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John Roughan: Getting Rid Of Poverty!

Getting Rid Of Poverty!

John Roughan
30 May 2005

Return and take a long look at Solomons' recent Social Unrest years. The country's 1998-2003 period wasn't primarily about poor development priorities, or even about the land issue and certainly not about ethnic tension. All of these and others--corruption, poor leadership, political ineptness, etc.-- played into the wider, deeper and more pervasive issue of growing poverty levels across the nation. Peal away these troublesome layers as real and difficult as they were and at the heart of Solomons' troubles was growing, hard core poverty.

No, Solomons poverty was not that experienced by a number of African, Caribbean and other poor third world people. During the Social Unrest years, few villagers experienced outright hunger, disease didn't claim hundreds and villager security, although not helped by the state, was nevertheless active through people's own customs and strong traditions.

Solomons' poverty levels have much more to do with deep, structural inequalities which grew more pernicious and vicious since independence. Rather than the villager occupying centre stage he but especially she are rarely recognized as partners. The political establishment consistently views the bulk and core of Solomons population who actually own more than 93% of all land, rivers, trees, reefs and ocean as liabilities in the quest of state building, a people who basically seek handouts or a group considered a distinct drag in national development efforts.

One mask Solomons' poverty wears is its growing poor health care system. At independence villagers believed that once the local lads took up government power, health improvement would shoot to the top of the development list. During the 1978-1998 period, in spite of health advances --new Referral Hospital, more and better trained local doctors, medical investment, etc.--rural medical attention weakened. Seriously sick patients travelled too far to poorly staffed and understocked clinics. It should not surprise us that our recent Social Unrest roots didn't sprout in Honiara with its restless and bored youth. No, they flamed among angry and frustrated villagers. Poverty's other mask continues to be the sorry condition of rural schools. People know in their hearts that the twin roads out of poverty are quality education and paid employment. Both, however, have been noticeably absent in rural areas. Our recent troubles rooted on Guale's Weather Coast where quality education and economic activity have been absent for years. In no time their seething unrest found a welcoming home among Honiara's restless and bored youth.

Policy and political decisions not to seriously invest in quality education, rural medical attention, affordable and reliable transport, strengthened communication linkages, vital economic activity, etc. joined together to deny the bulk of citizens ways to make village life a bit more satisfying. In spite of villagers proving their economic worth, their efforts are routinely forgotten.

It has been the gardener (read women), copra cutter, cocoa farmer, fisher and truth be said, the destructive logger who have jump started the economy from below zero in 2002 to a significant 5.8% in 2003. These very same 'minor economic players' performed a similar 'magic' feat in 2004. Last year, according to the Central Bank's most recent report, it was once again a banner one for the small player. It must have come from 'minor economic players' since SIPL, Gold Ridge, tourism and other Big Time Operations have yet to re-enter the economy.

Unfortunately our decision makers fail to spot the trend. They view the 'minor economic player' at best a distraction. In this way, they misunderstand poverty and attack, not its core, but through the hand out, e.g. Rural Constituency Development Fund. Poverty is cured as charitable assistance . . . a boat's fare, school fee, doctor's bill, money for food, etc., meeting people's immediate pressing needs. This approach, sometimes needed, doesn't respond to poverty's growing grip.

The favorite poverty answer, however, is to grow the economic pie bigger so everyone gets more. This is development's favorite response to poverty reduction . . . get people to rise above the poverty line through low paying jobs, promised projects, minimum health and education care and credit for small businesses. Grow the pie bigger but don't question why some manage to take so much while the majority get so much less pie.

The best way to get rid of poverty is to restructure society. That's why the next national election must be about planning investments where the greatest needs exist, e.g. Weather Coast and much less for Honiara. It means a shift in power from those who have more than they need to villagers who must have first cut at quality education, working clinics, better transport, growing communication links, rural employment investment, etc. Transform society through policies based on justice. Perhaps a new breed of parliamentarians can deliver but to assure that they do, we the voters need to be sure we will work for this, the third way of getting rid of poverty.


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