America’s Half-Forgotten Islands

by Colin Woodard
Reprinted with permission of The Christian Science Monitor

UMAN, FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA   Fall 1999– Sixty years ago, residents of this small tropical island had access to electricity, running water, paved roads, good schools, competent health care, and a regular ferry service to the main town on a nearby island of the Chuuk archipelago.

But after 40 years as a US trust territory – and another 15 years of US-funded development – Uman has none of these things.

The roads built by the Japanese before World War II have been reduced to slender footpaths. Japanese-era industrial machinery rusts in the jungles, and shrubs grow on the main dock.

With no jobs and no future, young men drift to the district center, Weno, where many regularly drink themselves into a violent rage, then attack anyone or anything around them. The neglected, supply-starved hospital has such a poor reputation that even those seriously injured in attacks prefer not to be treated.

All this in a nation of 130,000 that has received more than $ 1.3 billion in US grants – $ 10,000 per person – over the past 13 years.

This is America’s half-forgotten former Trust Territory of Pacific Islands – a vast swath of the Central Pacific captured from the Japanese during World War II – a place where the contradictions of US foreign policy are laid bare.

Washington ruled this region with a mix of starry-eyed idealism and cold-hearted self-interest, a combination that lives on in its post-independence policies toward the region. The result has been disastrous for places like Uman, Weno, and hundreds of other islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

“Our policy has been a complete failure,” says William Bodde, former US ambassador to the Marshall Islands.“A great deal of US taxpayers’ money has been wasted.”

Captured from Japan during World War II, the Marshall, Caroline, and Marianas islands became a US-administered United Nations Trust Territory. The US pledged to advance the region’s people toward self-sufficiency.

In the 1940s and ’50s, the US exploded 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshalls, irradiating scores of islanders and forcing hundreds into exile. Hundreds more were displaced from islands on Kwajalein Atoll to make way for intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

After a 1961 UN mission accused the US of neglecting the islanders, Washington sent in large quantities of aid and Peace Corps volunteers. A representative assembly was set up, and many of the islanders elected to it soon began clamoring for independence.

The Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) – the bulk of the Trust Territory – were granted independence in 1986. Under their independence agreement – the Compact of Free Association – the Marshall Islands and FSM agreed to rent their military sovereignty to the US in exchange for tens of millions in annual payments plus access to a range of federal programs.

No strings attached

The Compact payments, which end in 2001, were to be used to make the two nations self-sufficient. But most of it was simply handed over to their governments with no strings attached.

The results have been disastrous.

The Marshall Islands, population 60,000, has received $ 1 billion over the past 13 years. It’s now completely dependent on US payments, which account for nearly three-quarters of the Marshallese gross domestic product.

A third of the population lives in ramshackle housing in the Marshallese capital, Majuro, where essential services like education, health care, and waste disposal are dismal. Half the country’s population is under 15, and the total population grows by almost 5 percent a year. Few people of any age speak English, although it is the language of instruction in the public schools. Meanwhile, the government has lost millions on failed hotels, expensive aircraft, and other white elephant projects.

The situation is even worse in Chuuk, the most populous of the FSM’s four states. Rampant cronyism and patronage are sapping the state dry. A recent report from the FSM public auditor details the diversion of millions of dollars from infrastructure and industry projects to private individuals. Meanwhile, the heavily indebted state is unable to provide basic services.

“Teacher salaries are terrible, the school is falling apart, and the kids lack discipline,” says Ichie Mailos, principal of Uman’s decrepit elementary school. “Most students don’t make it through junior high school. There are no jobs, so they just hang out and get into trouble.”

Track records

Other FSM states have a better track record, but there’s still very little private sector activity. Thousands have fled to Guam and Hawaii to find work. (Citizens of the former Trust Territory can travel and work freely in the US.) Annual US payments account for more than half of the FSM’s gross domestic product.

The current arrangement expires in 2001, and its terms are now being renegotiated.

Meanwhile, Uman waits for change. “Why doesn’t the US do something?” asks Over Stephen, an island elder. “Give our politicians a plan to help the people and make them spend the money on that plan. I don’t like the way they are doing it now.”