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The complexities of creating a good government in the Marshall Islands

Micro Waves By Jack Niedenthal

Majuro-- President Abraham Lincoln, in one of the most famous speeches in American history delivered at the Gettysburg National Cemetery after the Civil War’s deadliest battle, spoke profoundly about democracy and the value of freedom, stating that government should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” In this part of the world, for better or for worse, democracy has always appeared as a mixed bag of successes and failures. This is because of the complicated island nature of our uniquely intertwined political and traditional power structures. 


The idea of a “good government” administration in any democracy should begin with a simple standard: Put the most talented, dedicated and hardworking people in key decision-making positions. They will set the tone for the rest of that particular branch of government. In the Pacific region, where family loyalty and responsibility have always been so important and often come with a built-in level of traditional obligation within a sparsely populated, resource-deficient country, this is not easily accomplished. 


Members of our island societies who are known to have integrity and the desire to enhance the greater good of those they serve in government by inspiring and supporting them in the workplace tend to gravitate toward –and form kinships with– others who have similar work habits and ethics. The ability and freedom to form “ethics bonding” in the workplace often becomes a cornerstone for the success of that organization. When powerful individuals with moral backbones put their minds together to create workable solutions, society inevitably becomes enriched. The challenge is getting these individuals in place within a culture that has so many thorny power structures to appease and navigate.



The contrast in government structures of Palau and the Marshall Islands is worth discussing, specifically when it comes to the Cabinet selection process employed by the respective presidents to fill out a newly elected government administration. In Palau, Cabinet ministers come from the population as a whole and are confirmed by the Senate and then serve at the will of the president: they are not elected parliamentarians.

According to Palau's Constitution, no person can serve in the Cabinet and the legislature at the same time. This makes for a huge pool of highly qualified candidates for essential leadership positions and it gives the president the ability and the flexibility to appoint individuals who have proven expertise in the fields related to ministerial roles.

In the Marshall Islands, on the other hand, Cabinet ministers are selected among those elected to the Nitijela (parliament).  So instead of having the entire adult population as candidates for potential leadership roles as it is in Palau, the president-elect in the RMI can only choose from the other 32 elected Nitijela members.


The narrow selection of politicians for ministerial roles in the Marshall Islands presents numerous issues.

First, because they are elected parliamentarians, decisions impacting their areas of responsibility are often made with weighty political considerations instead of practical ones.  This can have damaging consequences for society, especially in the key areas of health, education, justice and foreign affairs. 

Secondly, these elected parliamentarians are often voted in because of their popularity and not because of their educational background or expertise. This creates the potential for mediocrity in the Cabinet, and by extension, mediocrity in our government. 

Lastly, Cabinet members often use these positions of immense power to take care of the constituents of their respective jurisdictions –and not the entire country– making for glaring inefficiencies that lead to weakened government services. 


The Ministry of Health in the Marshall Islands somewhat circumvents this issue within the organization by making the secretary of health the “Incident Commander” during any form of health emergency.  The only role of the health minister during such an emergency is to keep the president and the Cabinet informed as the situation evolves and is confronted. 


Based on my own firsthand experience, ministers often have a hard time understanding this role while making decisions during health emergencies. But there is a reason for this structural difference in the Ministry of Health as opposed to other divisions of the government. You can’t have an elected government official making life-and-death determinations who may have political motivations calculated into those decisions.


In the Marshall Islands, there have been genuine attempts by past presidents to build a Cabinet that reflects the expertise of those holding the various portfolios, but oftentimes, they select those who will help them retain their tenuous grip on power.  This often leads to corruption and inefficient government, where the proverbial tail constantly wags the dog. This also makes for a president with diminished power and the subsequent inability to lead the government in a manner that they feel best meets their own political philosophy and/or goals. 


In the Marshall Islands, the president can only be as good as his or her Cabinet members who come from a small pool of popularly elected individuals instead of those who are qualified for the positions. The result is a society with too heavy a weight on purely political decision-making, creating a government “of the politicians, by the politicians, and for the politicians.” 

Maybe some forward-thinking individuals may want to revisit and restructure this section of the Marshall Islands Constitution, a living document that must be revisited every 10 years through a Constitutional Convention to create a more efficient and effective form of government administration for the future of our nation.


Jack Niedenthal is the former secretary of Health Services for the Marshall Islands, where he has lived and worked for 43 years. He is the author of “For the Good of Mankind, An Oral History of the People of Bikini,” and president of Microwave Films, which has produced six award-winning feature films in the Marshallese language. Send feedback to



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