Solomon Islands – resurrected but not reformed

When the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands was launched in 2003, it marked a turning point for Australia's relationship with the Pacific islands. After years of trying to assist development through aid, Australia was reluctantly forced to, in effect, take over the running of one of our closest neighbours. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the intervention, and its efforts to date have produced mixed results. The pacification of the Solomon Islands has been enormously successful. Before the intervention, the Solomon Islands was on the brink of becoming the region's first failed state. Militias overran the streets and controlled public finances, ethnic violence was rife, and economic activity fell away dramatically. Since 2003, more than 6000 militants have been arrested, more than 9000 charges have been laid, and more than 3000 guns have been confiscated under RAMSI's watch. Civil stability has returned.

Yet the security gains will prove temporary if the underlying economic stagnation that led to the civil unrest is not addressed. Solomon Islands remains the poorest and least developed state in the region. Because of the civic violence that has resulted from economic stagnation, many Solomon Islanders are no better off than they were at independence 30 years ago. The underdevelopment of Solomon Islands is damning of governments since independence, but also of the many aid organisations who have little improvement to show for their hundreds of millions of dollars of largesse. If words were a substitute for action, Solomon Islands would be rich. Countless multilateral bodies and aid organisations have made the same recommendations and the same promises. Yet the reforms that are essential to agricultural and private-sector development have been ignored. RAMSI has done a little better. It has restored macroeconomic stability with a mixture of efficient economic management and aid funds.

Tax efficiency has been addressed and revenues increased. An audit system for government departments has been introduced. Political slush funds have been cut. RAMSI's economic production efforts, however, have focused on reducing regulatory barriers to business in Honiara and encouraging foreign investment. Solomon Islands, where most people do not even participate in the cash economy, now has world- class banking regulations. The majority of Solomon Islanders have not been affected by these measures because this is not where the bottlenecks to economic growth are. More than 85 per cent of Solomon Islanders live subsistence lives in rural areas. Their gardens have kept a growing population fed, but without education and health services. Honiara teems with unemployed youth idling in the shade, despondent and restless because they have no present and no future. Youths and men are at best woefully underemployed. There are few earning opportunities in the villages, and no jobs in the towns. There is no informal indigenous sector. Chinese shopkeepers and other expatriates dominate commercial opportunities. Timber has been torn out of Solomon Islands at unsustainable rates, with disastrous effects on gardens and fishing grounds as soil has been stripped from mountainsides.

Agriculture is the key to raising rural living standards, and land tenure is the key impediment to raising agricultural output and incomes. Without land surveys, registration, and long-term leases there can be no progress. Infrastructure is the second bottleneck. Without roads, education, inter-island transport, and mobile phones, agriculture and small off-farm businesses cannot develop. Employment creation is desperately needed. Solomon Islands has the fastest population growth in the region, with at least 16,000 additions to its labour market each year. Tourism is an obvious potential source of employment. RAMSI has undoubtedly made a critical contribution in pacifying Solomon Islands. It laid the foundations for growth and development, but has concentrated on peripheral problems and ignored the real constraints on growth. Solomon Islands is better off with the involvement of RAMSI than without, but RAMSI risks becoming just the latest agency promising to deliver development with little improvement to show for its pledges.

The security gains RAMSI has made are fragile. The bored and frustrated men who continue to sit around villages and towns feel sidelined and alienated in their own country as they observe busy expatriates scurrying about their business. Their inactivity is a harbinger of future instability. RAMSI's mission is only half complete. Without addressing the real constraints on development in the Solomons, it has no exit strategy.

Gaurav Sodhi is a researcher at The Centre for Independent Studies. His paper Five out of Ten: A Performance Report on RAMSI was issued in January.