Making Majuro

Visit to the Marshall Islands. 


Listener: 20 October, 2007. 


Keywords: Globalisation & Trade; 


The Marshall Islands are due north of New Zealand – about eight hours’ flying time on an RNZAF 757. I was there recently on the annual Pacific Mission led by Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, who takes a team of New Zealanders around selected Pacific nations for a week. 


We visited the atoll of Majuro, the island’s capital, where about half of the 62,000 Marshallese live. The atoll is a ring of islands about 50km long and 80 metres wide at its widest point. As Charles Darwin first observed, atolls are formed by a coral reef growing around a volcanic island that later subsides into the ocean. Such reefs are built by tiny tropical marine organisms, and yet are far larger structures than anything built by man. 


We know little about the origins of the Micronesians who first settled the Marshalls more than 2000 years ago. The islands were annexed by the Germans in 1886, taken over by the Japanese in 1914 and captured by US forces in World War II. 


In 1986, a Compact of Free Association with the United States gave the Republic of the Marshall Islands its sovereignty. The compact provides for aid and US defence in exchange for continued US military use of the missile-testing range at Kwajalein Atoll. The Marshallese have unrestricted access to the US. 


The economy is not a robust one. Three out of five workers are government employees. Total tax revenue is about $US35 million and expenditure is nearer $125 million. The gap is bridged by aid and the revenue from a trust fund established by the US Government as part of the compact and contributed to by the Republic of China – Taiwan. (Consequently, the People’s Republic of China refuses to occupy its huge embassy building.) 


More than a third of the budget is spent on education: 38 percent of the population are under 15. (The comparable figure for New Zealand is 21 percent.) A priority is getting their school and tertiary buildings up to standard. The head contractor for this work is the New Zealand firm Beca International, an engineering and related consultancy services group that is also involved with the Marshalls’ hospital and airport. 

Beca began in 1918 when Arthur Gray returned from World War I; George Beca joined him after World War II. The group worked initially in New Zealand on such projects as Auckland International Airport, the Bluff aluminium smelter, the Reporoa dairy factory and the University of Auckland Business School. It has evolved into a New Zealand-based partnership owned by its 400-odd principals, working in 20 countries. 


Beca exemplifies an export category frequently overlooked in public discussion: New Zealanders applying their professional skills overseas. Foreign exchange earnings of all professional services surpass $1 billion a year, more than for wool and comparable to fish and fruit. 


Providing the services can be challenging. The Marshalls projects have involved about 70 New Zealanders, and 60,000 hours of design work in New Zealand. They had no building codes, so Beca developed its own, specifying New Zealand materials unless something cheaper of the same standard or better could be found. So they use New Zealand materials when they can’t locally source. They also employ locals as much as possible, and train them. 


We visited the school buildings. They were plain rather than extravagant. Because of supply difficulties, they are designed to last, and attention has been given to keeping them cool in the tropical clime. They are functional rather than ugly. Majuro’s “Bikini Town Hall”, built for the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll displaced by the nuclear bomb tests, is heavy and sad. Our designers have done much better. 


<>But the builders that really impressed me were the ones that constructed the reef.