An island nation confronts rising sea levels—and the related flood of foreign aid.

Eric Palma

On my first morning in Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, I left my hotel, walked across the street to one of the country’s few modern buildings, and climbed two flights of stairs to the prime minister’s office. The minister was not in, his assistant said, nor was she sure when he would be back. Later today? Could be. Tomorrow? Sure, anything’s possible. Still, better to try the foreign minister, she offered; he’s just around the corner.

He was not, but his assistant was, and he offered me a list of six officials I might interview instead. Three days later, after having struck out with each of the first four officials on the list, I ended up in the office of No. 5, a mid-level bureaucrat. “Hi,” I told her. “I’m the reporter.” She looked at me blankly. “From America?”

The woman sighed. “What exactly is the benefit for me to speak with you?” she asked, before waving her hand to signal that the meeting was over. Leaving her office, I saw her turn sullenly toward a mountain of paperwork on her desk.

Scientists have long suggested that Tuvalu, a former British colony with a population of roughly 11,000 people spread across nine South Pacific islands and atolls, may be the first country to become uninhabitable as a result of climate change. This distinction has attracted an alphabet soup of foreign aid organizations and multilateral bodies—the IMF, the UNDP, USAID—to the tiny main island for climate change–related projects. And since aid money is invariably granted with strings attached, Tuvalu officials now spend so much time meeting visiting technocrats and making cameos at overseas climate-change conferences that they seem to have little time left for the business of governing.

Back at my hotel, where the crush of international visitors (a pair of Kiwi police trainers, an Australian waste-­management guru, a team of Japanese geologists) lent every mealtime a Model UN vibe, I chatted with a foreign expert working with the Tuvalu government. He described his shock when he arrived in Funafuti only to find that the official whom he was supposed to meet was headed overseas for nearly two months to attend a series of international conferences and diplomatic meetings.

“Suddenly you realize there is no government!” he said with a laugh. “There was a time a few weeks ago when there was not a single member of the government here. Not one.”

The bureaucrats who remain are overwhelmed by attention. Nicki Wrighton, a graduate student at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Welling­ton who has spent years working in Tuvalu, wrote about the phenomenon in a paper published online last year. Following up on complaints from government sources, she combed through tourism and migration statistics and tracked passenger arrivals at the country’s tiny airport. What she found was staggering:

If each of the approximately 900 development related visitors entering Tuvalu during 2008 had meetings totaling an average of 6 hours, over the period they were in the country, and if there were two Tuvalu government officials present at each meeting ... this would equate to 10,880 hours per annum.

This would be tricky, given the miniscule size of Tuvalu’s government and the fact that a year has only 8,760 hours.

Further extrapolation shows that during 2008, the number of visitors who came to Tuvalu for development-­related work equaled nearly 10 percent of the country’s population. To put that in perspective, imagine 30 million people visiting Washington this year, hoping to meet with Cabinet-­level officials.

In the end, I failed to interview a single government official during my week on Tuvalu. But not everyone there is struggling with the glut of inter­national attention. A driver for one member of parliament cheerily told me that his boss’s overseas trips were his favorite times of the year. “When the boss is away, I ask his PA for the key to his office and I go into his office to sleep. Then, after lunch, everyone else comes into his office to sleep too,” he said. “It’s great.”

Great for now.