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John Roughan: Solomons A Fragile State?

Solomons A Fragile State? Yes, But Within A Resilient Society!

By John Roughan
17 May 2005

Australia's 2005-2006 budget recently submitted to parliament, refers to both PNG and Solomons as 'fragile states'. In the Solomons' case, describing present and recent governments as 'fragile' is accurate enough. (Of course Australia couldn't speak of Solomons as a 'failed state' after pouring so much money and personnel into it over these past two yeas!) Our state institutions--the ministries of treasury, education, health, etc.--are only slowly returning to health. It will take years of hard work, dedication and persistence for these ministries, government machinery and especially the political structures to once again stand on their own feet.

But having said that, it is no less true that past and present governments, although weakened considerably by the Social Unrest of 1998-2003, have been propped up by a resilient people. Yes, State institutions, political leadership and the government apparatus have proven themselves terribly weak and unable to function well. Solomons' people, on the other hand, have a track record of remarkable resiliency. There is a danger, therefore, that by labelling the Solomons a 'fragile' state, outsiders could easily think the whole fabric of society as fragile, failing and close to disappearing. Nothing is further from the truth!

Last week, for instance, Solomon Islands people through its Civil Society Network, NGO groups, Church organizations and business reps met with the Pacific Forum's Eminent Persons Group (EPG). This group of important Pacific leaders--Fiji's Foreign Minister, the Samoan Ombudsman, the head of the Pacific Forum--took two hours out of their busy schedule to listen to, agree with and take note of what ordinary Solomon Islanders were saying about their beloved nation, what they thought of RAMSI's presence within the country and their thoughts how to make RAMSI even more productive.

Not once in the two hour meeting did these concerned citizens display any sense of despair, of negativity or of defeat. Just the opposite! With one voice, the thirty men and women who attended the meeting shared their insights with the EPG. To insure a prosperous and peaceful Solomons, they argued, means working closely not only with government ministries, members of parliament and state institutions but also with people's institutions, their working structures and their nation-wide network of organizations.

For instance, it will make little difference for a future Solomons if RAMSI strengthens government's ability to collect revenue if that same revenue is not primarily earmarked for investment in people's lives. The nation's private sector--Civil Society Network, its many NGOs, especially Church groups--have to be seen not as rivals to government but these structures outside government lie at the heart of what makes the nation tick.

I know I have said it many times before but had the village been at the forefront of the investment dollar since our independence days, the Social Unrest period would have never rooted.

Is it strange that the nation's trouble didn't first start in Honiara! After all that's where thousands of jobless and bored youth hung around. Cast your mind back to the mid-1990s when Honiara's streets were filled with restless youth. Yet, it wasn't the town area that sparked off our troubles but Weather Coast people who felt that the nation had badly let them down--poor schools, worse medical assistance, certainly little economic activity and growing poverty. What would they lose by chasing out SIPL and Gold Ridge workers off Guale! 'Nothing!', said their leaders!

That is why Solomon Islanders are calling for massive investment on Guale's Weather Coast . . . to correct government's many years of neglect. Round tree logging, still remains a sore spot. It was the trigger for much of the Social Unrest which hit the country in 1998. Last year's 1 million cubic meters of logging exports far exceeds what the nation can afford. RAMSI must work to reduce this rape of our forest lands by shady overseas operators working through dubious local connections.

And this was the message that the members of EPG heard. Yes, of course RAMSI must keep on working closely with government machinery, strengthening it and making it more efficient. Yes, let's get it working better but for the whole of the nation, not just for itself. But to insure that the nation never goes off the deep end again, then the villager, the typical citizen especially women and youth must be at the top end of the investment dollar.

Australia probably correctly labels Solomons a 'fragile' state. But the resilience of the typical person, the other side of the coin, has not only jumped started the national economy in the last few years but literally saved the nation as well. RAMSI must recognize this people of resilience their most valuable ally!


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