René Harris was born in Nauru in 1948. He has spent his whole career in Nauru, heading the country's phosphate development corporation before entering government. He and most of his fellow countrymen have poor health, are overweight, and are prone to or afflicted with diabetes. (Nauru has the highest incidence of diabetes of any country in the world.) Although quite overweight himself, in early 2002, in an effort to encourage a more healthy lifestyle among his constituents, Harris began a regimen of public exercise by walking around the country's one airport runway.
Harris's ability to clean up corrupt practices in the government came under question in late 2001, when a reporter uncovered evidence that, while Harris was chairman of the phosphate corporation, he had allegedly spent over US $230,000 of corporate funds for personal purposes, including real estate purchase, vacations, and entertaining. In addition, using his influence as head of the country's only industry, he negotiated massive bank loans under favorable terms for himself.