Babycrats and Dad's Army in the Solomon Islands

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To those unfamiliar with Solomon Islands history, the easiest way to deal with its socio-economic and political problems is to observe what’s happened since 2000 and take it from there. This is like spraying insecticide on termites eating woodwork, but not eliminating their nest. Even with periodic spraying, the woodwork is re-infested.

The metaphor haunts some of us who watch ‘expert advisors’ brought into the Solomon Islands to advise on economics, the machinery of governance, and law and order.

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Unlike finding termite nests, however, it isn’t easy to pinpoint the origins of our troubles, but a brief look into history helps. Solomon Islanders are no strangers to economic systems. Before contact with the West, shell and feather money were currency and barter arrangements were in place. After contact, people became active in the colonial economy (copra, marine resources, shipping, the Queensland cane fields).

Integration into the world economy was interrupted by World War II, which shattered the nascent ‘modern’ economy. Then came a second economic demise between 1989 and 2003, when lawlessness and mayhem reigned, especially in government. The main actors in this were politicians, public servants, business advisors (particularly, the logging industry), the unions, and the development aid industry. Narratives on corruption usually include all the above except the last group, on the assumption that its impact was benign.

Much has been written on the impact of globalisation on developing economies. A few Solomon Islanders have contributed, the most prominent being AV ‘Tony’ Hughes a respected economic advisor of British origin whose advice is regularly sought by UN and regional development agencies.

In 2004, Hughes was part of a regional group commissioned by AusAID to contribute to Australia’s development assistance policy. Among other things, he observed that not all impacts of development assistance are easily observed much taking place in the minds of people. He pointed out that even though ‘increasing domestic capacity’ (that is, getting locals to do the job) was built into nearly every donor project over the past 25-30 years, ‘the expected sufficiency of domestic capacity has not eventuated, and a different outcome continued dependence on foreign TA [Technical Assistants] seems to have emerged.’

Hughes suggested that the build-up of Pacific Island Country (PIC) capacity was actually inhibited by ready access to Australian expertise and the

… urge of AusAID to deliver it, combined in some PICs with a preference for the use of foreign personnel in certain policy areas. If this is so, to reverse the trend, a different approach to the use of TA may be needed, placing much greater stress on the maximum use of existing PIC capacity and insisting on the deliberate development of new domestic capabilities. But … [it]is not clear that this is what Australia or the PICs really want.

His paper, ‘Remote Impacts of Australian Aid to the Pacific,’ was quietly shelved.

The first Governor of the Central Bank of Solomon Islands, Tony Hughes, is currently leading a World Bank team drafting a sequel to the country’s National Economic Reform and Recovery Development Plan (NERRDP).

How does this relate to what is taking place in the reconstruction of Solomon Islands today? The impression many Solomon Islanders have is that development aid workers really don’t care for side or long-term effects as long as they can add more notches to their resumé.

Most advisors to Government, including those engaged by the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) tread a well-worn path. Most RAMSI personnel are described as ‘advisors.’ Others employed on projects funded by the European Union, NZAID, Japan, UN Development Program and the World Bank are known as ‘consultants’ or ‘Technical Assistants’ (TA). Yet others work for RAMSI contractors like GRM International (Packer’s company) and Patrick Defence Logistics.

Politicians and senior public servants are nervous, and there are periodic outbursts about TAs getting paid too much. But the real reason is fear of losing control. RAMSI has done well to support the new Government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, despite its misgivings about the events that led to his rise to power including the burning and looting in April of Chinatown, the old business district of Honiara.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

Last year, a senior Australian contractor said that AusAID had sent a bunch of ‘babycrats,’ fresh out of University of Canberra cubicles! This year, by contrast, a senior European Union contractor noted that the EU personnel could be described as ‘Dad’s Army.’ Comical perhaps, but therein lies the quandary.

The younger Australian cohort do not appear to have the skills for capacity building. Those employed by EU contractors are very experienced personnel who manage and implement several projects concurrently but don’t have time to mentor local counterparts. So capacity building for them is also a problem. The result is that the ‘advisor,’ ‘consultant,’ or ‘TA’ will find it necessary to recommend a contract or project extension.

To its credit, RAMSI has worked assiduously to raise a new cohort of Solomon Islands ‘babycrats’ from among young graduates and high-school leavers. Results are mixed, because RAMSI operates with a kind of urban peripheral vision and little, if any, local corporate memory in other words, sustainable local ‘capacity building’ is still under threat.

Shortly, the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade will review the impact of Australian aid to the Pacific. This will be another opportunity to inject local perspectives into the planning of official development assistance to Solomon Islands, but old hurdles are still in place.

Two contrasting perspectives need to be appreciated and reconciled. On the one hand, there is the perspective of the settler and migrant-descended communities of Australia, whose systems are premised on those behaviours required for market wellbeing (economic growth). On the other hand, is the islander whose behaviours are mainly reactions to the elements, to the need to survive and to preserve identity, land ownership and self-respect much like Aboriginal Australians.

As Paul Tovua, a Solomon Islands senior statesman (former Foreign Minister and Parliamentary Speaker, now Chairman of the National Peace Council), told a recent conference of emerging Pacific Islands leaders in Brisbane, people see few benefits in changing their lifestyle: ‘They take what they want for their immediate daily needs from the modern economy, but revert quickly to the comfort zone of traditional living patterns.’

The challenge for the advisors, consultants and technical assistants as it is for the Government of Solomon Islands is to facilitate the shift between these two perspectives or zones. To do so, RAMSI ‘advisors’ and others active in the reconstruction of Solomon Islands cannot isolate themselves from the influence of history and work without corporate memory or local context.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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