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Solomon Islands: good government.

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Monday 22 September 2003

Ian Scales, Associate, State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Project, ANU


Good Government in Solomon Islands  


The 2000 coup and subsequent events in Solomon Islands saw a significant weakening of law and order and Government service delivery. Gradually, the epithet ‘failed state’ settled over the country.  


Why Australia led an intervention into Solomons in July this year is uncertain. The Government and its policy agencies tell us it was a decision based on a desire to help out a friend in need, and at the same time to prevent the spread of international crime that could threaten Australia’s interests.  


On the other hand, the Australian Government had refused to hear repeated pleas for intervention from Solomon Islands since the coup in 2000. Then suddenly a turn-around in policy after the Iraq war led to the almost instant placement of a massive Australian presence in Solomon Islands.  


Subsequently it has been revealed that the Solomons asked Indonesia for an intervention in May this year. Perhaps this had something to do with Australia’s decision to act.  


The problem with all this is that Australia’s actual motives appear to have little to do with Solomons per se. Australia has talked of assisting Solomons for the long term, but if the motive is about short-term international security, then Solomons will soon disappear again from Australia’s concerns.  


This would be a shame because the 2000 coup and the descent into chronic lawlessness that followed were just a prelude to the real problems facing Solomons: fast-growing population and diminishing resources. The Solomons will certainly need good governance to tackle these issues.  


The Australian Government is loath to propose any actual reforms to the State in Solomons, confining itself to talk of ‘rebuilding’. Talk of reform would be to interfere in sovereign affairs. However, avoiding the issue of State reform only leads the bureaucrats and consultants from Australia into rebuilding the status quo.  


This is the system of government introduced on National Independence in 1978, modeled on the British system. The basic idea is that a top-down, fairly centralized structure would be the most rational and efficient.  


The resulting system has been criticized in Solomon Islands ever since Independence. It proved an expensive system that, as time went on, gradually fell into disrepair.  


If Australia builds it back, chances are it will start to fall apart again once the Australians leave. Or, if Australia stays to prop it up, this is virtually an entry into a Protectorate situation.  


Far better for both Australia and Solomon Islands is to find a more appropriate form of governance than propping up an antique from the British colonial past.  


We can get a clue as to how this could work from events during the 2000 coup. This saw an almost complete retraction of the State from rural areas in Solomons. Although fighting was indeed going on in Guadalcanal, most of the country remained peaceful despite the absence of government.  


The villages had each relied on their own systems of governance based on tradition, churches, and surviving elements of government. These home-grown solutions to governance tend to be different everywhere you go, based on ways people have found works in their particular situation. This proved to many what they had said for years: the village systems are robust; it is the State that has the problems.  


Yet, the Government in Solomon Islands has always had great difficulty in recognizing that these robust village systems exist. I have never yet found a policy document, either current or historical, that has proposed the articulation of village governance into governance of the country. It is the problem of being locked into the British legacy. 


If Solomon Islands is to move on, local level governance structures need to be recognized and supported by the their government and we Australians alike. The State should not be there to try and drive development ‘top-down’ as in the past, but support local people in their own initiatives, encouraging them to plan for their own future with regard to their own resources.  


The task of articulating local level governance with the State will not be easy. The way to begin is by setting up a policy dialogue with Solomon Islanders, including youth, women and rural people where ideas for reform can be considered.  


If this doesn’t happen, Australia’s current engagement in ‘rebuilding the state’ in Solomon Islands will be for ever dancing the dance of ‘intervening’ without ‘interfering’ in a hopeless situation.  


Guests on this program:


Ian Scales  


State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Project 

Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies 

Australian National University