Kiribati is a developing country which gained Independence on 12th July 1979. As it is made up of coral islands and possesses only two major economic resources, namely copra and fish, development is quite a problem. Nevertheless, there are forces within the country that are contributing to the establishments of modern goal which in turn translate into development and cultural change. These forces maybe characterised as Government, Commerce, Education and Religion. The first two would appear to be more naturalistic and materialistic, while the other two are more idealistic and socially orientated.


In the main, the goals of the Government are set forth in the National Development Plan produced at four year interval. They are recommended by staff of the various Ministries assisted in some cases by expertise from Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand and International Agencies. These goals also reflect national aspirations as expressed by the politicians. Important areas where Government interests are evident are fisheries and air transportation. Communications, Agriculture and Tourism are other areas which may hold some promise. The expected benefits are increased revenues for the Government, more employment opportunities for the people and a more favourable balance of trade.



There appears to have been a reasonable growth in the area of commerce in recent years. While goals in the private sector are not clearly defined, those persons who are engaged in business managed to earn a profit to the extent that they are able to successfully organize and operate their commercial activities. Exports are limited mainly to fish products, copra and craft work. The major interest of businessmen is in consumer sales - the importation of food, cloth goods, tobacco, radios, motorbikes and other products from overseas or sale in retail stores both large and small. A new business emerging in South Tarawa is the operation of small bus services. Goals in the commercial area, while relatively little developed, are distinguished by the enthusiasm and confidence of people who are willing to venture into anything they consider to be within their capacity for an anticipated profit.


While education prior to Independence followed a liberal arts approach, more attention is now given to the economic value to be gained from schooling to meet the employment needs expressed in the National Development Plan. To many I-Kiribati, schooling or education in the broader sense is associated with the development of leadership, maturity and capability in ways that support progressive change. The emphasis on education is also seen as a way to a better life socially. Those who lack an appreciation for education are sometimes criticized as in the Kiribati expression, te tia kauni bwatua, meaning "one who does nothing but play with fish". This is a reference to a common past time for little boys in the village and implies childishness or immaturity.

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The goals of Church groups from the time of the early Christian Missionaries has been for the most part to make Kiribati a strong Christian nation. They want to perpetuate those human values which emphasize the need for greater social harmony. Of course, formal schooling by Church organizations include religious as well as secular subjects in the curriculum. Although denominational differences exist, there is a common goal of stressing and retaining acceptable social and moral values in Kiribati in the face of continuing change.


When modern Kiribati society is scrutinized in its totality, one will see that it is based on certain traditional values which the people wish to preserve. In doing so, however, problems are encountered because modern goals are having a significant impact on social, economic and political practices which form the fabric of traditional culture.

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One example will illustrate the problem in this area. In Kiribati tradition, the elder son in the family usually receives the largest share of land from his parents, and he is the one who is expected to look after the parents in their old age. However, the traditional social relationships have now been modified. Elderly parents who are sensitive to material needs in the family tend to live with and depend on the son or daughter who is economically most secure, whether or not this is the eldest of the children. Should the parents then give more of their land to a son or a daughter or may not be the eldest in recognition of the care received from a younger child? Altered situations of this sort may also be found to confuse social status relationships in the extended family, village and island communities.


A principal economic concern in the traditional system is property. Mainly this means land but it also includes babai pits, fish ponds and fish traps. In the course of contact with materialistic Western culture, the value of these economic resources has changed, either appreciating or depreciating according to their monetary worth in altered use in the changing economic system. Earlier, the people sold some of their land to foreigners in order to get money to buy imported things of all kinds. It is now illegal to sell land but it may be leased. Land is regarded as lasting capital which will be passed on from generation to generation, providing security and stability in the process of Kiribati development. It avoids the creation of a landless class with no other means of existence than selling their labour to an employer. Land is an integral part of the rural economy but it has become a very scarce and dear commodity in the urban economy.

The general view held by the elders about changing economic norms is mixed. They appreciate the values of education and participation in the cash economy, but they also consider it unacceptable that an I-Kiribati should lose his lands and culture.

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In Kiribati tradition, the leaders were the elders who exercised control of island affairs through their accumulated wisdom and by reason of their advanced age. Nowadays many of the leaders of the new Republic of Kiribati are younger men, equipped by education and experience in Western ways to lead the nation in a developing Pacific world. How is it that Kiribati voters appear to have modified their political values? The most credible answer is that successful candidates for political office have demonstrated those qualities of leadership, except old age, that are desired in traditional terms. The election of a young man as the first President of Kiribati after Independence, who represented the traditional values of firmness, patience and wisdom of judgment, is perhaps an appropriate measure of the kind of compromise between traditional and modern values that is sought today by the people of Kiribati.

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In general, the proper balance of traditional values and modern goals is difficult to achieve and to maintain because the former are conservative and the latter are progressive. Nevertheless, modern goals are being formulated by planners and leaders from both public and private sectors who are doing what they believe to be in the best interest of retaining those traditional customs and manners which continue to have value in a modern setting.

It is true that traditional values forged over centuries in a local indigenous setting were adapting slowly to changing conditions in our historical past. They were validated by popular myths and superstitions as customary norms which affected the island social system, the village organisation, the family practices and the cultural identity of Kiribati people.

Modern goals are now being planned and implemented by I-Kiribati who were raised to respect traditional values. Their goals are being sought in the belief that they will improve the island society. But while such goals bring change and presumably progress, conflict with traditional values inevitably follows.

Many I-Kiribati now fear that their traditional values may soon disappear. At the same time, there is optimism that such values may be preserved or retained with proper safeguards, for example, by the introduction and teaching of Kiribati language and skills in the schools. It can be seen, especially in the outer islands, that most people in Kiribati still live in old-style housing and still speak the Kiribati language. Moreover, the basic skills of old, such as fishing, cutting toddy, building, cultivating babai in  pits are still practised. It seems fair to say that the village economy in spite of changes through and sailing a canoe and Christianity, foreign trade and British administration is still intact because the basic skills are still there.

After Independence, the new government proposed goals for the nation to achieve. These are found in the National Development Plan with an emphasis on more trade, more education, more services and so forth. Initiative exercised in the private sector is likewise having an effect in directing the course of development.

Both traditional values and modern goals are important for the future development of Kiribati. It is realised that the latter cannot be achieved without upsetting the old order. The present approach is to reach those goals without causing undue disturbance of the island traditions which continue to be valued because they remain functional.

In conclusion, it is quite clear that westernisation in Kiribati is moving rapidly. Kiribati now stands at the crossroads. Alternatives for the future are not unlimited. Scarce resources and overpopulation are significant obstacles to development. Will the choice be in favour of increasing urbanisation such as exists in South Tarawa today? Or will an attempt be made to strengthen those values and practices which are indigenous to the islands.

(E-mail: -- Rev. 1st June 2012)