Dynamics of conflict and cohesion in the Solomon Islands
a study into the function of the wantok system and the government in dealing with conflict
Hervé Benesville, April 2010
- natural resources
- conflict resolution
- social cohesion
- Solomon Islands
This article has originally been written in the context of a Masters program on Skills in international cooperation projects at the University Pierre Mendes France.
The Solomon Islands is a country located east of Papua New Guinea and is made up of over 990 islands and is home to more than 80 languages. The Island has known civil conflict in 1998, which has resulted in a Peace Plan in October 2000. A recurring explanation for the conflict is the ethnic diversity of the population. The author proposes a different analysis: according to him, a weak democratic system compounded by endemic corruption, a poorly educated youthful population and a lack of economic opportunities are the causes of tension. This article looks into the political institutions available at dealing with conflict: the customary wantok system, the government and regional actors and assesses in what way they contribute to reinforcing social cohesion.
A range of factors caused rising tension and instability in the Solomon Islands in the late 1990s, including economic decline and political corruption. The following study will examine how questions of the ownership and use of land, brought to the fore in particular by long-term, large-scale migration, played a role in the violence beginning in 1998. Since the 1940s, Guadalcanal has been the destination for substantial numbers of migrants from elsewhere in the Solomon Islands. Most visibly, the new capital Honiara became dominated by non-Guadalcanalese. When the capital was established on Guadalcanal following World War II, many people from all over Solomon Islands were drawn to the city in search of employment. A number of ‘squatter’ settlements were established on the outskirts of the city. Migrants also settled in rural Guadalcanal, attracted by employment opportunities in palm oil estates, rice projects, logging operations and coconut plantations. The Gold Ridge mine located east of Honiara has also attracted migrants since it opened in 1997 . Many of these migrants came from the island of Malaita where a relatively dense population and land shortages encouraged young men to take up the opportunities offered on Guadalcanal. Over recent decades, Malaitan migration has become more permanent, with more migrants remaining in Guadalcanal rather than returning to Malaita, as land and more permanent employment have become available on Guadalcanal, and ‘push’ factors of overpopulation and land shortages have increased on Malaita. Tension between Guadalcanalese and Malaitans had begun to rise in the decade before the conflict. As early as 1988, Guadalcanalese protested and called on the national Government to repatriate all unemployed ‘illegal squatters’. Many Guadalcanalese believed the migrants were obtaining employment and economic opportunities at the expense of locals who were being marginalized. Most commentators point to a clash in cultures of the two communities and say stereotypes contributed to tensions. For example, Guadalcanalese accused Malaitans of aggressiveness and blamed them for a large number of murders on Guadalcanal.
Moreover, tensions over the use and ownership of land featured heavily in causing the violence on Guadalcanal. These land issues interacted with a range of other issues, such as uneven economic development between islands and between urban and rural areas. Tensions on Guadalcanal had multiple causes, including large-scale migration, the alienation of customary land as a result of the extractive industry, the capital Honiara and agricultural plantations, and conflict between generations of Guadalcanalese over the sale or lease of kin land. Large-scale migration and competition for employment caused economic and political issues to be viewed through the lens of ethnic tensions.
Yet it is important not to exclusively blame the conflict on migration and tensions over land. Moreover, it also seems likely that the crisis in Solomon Islands was partly caused and aggravated by certain businessmen and politicians who sought to use the tensions discussed above for personal gain. The reformist agenda of the Ulufa’alu Government, particularly its plans to regulate the forestry industry, threatened the interests of a broad range of the middle class. The conflict and the eventual coup in 2000 halted this process. Many individuals also benefited from the criminality and instability associated with the violence as well as from the Government’s ongoing payment of compensation to ‘victims’ of the violence.
An assessment of conflicts and insecurity in the Pacific region must take into account the large social, political and economic diversity in, as well as the geographical distance between Pacific countries. These circumstances make conflict dynamics for each country unique and reduce the likelihood of a spill over. However, some common and interrelated causes and accelerating aspects for instability and conflicts can be underlined :
The impact of resource exploitation by transnational corporations often accelerates the outbreak of conflicts. These can have devastating effects on the ecosystem and destroy indigenous cultures and livelihood, through disregarding local concepts of land-ownership, participation in decision-making, and modes of compensation.
The modernisation of traditional societies and the change of traditional social structures while the state fails to ensure social security, lead to a stronger feeling of belonging to small entities and the use of “others” as scapegoats. This worsens the deficit of national identity.
There is an unequal distribution of benefits from rich natural resources that creates a perception of injustice in the society. Particularly vulnerable is the young generation – among them ex-combatants – which can be mobilised under such circumstances for criminal and conflict related violence.
The availability of firearms among civilians accelerates and aggravates instability and conflicts. Firearms transform minor disputes into shootings and make it easier for young people to become killers.
Modern government institutions and the nature of governance do not conform to the Pacific understanding of decision-making and ruling. This detachment between society and state institutions weakens the capacity to manage socio-economic change without resorting to violent conflicts.
While conflicts in the Pacific are localised and rarely interrelated, the Pacific has adopted a regional approach to conflict prevention, resolution and peace building. Four declarations on security and conflicts of the Pacific Island Forum (the main Pacific regional intergovernmental organisation) build the basis of regional cooperation and security policy. There is a focus on regional peacekeeping and monitoring operations that appears now to shift towards military interventions in conflict-ridden countries. The difficulties that the Forum faces include its rather weak internal structures and the over dependence on human and financial resources from two member states – Australia and New Zealand. The regional approach reaches here a global dimension. The Australia-led initiative for a ‘cooperative’ military intervention in Solomon Islands, for instance, can not be appraised without taking into account some of the broader geopolitical considerations of regional and global key players that preoccupy Australia itself, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Korea, Taiwan, China and Japan.
Beside the regional institutional capacity, Pacific countries dispose of customary methods, instruments and values to resolve problems in a non-violent way. Some of these traditions and customs are themselves conducive to violence, and can allow social oppression of groups such as women and young people.
Political: State building capacity
For recall, the Solomon Islands gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1978 and is a constitutional monarchy since. With Queen Elisabeth II as Head of State , the country maintains close links with the ex-colonial power. Since independence, the Solomon Islands has had to deal with increasingly fractious provinces, culminating in a period of tensions and civil unrest from 1998 to 2003, and calls by some provinces for a federal constitution bordering on independence. Since then the country has experienced continuing political instability with serious riots in the capital in April 2006 shortly after the national elections. It features as one of the fragile states in the DAC review .
The Solomon Islands is predominantly Christian and has over 80 different languages with English as the official language. Over three quarters of the population are engaged in subsistence farming and fishing in the rural areas. The remainder live in provincial urban centres such as Honiara (the capital), or else work in primary industries such as plantations and logging.
The Solomon Islands has a recent history of conflict exacerbated by successive governments that have failed to take the people’s interests to heart.
The country fell into the grip of ‘warlords’ from 1999 with a period of recurring violence centered on Honiara and Guadalcanal, with violence between the inhabitants of the two major islands of Guadalcanal (Guadalcanal Isatabu Freedom Movement) and Malaita (Malaita Eagle Force). One of the root causes of the conflict was poverty, since over time Malaitans left their island, the most heavily populated, for work and better opportunities in Guadalcanal. They established themselves by taking up land not in use by the local population at the time. An estimated 20,000 Malaitans fled Guadalcanal during the tensions and the principal industries such as the oil palm plantations and timber processing plant on the Guadalcanal Plains, and the Gold Ridge gold mines were systematically looted and trashed.
In Solomon Islands the conflict between the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) of the island Guadalcanal and the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF) supported by parts of the Malaitan dominated police force broke out in 1998 and culminated in a joint coup of the MEF and police force in June 2000. The population of Malaita Island has long dominated national politics, the economy, the police and the public service, especially in Guadalcanal. In the midst of the conflict, atrocities were committed by both sides, as well as by individuals using the opportunity to take private revenge or to seize local power. The conflict caused about 200 deaths and some 20,000 displaced persons that emigrated from rural areas to the capital Honiara or from Guadalcanal to the Malaita Island. The latter were mainly Malaitans who have migrated for generations within the islands. The Townsville Peace Agreement (TPA) in October 2000 did not restore Law and order.
The recent outbreak of violence can also be explained as a result of a weak democratic system compounded by endemic corruption and a youthful population that is poorly educated and lacks economic opportunities, so are the causes of this fragility. A regional force (Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, RAMSI) has played a prominent role in restoring the rule of law, improving the machinery of government and introducing economic reforms since July 2003, but there is still much to do in all of these areas. While appreciated for maintaining law and order, RAMSI has been perceived by some as taking control of key SI institutions, and setting the framework for future development.
Elections held in April 2006 were considered fair and peaceful. However the subsequent selection of Prime Minister by the parliament led to a serious crisis resulting in widespread rioting in Honiara (and Auki, the capital of Malaita) requiring the intervention of additional RAMSI military forces; the selected Prime Minister resigned and the current one was appointed.
The current (Sogavare) Government’s main stated objectives are to restore good governance in all areas, improve livelihoods in rural areas - particularly through supporting peoples’ own efforts and a confident and re-invigorated private sector - and address constitutional reform.
New policy priorities were issued in May 2006, and reflected in a Policy Translation & Implementation Document (dated August 2006). The response to the current country situation reflects the new government’s clear direction towards rural development and their expressed need to empower rural peoples. This is consistent with past policies and current EC country development objectives, which are primarily directed towards poverty reduction, education and capacity building.
The present government wishes to demonstrate a move away from a dependency culture, particularly at the village level, where people should once again take control and ownership of their lives. Achievement of its action plan Millennium Development Goals (MDG) is also considered a top priority, as is devolving powers and functions to lower levels. Partnership amongst all stakeholders is specifically spelt out as a prerequisite. Devolution or constitutional change, a major area of immediate attention, seems to be addressed through setting up a new administrative unit, that of the constituency.
Many of the reforms that were ongoing before the change in government will be continued. Whilst the new government has taken a strident position against corruption at all levels, it remains to be seen how and to what extent this corruption is tackled in practice this will be the benchmark by which the country’s partners measure the resolve of the new government. Good governance and justice must remain high on the agenda.
Capacity building, which had been weakened as the tensions exacerbated a brain drain, with qualified Solomon Islanders leaving to join the regional institutions or to work in New Zealand and Australia, is crucially important in the civil service, together with meaningful ownership and leadership roles for Solomon Islanders.
The high population growth rate poses major challenges for meeting economic and MDG targets. The official growth rate at 2.8% is very high on the international scale and the government needs to develop a population policy. The population figures also reveal that 40% of the population is below the age of 15 years.
The implications as this bulge moves forward for schooling, employment, urban drift, the potential spread of HIV Aids and the disruptions caused by disenchanted young people, especially those in and around Honiara might be significant.
The Government, supported by external assistance, is seeking to redress significant problems in which a key strategy is to restart rural economies and reduce urban drift. All major donors are active in poverty reduction through community and rural development projects. But, major concerted efforts at national and provincial levels by governments and donors have to be implemented, in working closely with RAMSI as well as encouraging greater expression of the regional element and Solomon Island ownership of the process.
Economic: poor development and recovery
Figures available on the Solomon Islands in 2005 and 2006 consider its economic performance steady, with the recovery progressing well since 2004.
The Central Bank of Solomon Islands estimates that real GDP grew by 6.2% in 2006, (although that follows a contraction of nearly 50% during the tensions, when per capita GDP fell from €810 in 1998 to €420 in 2002). GDP per capita of 2006 rose for the third consecutive year to €520 (USD 651) using the official population figure. However inflation has also been increasing particularly in Honiara where it reached 9% in 2006, spurred on by the RAMSI effect (on urban rents) and high fuel costs, the latter affecting all areas.
The new government has stated that its policy will be to adjust the exchange rate to the country’s international trade and development needs. The SI $ has remained relatively stable over the last year and is implicitly linked to the USD, the currency in which most of its exports and its most important import (fuel) are quoted. The SI $ rate with the euro declined to SI $ 10 = €1 level by the end of 2006 due to the decline in the USD.
The principal economic sectors contributing to gross domestic product are logging, fisheries, agriculture (cocoa and copra) and mining. In 2006, the Solomon Islands benefited from strong global demand for cocoa and copra, with most of the production being driven by smaller plantations. Logging accounts for two thirds of export revenues but is taking place at four times the sustainable rate and will exhaust the natural forests by 2012 (IMF 2006 estimates). New commodities will be needed as substitutes, such as the re-launch of the oil palm plantation in Guadalcanal and the gold mine.
All infrastructure, including social infrastructure such as clinics and schools, deteriorated during the tensions and there is a backlog of rehabilitation works. Ongoing projects finance the restoration of roads and bridges in Malaita and Guadalcanal provinces. In addition a National Transport Plan 2007-2026 has been drafted. Recent developments in aviation and communications include the Government signing the Pacific Islands Air Services Agreement, which commits the Solomon Islands to an open skies policy, whilst a process has started to draft the options for a telecommunications strategy. Energy remains a major barrier to economic growth, with electricity supply still inadequate in all areas. The high cost of fuel is encouraging studies of renewable energy sources, especially solar, hydropower and bio fuels, especially based on palm oil grown in SI.
The economy remains heavily dependent on logging and suffers from a narrow production and export base, and other constraints such as difficulty in obtaining secure land title, in accessing credit, and in finding skilled labour. Hence many economic activities remain constrained and this leads to the loss of potential foreign exchange and thousands of jobs. The Guadalcanal Plains Palm Oil Ltd reopened in April 2005 and achieved a significant level of production in the 2006 year, while the Gold Ridge mine is looking to open by the end of 2007 or early 2008. However, business confidence was shaken by the April 2006 riots. Other contributing factors to instability are the continued dependence on logging for government and export revenue, the impact of high oil prices (especially on inter-island trade), and the amount and timing of donor aid flows. Moreover, 50% of Solomon Islanders are under the age of 25, and unemployment is running at 45%.
Social: society and environment
The Solomon Islands is one of the least developed among the ADB’s Pacific Developing Member Countries (PDMCs), with social and health indicators amongst the lowest in the Pacific. Provision of adequate social infrastructure and services, especially in rural areas remains a difficult task due to financial and management constraints, poor transport and communications and significant capacity constraints. Improvements will be a long-term process. Thus, whilst some progress on a number of MDGs can be expected, the country is unlikely to meet many of them by 2015. The SI is making some progress on the MDG’s, particularly where statistical data is available, such as in the education sector, but in other cases, a lack of statistics makes it difficult to analyse progress.
Although the Solomon lslands is primarily a subsistence-based economy food shortages are rare, because of favorable natural conditions and the wantok (clan self-help) support system. Food markets exist throughout the country and in the provincial centres, for farmers to sell products. There is usually a wide variety of foods available including root crops and tubers, vegetables and fruits, poultry, pigs and fish. However, there are reports of malnutrition, especially in children, due to poor nutritional value. The forecast is less clear. It is not known if the effects of climate change will affect the country and in particular rainfall and inshore fish stocks. The government does not have a policy on or investment in disaster preparedness for this type of situation.
Social services declined seriously during the period of tensions. Progress on the preparation of infant and child health indicators is limited, infant mortality is high and maternal mortality rate has worsened in recent years. Rural communities continue to experience health problems consistent with current high poverty levels and fertility rates, and a rising incidence of ‘first world’ diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Malaria rates used to be very high, but the incidence has fallen significantly although it is still endemic and represents a serious disease in Solomon Islands.
Solomon Islanders have maintained traditional ways of living including the wantok (clan) culture, which acts as the social protection system in the absence of a public social security system. It instills in all members of a given wantok a strong sense of social responsibility to care for, support and live peacefully with all other members of the clan. This also means that individuals, in the main, cannot own land; it is owned collectively by the wantok. Social cohesion is starting to break down in the urban areas particularly among young people in Honiara and there are no private pension schemes.
The environment and natural resources play a critical role in the economic life of the Solomon Islands. Accordingly, maintaining the sustainability of the environment and natural resource base is a high priority in order to sustain economic growth. The country has fragile ecological systems (marine and the remaining primary and secondary forests). However, landowners and successive provincial governments and some national leaders have allowed resources to be exploited for quick revenue generation, based mainly on over-fishing and unsustainable and ill-managed logging prevail. These in turn have had significant effects on rural incomes and tourism.
The Solomon Islands is also vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Like many other Pacific islands, the Solomon Islands are vulnerable to climate change, climate variability, and sea level rise and will be among the first to suffer the impacts of climate change. In addition to significant coastal impacts climate change will affect biodiversity, soils and the water supplies of small islands.
Solomon Islands experienced a devastating earthquake (8.1) on 2 April 2007 affecting Choiseul and Western Province leaving 56 dead and over six thousand homeless. In August 2007 a 6.7 earthquake shook Guadacanal Province, the epicentre was 75km from the capital Honiara. Solomon Islands and international communities response to the tsunami in April was swift in terms of recovery and assistance, but thousands remain homeless 5 months on from the disaster with little rehabilitation being seen despite millions of Solomon dollars donated by aid organisations and concerned citizens. Displaced rural people no longer wish to live by the coast, preferring to move inland to safer and higher ground.
However, inner answers to Solomon sources conflicts may also be driven through its causes, so to consider cohesion via clan system as well as a better integration of welfare state benefits at inter-connected provincial levels.
Dynamics of cohesion
From the identified conflict causes and the assessment of the local and regional capacities to prevent and resolve conflicts, some general recommendations for the Pacific zone can be extracted which must be adjusted to every individual case .
1. To ensure a better participation and transparency in decision-making, and control of state authorities, a combination of customary methods and instruments with modern methods of governance is required. That could help to reduce the detachment between state and society.
2. To ensure that the whole society benefits from economic development, a mechanism for equal distribution of benefits from the modern sector, for instance mining should be developed.
3. The curriculum of schools and training of teachers should be reviewed in order to promote social tolerance and cohesion, and to enhance democratic decision-making processes.
4. The grass-roots level’s capacity to prevent and resolve conflicts needs to be strengthened and communication and information tools need to be improved at this level of society in order to avoid misinformation.
5. In order to strengthen the capacity of the Pacific Islands Forum, the budget and human and technical resources for conflict prevention and resolution and peace building should be augmented. A specific Early Warning and Early Response Mechanism for the Pacific could improve coherent and transparent decision-making and preparation for necessary interventions.
6. Foreign companies should develop social responsibility and take into consideration local customary systems.
In the SI case, this study stresses in particular the first and second point, even if they cannot be considered as ones but interrelated with the others recommendations.
Wantok system as social cohesion
In the traditional Solomon Islands Melanesian social system, a hierarchy of institutions exist which serves to give meaning to a society. These institutions exist on the basis of land tenure system which binds together all persons within that group. In the Solomon Islands context, people’s relationship to the land is an integral part of their relationship with each other.
First and foremost is the tribe, which is a larger grouping that is bound together on the basis of having descended from the first pioneer to have settled and populated that land. Those who are descendants from this first pioneer trace their relationship on this basis. Their relationship to the first pioneer and to the ancestral tribal land is an important element in the traditional social system because it serves as a mechanism to assist each other in times of need. It is a self regulating and managed system to provide welfare assistance.
The second important grouping is the clan. The first pioneer to settle the ancestral land allocates it on the basis of the matrimonial system. Land is allocated to each of the sons whose descendants will form the clan. Each of the sons and their descendants will have leadership and authority over the land that his father (the pioneer) had allocated to them. The son and his descendants will have authority over all living and non-living natural resources that existed on that piece of land. Those who are descendants in these clans are closely related and the ties to the clan land are far stronger than to the ancestral land. The obligations that persons who are descendants of the clan have towards each other are far stronger in the traditional social system.
The third most important body or grouping in the Solomon Island traditional system is the extended family. The extended family would consist of the brothers and sisters and families, uncles and aunts and their families as well as grandfather and grandmother. In the Solomon Islands society, the extended family is not restricted only to the close family relatives but can include other relatives who could be fairly distant from the western concept of an extended family. The Solomon Island concept of an extended family has greater implications for the welfare of the less fortunate in society.
In the Solomon Islands traditional society, the existence of the tribe, clan, and extended family has huge implications for social protection and the social safety net. The belonging to a tribe or a clan has put a sense of obligation on the part of an individual or group within that tribe or clan to assist others who may have fallen on hard times and could not provide for their families. Like the tribe, members of the clan expect support from each other in a wide range of social and political activities. A few examples of these are evident during deaths, marriages, warfare, gardening and communal work.
The extended family continues to play a vital role in the social system of Solomon Islands and is the backbone of the country’s social system. While is no welfare payment system or income support system, as practiced in developed countries, the extended family performs a similar role to these institutions in the traditional social structure context of Solomon Islands. In the event of the death of the head of the household, it is to the extended family that families of the dead would turn to in order to ease the burden of caring for the children. In this instance, some of the children will be allocated to be brought up by other relatives in the family. The extended family would also assist the widow or widower with the remaining children in the day-to-day provision and upbringing of family. In Solomon Islands societies, the aged are usually looked after by the eldest son and his family but the other relatives will also provide assistance when needed. In this context, the aged are not marginalized but their self esteem and dignity are restored because they are playing a prominent role in providing advice to the immediate family, extended family, the clan and when required to the tribe itself.
The fourth important grouping is the family. It is headed by the husband who is responsible for the welfare of the family. He ensures that their needs are provided for and that they are protected from danger. As the head of the household he is responsible for day-to-day planning and organizing as well resolving disputes. The wife plays an important role in the family but in a supporting capacity to the husband. It is the responsibility of the husband and wife to ensure that needs of the family, especially the children are met, whether in their upbringing, their education or their marriage. The family in the Solomon Islands society is not an isolated entity and in this regard, plays a supporting role to the extended family by providing assistance to other less fortunate members of the extended family. The family is usually the body that cares for the aged as noted earlier and assistance may be provided from the extended family from time to time.
These traditional institutions, which continue to play a major role in social provisioning, go some way in explaining why government involvement in the direct provision of social welfare support is not well developed. Social welfare support such as direct income support for unemployed, sick and other forms of depravation as provided in develop countries is non-existent in the Solomon Islands.
The government mainly operates at the macro level by ensuring that the national social infrastructure, such as roads, water supply etc., is provided. The majority of the population in the Solomon Islands are rural subsistence dwellers and the community and family social networks provide a sustainable form of welfare maintenance.
In many of the newly independent countries and particularly those which have diverse ethnic communities, tribal differences and low levels of development, the merging of different interests is vital to developing social cohesion. However, while there is more emphasis on the lack of social cohesion and how this may have affected the development of social and welfare policies, there is little discussion on the presence of social cohesion amongst communities in a particular country. In the case of Solomon Islands, communities, tribal groups can be considered to be very cohesive. In fact, the cohesiveness of these different groups and their different interests seem to be one of the reasons for the poor development of social welfare policies. The theory one could advance as a result of this is in many diverse and ethnically divided countries, social policy development have been hindered by the mere existence of different groups. In many of these countries including those in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and others like Fiji, and Papua New Guinea, social cohesion within different groups has hindered national cohesion. Political parties and their policies when in government are driven by these interest groups and budgetary allocation and social spending is based on interest group influences instead of national interests.
Government social policies: driver of unity beyond wantok
The provision of social services at the macro-level in the Solomon Islands has always been the responsibility of the government as is the case in most countries. However, in contrast to the situation in developed countries, at the community and village level, the traditional social system still caters for social welfare provisions. Since the British established control over the country and its inhabitants, the provision of the public goods of health and education has been the responsibility of the successive governments while the involvement of other stakeholders, especially the churches has been complimentary. The churches involvement, while important, has been limited due to lack of capacity and finance. While in the 1960s and 1970s, the two public goods that dominated this sector were education and health, other areas also came into focus during the post-independence period. In the 1960s and 1970s the provision of government services in the social sector was hampered by impediments such as the geographical setting of the country, lack of finances and the lack of skilled manpower. The situation improved throughout the 1980s, 1990s and into the 21st century as more emphasis was placed by the government on making improvements in the social sector.
The development of the country’s social policies cannot be isolated from other developments that took place in the Solomon Islands. The focus on economic development, through trade, through extraction of natural resources and building human resources consumed much of government efforts in the period. This is not dissimilar from other small developing countries with a long and protracted colonial past. In terms of social policies, the Solomon Islands, like many other small developing states, concentrated on education and health as major priorities, with some attention on the housing sector. In the case of the Solomon Islands, trade unions and other non-governmental organizations were not a prominent feature in promoting social service provision and therefore, demand driven development of social services was largely absent.
Development of social services reflected the low level of economic development occurring in the country at that point in time and the problems associated with population growth. The quantity and quality of services provided in the 1960s and 1970s for instance cannot be equated with those in the 1980s and the periods thereafter. In the 1980s, GDP growth rates, while fluctuating, showed an increasing trend and the Solomon Islands developed its natural resources -including timber and fisheries- for export. In the pre-independence period, the quality of services and its impact were hampered by a lack of skilled manpower and lack of infrastructure. While these impediments were still prevalent during the post-independence period, improvements were made and therefore the social services provided were of a higher quality and had far reaching coverage.
In addition, churches also played an important role butthe coverage of their services has been limited due to financial constraints.
The government played a pivotal role in shaping the country’s social sector through the policies developed and implemented over the years. We can distinguish three periods. Firstly, in the early part of the review period, government policy was designed to address the shortcomings in the social sector. Secondly, government policy was in reaction to donor agencies. Thirdly, government policy in the early part of the 21st century could be seen as an outcome of a major crisis.
Management of natural disasters
The Solomon Islands is a widely dispersed country, which implies constraints to connectivity. Like many other Pacific Island countries it is prone to natural disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis as described earlier. Natural disasters have been a burden to the country in terms of costs for the repair of infrastructure, the rehabilitation of cash crops and its population. The costs associated with cyclones has been high in terms of resources used in the rehabilitation and has been a constant setback to the country’s development.
While a number of natural disasters cyclones have struck the country over the last 46 years, only two stand out because of the devastating nature of the destruction they left. Firstly, Cyclone Namu which struck in 1996 was very costly in terms of the massive destruction to infrastructure and crops. While, the Tsunami of 2007 left a path of destruction in the country with infrastructure and houses destroyed, it had occurred outside the period of review but its costs would run into millions when it is determined.
In the Solomon Islands income tax is progressive, with those with a lower income paying a lower percentage. The government could improve the progressiveness of the goods tax by rating certain goods at zero, regardless of whether they are imported or manufactured locally. In the Solomon Island situation, the effect of the sales tax is far reaching given that 80 percent of the population who live in the rural areas are subsistence farmers with no regular wage and yet they are also levied the sales tax since it is charged on all goods and services.
The economy in the Solomon Islands deteriorated during the 1990s due to fiscal indiscipline. The Government budget deficit, for instance, rose from $27 million in 1990 to $55 million in 1991 and was estimated to be $71.2 million in 1997. In recognition of the precarious financial situation the country was in, the Solomon Islands Alliance for Change (SIAC) that assumed power drew up the policy for economic reform programme. The intention of the reform programme was to restore macroeconomic stability. Unfortunately the programme was not fully implemented because the SIAC government was unseated after a few months in a vote of no confidence.
The 21st century also ushered in significant changes to the Pacific Island countries. The pressure from development and globalization had added fuel to an already simmering tension under the surface. In Solomon Islands, such a tension exploded during the ethnic tension that began around 1999. It was a disaster of terrible proportion with impact far greater that any of the natural disasters which had struck the country in the last 47 years. The government which assumed power during this period was another unstable coalition. and its first response to the ethnic crisis was to draw up the Peace Plan.
The Peace Plan was viewed as a short term measure to immediately address not only the ethnic and tribal crisis, but also to address the serious economic and social crisis that resulted in the aftermath of the ethnic tension. The Peace Plan was hatched during the ethnic crisis when stability was yet to be brought to the country and there was no semblance of normalcy. The Peace Plan has to be viewed in this context. The National Economic Recovery, Reform and Development Plan 2003–2006 was developed in response to the ethnic crisis that hit the country in 1999. The situation in the Solomon Islands has returned to normalcy and the country may be on a path to economic recovery. However, in terms of the social indicators, it is still one of the countries in the Pacific which ranks lowest.
The Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) went into the Solomon Island in 2003 and is still there. The objective of this sort of intervention has been to help the Solomon Islands build its economy and promote peace and stability amongst the diverse ethnic groups in the Solomon Islands. However, despite RAMSI, the violence again erupted in the capital Honiara in 2006 and much of the capital was burnt down. Analysis of the role of RAMSI shows that many Solomon Islanders at the local level are still suspicious of some of the activities of RAMSI and this is probably why it is creating friction between different groups in the country.
To address the weak national jurisdictional resources, the Pacific Island states have embarked on more and better regional cooperation so that where their national capacity and resources are small these could be pooled together at the regional level so that services and negotiations could be better delivered. There are several examples where this has been successful. The funding of the University of the South Pacific by regional governments is a very good example of delivering higher education to students of the region as many of the small countries on their own will not be able to run a separate institution. In the areas of health, communication, energy, there are several initiatives which could help these countries to deliver services better as well have a more efficient and coordinated approach to international initiatives in these areas.
There is, however, a threat to regional cooperation from events in each of the countries. The ethnic crisis in the Solomon Islands and the total break down of the governance structure had at one point almost paralyzed the government machinery. It needed the assistance of the two major trading partners and in particular Australia to manage the affairs of the Solomon Islands government. At present, while the Australian presence is still significant, there appears to be a better and more functioning government in place.
To understand the ways in which these inequalities and identities have developed we must look into the history of Solomon Islands from the early contact period. Ecological and geographic expediencies meant that particular parts of the archipelago were privileged first by the early European traders and later by the development policies of the colonial administration. Two of the areas which are central to the conflict, the island of Malaita and the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal, are perhaps the most underdeveloped and historically neglected parts of Solomon Islands. In the post-War period, people from these and other areas have repeatedly voiced their grievances at what they regard as injustices at the hands of both colonial and postcolonial governments, particularly in regard to the distribution of the benefits of development. These grievances have been compounded by the emergence of an elitist postcolonial political culture which, for the most part, has been closely associated with the notoriously corrupt logging industry. Whilst the militant groups quickly fractured after the Townsville Peace Agreement, and struggled to maintain cohesion even before then, the conflict in Solomon Islands was nevertheless characterised by a polarisation of ethnic identities along a confrontational ‘us versus them’ axis.
State institutions and the mode of governance should be better rooted in society at large, which requires a combination of customary methods and instruments with modern methods of state. It could for example comprise an authentic electoral system that is adapted to indigenous socio-political structures, as well as a specific model of local governance that meets community based understandings and needs. Without doubt, constitutional change and reforms will not be an easy task and their implementation will cause new turbulence since a well-established elite would be affected. Furthermore, uncritically accepted traditional values and structures may not of themselves be sufficient to dampen new conflicts. The role of women in governance should be strengthened and a mechanism has to be developed that involves particularly the young generation in problem resolution and decision-making as the young are naturally more open for changes in lifestyle. However, if appropriate governance methods and state institutions are successfully implemented, better participation, transparency of decision-making and the control of state authorities would be ensured and the detachment between state and society would be reduced. That in turn would strengthen the state’s capacity in law enforcement, health care and education.
Economic development is one key element to prevent conflicts and domestic violence as well as criminal and community violence. But this effect will only be achieved if a mechanism for an equal distribution of benefits from the modern economic sector is put into effect. Authentic state institutions and governance are integral conditions for such a system but it is a rather long process towards their implementation. Meanwhile, additional efforts have to be made to provide the young generation with economic opportunities and a satisfactory future so that firearms lose their economic value. Individual programmes should go beyond the support of education and vocational training, which are only useful if there are prospects for employment.
Schools provide also opportunities for a common cultural experience and can therefore play a critical role in ensuring and restoring social harmony by promoting social tolerance and cohesion through education. Ethnic mixed schools are a step in the right direction but in addition it is highly recommended to revise the curriculum in order to address the tension between national identity and cultural diversity and to enhance ‘democratic classrooms’ or democratic decision-making processes by the whole school community. Democratic pedagogy needs to be introduced during the pre-service training of teachers.
In Pacific countries, there is an abundance of customary conflict prevention and resolution techniques. As conflict violence in the Pacific is mainly local-based, even behind major conflict frontlines as it is in the Salomon Islands.
An appropriated approach is therefore needed to strengthen capacities of conflict prevention and resolution at grass-roots level, mediation and negotiation, as well as by promoting modern principles of human rights and equality between social groups. In areas where the state is weak, networks and actions of churches, women groups and NGOs must be better integrated into peace building and conflict resolution efforts. This can be done - by taking into account their potential capacity, by building on their roots in society and by using their expertise in addressing local conflicts and human rights abuse. To further strengthen their capacity, non-governmental actors should be supported in network building at national level and in their networking and training opportunities with international organisations. Furthermore, it is also necessary to improve communication and information tools at this level of society, in particular in rural areas.
Independent and widely accessible media play a crucial role in socioeconomic and political transformation processes. Well-designed radio programs for instance provide a platform for discussion on actual developments and problems; they can avoid misinformation about planned reforms and can give guidance to the population.
Last but not least, the foreign companies, which exploit rich natural resources have to develop social responsibility and adapt themselves to local customary systems. That could be achieved by including the local community in negotiations in a proper way while taking into account different kinds of land ownership and the notion of compensation.
Moreover, in areas where they operate, the companies should address needs of the local community such as employment, education, health care and environmental protection without leaving these responsibilities exclusively to the government. Furthermore, it is worthwhile supporting initiatives for greater transparency in companies’ payments to the government in order to reduce mismanagement, corruption and illegal financial transfers out of the country.
Therefore, the situation improved and recovery is on its way in respect of:
o The imperative of making progress on land ownership. The lack of clarity is an underlying and systemic cause of conflict.
o The need to reinforce and adapt modern governance structures and bring them closer to the people: executive, judicial, and legislative.
o The need to recognize and reinforce the authority of traditional leaders and their reconciliation powers not only in Guadalcanal but in every provinces.
o The dangers of “expat wantokism”, referring to the rapid post-conflict programming by the donor community which at times fails to consult and keep in the driver’s seat Solomon nationals, so to build the end of RAMSI support.
Beyond natural disasters exposition and a widespread territory, it happens nonetheless that the Solomon Islands case illustrate that even in a tiny island state of just more than half a million people, inequality in the distribution of resources and the lack of respect can result in violent conflict and tension - whereas roots of conflicts could be faced and undermined via an adaptation to pre-existent social cohesion which would be supportively framed by a state building unity.
In any case, the situation in Solomon Islands remains fragile - as the literature says, ‘a post-conflict society is a pre-conflict society’ .