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John Roughan: Playing With Words, Little Else!

Playing With Words, Little Else!

By John Roughan
5 October 2004

Today's leaders are into using a new vocabulary about a future Solomon Islands but their old way of thinking about the country hasn't changed. Over the past few weeks, for instance, we are told that development plans must be 'bottom up" to be even half way successful. Some politicians speak about rescuing DBSI--the People's Bank! Still others, not to be outdone, are not to be left behind use words like helping 'grassroots' people and rural communities. Some go as far as actually speak about helping the village and the villager.

Chalk much of this tok tok up to mere 'maus wara'. The word shift, found in newspapers and heard on SIBC, means little for bringing about the deep change that government must embrace if it wants to touch people's lives. Since its first days in existence, April 1982, the Solomon Islands Development Trust (SIDT) has been shouting from the roof tops, working with and strengthening the place most people call home: the village. Our political elite, however, over these two decades took little notice. That is up to now!

Their eyes normally locked onto the BTO: The Big Time Operation. It was SIPL, Gold Ridge, round logging, Taiyo, Honiara itself, etc. that grabbed their attention. That's where the big money was, jobs, influence and power. Of course these major industries have always been needed but should have never been bought at the expense of the village. The Solomons-world, fortunately, has changed drastically since its 1998-2003 Social Unrest years. Now major donor groups--AusAID, EU, NZAID, etc--are laying down the law. If the Solomons expects a better future then political leaders must work with a Solomons' that includes in a central position a 'village-led economic' reality.

EU, for instance, is currently putting its money where its mouth is. It is ploughing millions into a 'Non State Actors' program. When village groups are brought up to speed, demonstrate credible leadership, present clear priorities, set clear goals and has a proper village development plan, then it becomes a prime candidate for direct EU funding.

A recent Australian working paper speaks of a 'village-led recovery economy plan' as the best bet to get Solomons on the economic recovery road. Rick Hou, Governor of Central Bank, when publicly analysing our country's 2003 economy earlier this year stated clearly that it was the village and the villager who snapped the country out of its negative growth and did it with a bang. Before RAMSI came on the scene, it was the woman gardener, fisherman, copra/cocoa worker, ecotimber harvester and others who made our 2003 economy hum at an electrifying rate of 5.8%. World Bank was surprised at this unexpected and strong economic comeback.

One way of truly investing in village life would be to completely revise the Rural Constituency Development Fund (RCDF). The late Christopher Abe, Minister of Finance in the early 1990s, planned to scrape this fund. He realized the fund worked more for individual members and much less for the people whose money it really was. SIDT at the time surveyed urban and rural people about the CDF (as it was then known).

People's responses, over 1,500 people were surveyed, was over whelming. Almost 9 out of 10 of them voted that CDF monies continue but parliamentarians were not to administer it. A local elected committee would guide, guard and protect the $250,000 yearly grant, guarantee strict quarterly audits and monies would be directed primarily towards village development programs. Do away with the idea that the fund, as currently practiced, is used for school fees, bags of rice, ship tickets, feasts, compensation payments, medical fees, etc. etc. etc. Of course parliament members would be outraged if that were to happen. How in the world would they have anyone vote for them!

Another case of how political tok tok is different to what happens on the ground is DBSI's bankruptcy. It wasn't long for politicians to shed crocodile tears about DBSI's certain death. The 'People's Bank', as they fondly call it, must not be allowed to disappear even though it lost more than $40 million. However, West Honiara's member, Y. Sato, had some straight talk about the 'People's Bank' bankruptcy. He came to the point! The bank 'was not run as a people's bank it was run to benefit the politicians and cronies of the government".

Of course the DBSI, The People's Bank, must be restored. But it is more a question of political will to clean up the mess made by politicians themselves than simply securing new funding. No donor in its right mind would invest a single dollar in DBSI until and unless the government takes the following three steps. First, shame them by publicly naming those who destroyed the bank by not re-paying their loans, especially those who owe DBSI $100,000 or more. Certainly those who have walked away without repaying must face the courts to insure that these debts are paid. We'll see how committed the government is ready to revive the People's Bank by having its deadbeat cronies face the courts to recover millions of dollars on bad loans.

Secondly, appoint a brand new board of governors--no cronies, no political hacks, no failed business men--who are competent, trustworthy and have solid track records handling and investing monies in other walks of life. And lastly, for the next five years a revised DBSI would concentrate 85% its loan portfolio--to reflect Solomons' population reality--towards village programs and projects.

Politicians are already gearing up for the next national election. Words, at least this time around, are their only power. Take away their access to money--DBSI, CDEF, etc.--and most dry up and blow away.


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