Over the past two years, Nauru has raised its regional and international profile, as the government led by President Baron Divavesi Waqa and Minister for Finance and Justice David Adeang sought to address a range of economic, political, and social challenges at home.
In January 2018, Nauru celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of independence as a sovereign nation. A key part of the anniversary year was hosting the forty-ninth Pacific Islands Forum in September. The government's unity, however, ended with national elections in August 2019, when Waqa lost his seat in the Boe constituency, opening the way for a new era of governance.
Throughout 2018–2019, the Waqa government was engaged in domestic reforms, introducing new economic policies, major changes to superannuation, and fundamental reforms to the courts and judicial system. On the international stage, President Waqa was active, speaking out at the United Nations, chairing the Forum, and strengthening diplomatic and economic ties with Taiwan at a time when the People's Republic of China is increasing its regional influence.
Despite these initiatives, the Waqa government also received adverse international attention for some domestic policies. A focus of criticism has been the government's ongoing support for Australia's refugee policy, with Nauru hosting an offshore asylum seeker processing center. A second issue has been the treatment of the "Nauru 19," a number of senior politicians and community leaders charged with offenses after a 2015 protest. Not surprisingly, a further focus of media criticism has been the Nauru government's combative relations with overseas journalists and restrictions on access for many media organizations, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (abc).
The Micronesian nation of eleven thousand people faces many development challenges. A quarter of the population lives below the national poverty line, according to data from the Asian Development Bank (adb 2018).
Education standards and truancy continue to be major problems. In 2018, only 60 percent of students attended school for the midyear examinations, and of these, less than half of the students in years 1–8 passed the examinations. Of year 8 students, only 14 percent passed mathematics, 32 percent passed science, and 54 percent passed English (Nauru Bulletin 2018c, 7). The government is seeking to address the poor results through scholarships and teacher training, sending students to the University of New England in Australia to earn teaching credentials and school principals to Fiji, Kiribati, and Marshall Islands for professional training.
Nauru also has some of the poorest health indicators for noncommunicable diseases (ncd) in the Pacific Islands. Nutrition is a central element of the country's 2014–2020 ncd action plan, which includes initiatives to address obesity, diabetes, and a junk-food epidemic. The strategy plan reports that before current initiatives, Nauru ranked second to Afghanistan in the age-standardized mortality rate for these diseases (Government of Nauru 2014, 5). [End Page 213]
Dr John Auto, a Solomon Islander who coordinates public health programs for Nauru's health ministry, reported on surveys that have highlighted the difficulty of growing fruit and vegetables and the high cost of importing nutritious, fresh food aboard Nauru Airlines planes: "We have who [World Health Organization] standards like 'are there servings of fruit and vegetable in the diet?' But 95 per cent of Nauruans in that survey reported not having the recommended amount of vegetables and fruits" (Auto 2018).
In an interview, Nauru Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Environment Berilyn Jeremiah stated that food production is affected by climate variability and natural disasters affecting the country: "Nauru is susceptible to droughts which, in the past, have had significant impacts on health, food security and the economy, as it can put a strain on our national budget. Enhancing water security is fundamental to reducing vulnerability to climate change. Food insecurity is also a major risk for Nauru, given our dependence on imported foods and its geographical isolation" (Jeremiah 2018).
Nauru's vast resources of phosphate are nearly exhausted. Primary phosphate mining was wound down after shipments in August and September 2018, with the Republic of Nauru Phosphate Corporation (ronphos) only able to continue secondary mining of limited resources around limestone pinnacles. Mining Minister Aaron Cook told Parliament in August...