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John Roughan: Village-Led Economic Recovery!

Village-Led Economic Recovery!

John Roughan
9 August 2004

Last year an AusAID position paper boldly presented the above insightful statement. Solomon Islanders should champion a village-led economic recovery plan it recommended. Had these words been uttered by our own economic thinkers and planners, it would constituted a fundamental change in economic thinking and planning. In fact, it would be the first radical change in economic thinking since independence!

This fresh statement made by a totally urban country shows delightful insight. However, I fear that this idea will not travel far in the halls of power because our political elite favour another kind of economic advance. One that backs the country's elite's life style, not one that brings The Better Life to the majority of our people.

What the nation has continued to suffer from its earliest days and which only deepened during the Social Unrest period--1998-2003--is the growth of two kinds of Solomons. Two groups of Solomons' people although living in the same country have been growing apart and never more so than at present. It is that reality, I suspect, which separates Robert Goh, the PM's Special Advisor, and myself so profoundly. The reader should keep in mind that Solomon Islands is the home of two kinds of people: the few who define life by their power, prestige and perks and the rest of the country who fight to keep body and soul together.

Robert Goh and I--like ships passing in the night--talk past each other. He sees a government that has made rapid strides--economic recovery, law and order upswing, a strong future--while I can't get village life--hard, physical labour increasing, basic life patterns weakening, declining youth participation--out of my mind. He claims last year's progress comes from the Kemakeza government's policies, personalities and performance. I doubt this very much!

Guadalcanal's only three rural airports, for instance,--Avu Avu, Babanikira, Marau--still remain closed after 13 months of RAMSI's presence. Auki's airport--second only to Henderson--has been closed for months now. When will government come up with a plan that satisfies the land owners? Certainly with the $30 million Treasury saved in June something creative could be fashioned! Could not the newly appointed Minister of State be directed to bring the Auki landing field fiasco to a healthy conclusion and quickly so?

Honiara's residence suffer severe daily water shortages and electricity brown/blackouts are a regular feature of city living.. The shocking-state of the city's feeder roads only encourage enterprising local youth to repair them (charging $5.00 from each passing motorist). City rubbish continues to go uncollected for more than 3 years now. Where is government's response in these matters?

In vain are the pleas to clean out the ineffectual, inept political appointees to the boards of management of national State Owned Enterprises--SIWA, SIEA, etc. Could not major savings be made in streamlining these institutions especially when they perform so poorly. Perhaps the CEMA experience holds a lesson of two for our leaders. Copra and cocoa production is way up not simply because of price increases but because village people have taken over the shipping and buying of these products.

Rick Hou, the Central Bank Governor, repeated much the same message--a village-led economic recovery--in his May review of the country's 2003 economic recovery. Our country snapped out of its economic mess and did it with a bang. It posted an almost impossible 5.8% year's growth pattern before RAMSI's first troops landed on our shores. The bank's Governor singles out village people--the woman gardener, small producers (copra cutters, fishermen, cocoa growers), ordinary Solomon Islanders as the true leaders of the nation's economic turn around.

The Solomons backbone, the little people, didn't hang around waiting for the hand out, the grant, the donor gift but got on with daily living and produced exports--cocoa, copra, sawn timber, sea products, gold nuggets--most time under hardship. Rather than bemoan their fate, listening to political tok tok, worrying what government would or would not do, or waiting for their failed politicians to speak out, the typical Solomon Islander got on with life.

Make no mistake about it. If the country returns to the failed policies of the past--over reliance on big time operations, e.g. SIPL, Taiyo, Gold Ridge, Honiara itself, the expense of a village-led economic recovery plan, then old fault lines will once again surface. The political elite with their perks, privilege and power will continue to shape a nation that suits them. If, however, there is a strong village focus, perhaps, maybe, there could be a chance of turning this country around for all.

**** ENDS ****

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