Five years ago today, Australia embarked on one of its most ambitious foreign policy exercises in recent years when it led the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. RAMSI, comprising of 15 countries from the region, was conceived as a new model for foreign intervention. The aims of the mission were not only to take back control of a country rapidly descending into civil war, but also to remain in a ‘nation building’ role to rebuild government and the economy.
This was ambitious new territory for Australia and a new model for foreign interventions worldwide. But how successful has RAMSI been in meeting its military and civil objectives?
From a military point of view, RAMSI has been an unqualified success. In 2003 when the first troops were deployed, the Solomon Islands was on the brink of becoming the region’s first failed state. The population of the capital halved in a matter of months as people fled the arbitrary violence of roaming militiamen.
The economic collapse was no less dramatic. It is estimated that exports more than halved from their pre-conflict levels and business all over Honiara shut virtually over night. The Gold Ridge gold mine was closed and ransacked, the main palm oil plantation uprooted and the tuna cannery was shut down. Logging was severely affected. The Reserve Bank of the Solomon Islands ran out of money at the height of the conflict and the electricity generator could not operate for a lack of funds. Dark times indeed.
Within weeks of being deployed, RAMSI was able to restore civil stability to the Solomon Islands. More than 6,000 militiamen have been arrested, over 9,000 charges have been laid and over 3,000 firearms have been confiscated. The Solomon Islands police force has been purged of 160 rogue officers. Peace has returned to the Solomon Islands.
The economy has also recovered, albeit from a low base. But at current growth rates, it will still take the Solomon Islands more than a decade to return to pre conflict levels.
RAMSI has managed a return to macroeconomic stability, an essential base for future growth. The tax system has improved with government revenues increasing. Other efforts have focused on reducing regulatory hurdles to beginning formal businesses and easing restrictions on hiring and firing. Government slush funds are less common now that audits are regularly conducted and accounting systems in place.
But these changes do nothing to address the constraints on development in the Solomon Islands. Over 85% of the population is dependent on subsistence agriculture while the formal economy is composed mostly of the public service. Industrial production is dominated by one large palm oil plantation and a goldmine no longer producing gold. Logs dominate exports while production of non-timber agriculture is negligible.
Living standards in the Solomon Islands haven’t improved much since independence. Hundreds of reports by dozens of organisations have already documented that the key constraints to development are land tenure and a lack of infrastructure, including education. But little progress has been made in easing these constraints.
Traditional land ownership was appropriate to subsistence farming, with the areas of land being worked changing with family needs, but a move to cash production entails property rights in land. Property rights are also essential to the commercial development of manufacturing, tourism and other service industries. All these potential employment generating industries are constrained because there is no system of allocating available land. A necessary first step is to complete a land survey. As a large, technical and expensive job, it is ideal for RAMSI to tackle.
Infrastructure, particularly roads and schools are also needed. Some of the roads damaged in the civil conflict have been restored, but much more investment is needed to link producers and consumers. The education system has seen little improvement in thirty years.
RAMSI’s leadership claims it has no mandate to execute important reform programs that would ease these key constraints. Yet the mission’s security and nation building objectives are both intimately tied to economic success, and the government in Honiara has been calling for more involvement by RAMSI in economic development.
It is time for RAMSI to stop buck-passing and take greater responsibility for economic development.
Five years after landing in Honiara, the city is still filled with idle young men with no jobs and nothing to do but watch busy expatriates hurry about their city. These young men are harbingers of future instability. Without more involvement in reforms that will promote economic development, RAMSI risks becoming little more than one of the countless organisations that in the past has promised the Solomon Islands so much but delivered little.
Gaurav Sodhi is an economist at the Centre for Independent Studies