striking one as world leaders are due to gather in Paris at the end of November at the COP21 Summit. Gordon Brown’s speech came before the previous summit on the issue which took place in Copenhagen, but did not bring sufficient results. Institutions to regulate, punish and impose decisions must be created in order to make climate change a global common implicating everyone, for the sake of everyone.

In a time and age where people are aware and informed about what happens on the other side of the planet in an instant, more emphasis should be put on involving the people in decision-making and finding solutions to global problems. So far, civil society has been more active in welcoming the migrants coming from the other side of the Mediterranean than governments themselves. There has to be something wrong with our system. The global character of citizens is not reflected in governments. Information technologies are the key, which echoes another Ted Talk.

PM Gordon Brown calls for recognizing our responsibilities to others. We must act as global citizens to solve global problems, because they do not stop at borders. We have the potential to build a better world. Ethic must go beyond our nation interest. Let’s do it.

Gordon Brown engaged in a conversation on Global ethic vs. national interest which can be found here


Payez les stagiaires!

Plutôt d’actualité, ce sujet m’est cher car il m’affecte directement. C’était donc impossible que je n’en parle pas.

Le débat sur les stages non rémunérés a été remis sur le tapis car un stagiaire de l’ONU dormait dans une tente à Genève. Mise en scène ou pas, sa médiatisation a poussé les médias à remettre le sujet à la une.

Je viens de finir mes études, et étant donné que les stages sont souvent la première étape avant d’obtenir un ‘vrai’ job, le fait que les stages ne soient pas payés me concerne. En tant que diplômée de 24 ans, j’aime à croire que je vaux quelque chose. Que mon temps, mon énergie et ma connaissance méritent de pouvoir payer mes factures. Que les cinq années que j’ai passées sur les bancs de l’université, ou derrière un bureau lors de mes stages précédents, devraient m’apporter quelque chose. Je ne demande pas grand chose, juste de pouvoir subvenir à mes besoins et d’être indépendante financièrement.

Vous trouverez plusieurs articles expliquant pourquoi les stagiaires de l’ONU ne sont pas payés. Ils vous diront que l’organisation et ses organes spécialisés manquent de ressources, que les Etats-Unis leurs doivent des sommes astronomiques, que c’est le résultat d’une résolution mise en place lorsque le nombre de stagiaires a explosé et que les finances disponibles n’ont pas suivi. Ce sont des excuses, et elles renvoient un message négatif. En tant qu’organisation qui promeut les droits de l’homme et l’égalité des chances pour tous, leurs stages vont dans la direction opposée.

En refusant un salaire à leurs stagiaires, les organisations et institutions créent une culture d’exploitation rendant acceptable d’utiliser les autres, ainsi que leurs connaissances, afin de réaliser leurs objectifs. En plus d’être abjecte en terme d’éthique, cela créé un cercle vicieux où les anciens stagiaires engageront des stagiaires sans aucune contrepartie à leur tour, pour la seule et unique raison qu’ils ont du passer par là, et que c’est la loi de la jungle. C’est une mauvaise habitude qui risque donc de se perpétrer.

Les stages non rémunérés maintiennent les disparités sociales. Ceux qui ont le soutien financier nécessaire pour vivre dans les villes les plus chers du monde (New York et Genève en sont les parfaits exemples) durant des mois de stages impayés, ne représentent qu’une infime partie de la population mondiale. Ceux qui ne possèdent pas les ressources nécessaires, ou refusent de s’endetter, doivent donc mettre de côté cette opportunité. Mais souvenez vous que ceux qui ont le plus de ressources financières ne sont pas forcément les plus qualifiés.

Mais passons outre cette vision binaire du monde, qui oppose les riches aux pauvres, entre ceux dont les familles ont les ressources pour les soutenir pendant leurs stages à l’ONU ou dans d’autres institutions, et ceux dans les familles n’en sont pas capables. Certains jeunes ne veulent tout simplement plus dépendre d’autres personnes autres qu’elles mêmes. Car entrer sur le marché de l’emploi est une opportunité pour les jeunes de devenir enfin autonomes, sans comptes à rendre. C’est mon cas. Mes parents m’ont soutenue financièrement durant mes études. Etudier était confortable, je savais que j’avais un filet de secours pour me rattraper à tout moment. Je faisais mon boulot (étudier), et tant que j’obtenais de bons résultats, j’avais de l’argent. Maintenant que j’ai quitté l’université et que mes parents et moi avons décider que je devais être indépendante financièrement (ce que j’attendais avec impatience), et que je travaille, j’ai du mal à comprendre pourquoi j’ai besoin d’utiliser mon épargne. J’ai un, (même deux) diplômes, j’ai de l’expérience, des compétences, des connaissances et de la motivation, mais pas assez d’argent sur mon compte en banque.

Ce qui me choque le plus, ce sont les justifications invoquées pour justifier pour les stagiaires ne sont pas rémunérés (ou peu). “Pas de fonds”. Mais il y a pourtant des ressources pour offrir des promotions aux employés ou encore ajouter un autre zéro à la fin du chèque du patron. Mais il ne reste rien pour ceux au bout de la chaîne alimentaire, même si les stagiaires sont importants pour la réalisation des objectifs de l’organisme en question. Même dans le cas où un stagiaire est seulement (et tristement) responsable d’apporter le café à son supérieur, (ce qui n’est acceptable que si ce stagiaire est en formation pour être garçon de café), cette personne contribue tout de même, car, sans ses cafés, le manager n’obtiendrait sûrement pas les mêmes résultats. Les stagiaires méritent l’investissement. Leurs cerveaux sont prêts à absorber toute sorte d’information, ils ont la motivation d’apprendre et de faire toujours mieux. Utilisez ces capacités, et récompensez les.

Investissez dans la jeunesse. Ils sont/ nous sommes le future.

Tout travail mérite salaire.

Les stagiaires sont des humains.

Payez les stagiaires.


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