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Save our Fragile State, invest in village life!


To save our Fragile State, invest in village life!

By John Roughan - Honiara

This week--13-14 January--in London, European Commission personnel along with UNDP and World Bank officials host a conference focusing on helping Fragile States to function once again. Fragile states are nations that find it hard to service their people with development basics--quality education, health assistance, job creation, affordable transport, communication links, peace, etc. The three countries the conference will discuss are--Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Solomon Islands--to have them once again become strong and vibrant functioning states.

I know little about two of the countries mentioned but the Solomons is a place I know a little and care a great deal about. Too often at these gatherings those who, with all the good will in the world, know little about us except what has been gleaned from reports, expert advice and some radio/TV coverage make plans for us. Of course our Social Unrest years--1998-2003--has played out strongly in their imagination. Many who attend international conferences have rarely visited us much less understand that the Fragile State they seek to help is basically about weakened government mechanics, severely compromised public service, inept political leadership and hardly anything about the heart of the nation, the village.

Few of these conference goers would have a clue that Solomons is best described as a 'nation of villages'! Honiara and its pale provincial imitations, although less central to the country's well being than the village sector, have consistently, over a 27 year period, absorbed national wealth for themselves. Their motto has always been: We first and once developed, then what is left over can go to the village!

During the period of our greatest difficulty it was the villager, however, who kept the nation whole and functioning. The country suffered not a single food riot, no dreaded disease took dozens of our people away and the safety and security of thousands of communities depended upon their own resources since our national security body--the police force--had been so seriously compromised. It was, as Rick Hou of Central Bank stated in his annual report: "Our producers (fishermen, copra cutters, cocoa farmers, etc.) and other small economic players went back to their daily activity; they did not take "a wait and see" approach; they did not wait for donor handouts and they did not wait for government policy directions. . . . They simply got on with their lives."

It was the little people, the village sector and the small business person who jumped started the national economy that grew "by about 5.8% in real terms" in 2003--even before the idea of a RAMSI had been conceived. During the country's five years of pain, 1998-2003, when the level of investment in people's lives had been reduced to a crawl that the real powerhouse of the nation became clear. But lack of investment in people's lives dates much further back than 1998.

Survey reports from the late 1980s graphically demonstrate that the governments of the day interest in its most productive sector was weak. Quality education, health facilities, resource assistance and availability of modest amounts of money had stayed miserably low since 1989. Government after government investment in village life rarely went higher than 60% (Ulufa'alu 1997) while most people's Report Cards marked the Mamaloni, Hilly and Kemakeza governments at the 50% or lower levels.

A solid case can be made out that had successive governments since 1989 recognized the power of their most productive sector and invested in its well being, the nation would have never suffered its five years of turmoil. Of course land issues, uneven development strategies, inept leadership and corruption played their parts. However, had basic investment in people's lives--rural employment growth, reliable transport, growing communication links, youth involvement--then the Social Unrest years would more than likely have never happened.

The recent Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster could be a guide for assistance to the Solomons as a Fragile State. The awful destruction on the poorest of the poor caught by TV and handheld home cameras are hard to watch. Yet, at least in the pictures flashed across the world, one sees local fisherman and small business persons already diving in and working to get things back to normal. Fisherman after fisherman looking straight into a TV lens state that they intend to get back to the sea to catch fish. They are already hard at work repairing fishing nets, pulling their dugout canoes out of the piled up wreckage and doing their best to tease silt-filled engines back to work.

Tsunami donors are focusing direct aid and assistance to these, the smallest and most reliable, as the efficient way of getting life back to normal. There are lessons here for the Solomons. The best way of strengthening a fragile Solomons government, is to invest in villagers lives. Rather than aid government directly, earmark funds for organized village groups, their church organizations, the NGO sector who in turn will help the government. Such a procedure is more cost effective but more importantly going through the village to aid government puts the nation on notice that it is the people who matter and the government only in so far as it assists its people.


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