Crisis of Leadership


Last week marked the third anniversary of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). In the same week, international NGO Oxfam held a seminar in Honiara to launch the report ‘Bridging the Gap Between State and Society: New Directions for the Solomon Islands.’

The report states that there is a ‘widespread feeling that ordinary Solomon Islanders are excluded from government processes and decision-making, pointing to a lack of linkages and engagement between government and citizens.’

Although it noted that many Solomon Islanders welcomed RAMSI’s role, Oxfam says the assertion that the public is both informed about and supportive of all aspects of the intervention needs to be qualified:

Solomon Islanders hold far more complex attitudes towards RAMSI than those presented in the media in Australia and New Zealand. Ordinary people say that the government and donor rhetoric of broad-based economic development and growth needs to be translated into real action on livelihoods and human security.

Oxfam has found that many ordinary people believe processes are not moving quickly enough. They want more jobs, improved livelihoods, better basic services and equitable distribution of the benefits of the nation’s resources, especially for the bulk of the population who live in rural areas and outer islands. There are also new pressures on government, as citizens express their concern over elite corruption.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clarke was quick to compliment Oxfam on their report, but emphasised that RAMSI could not fix all the problems facing Solomon Islands. ‘A critical element is to build accountability between the Solomon Islands Government and its people,’ she said. Her comments have been taken well by observers and analysts in Honiara, and have prompted some soul searching.

Perhaps the source of our problems is the inability of our national and provincial leaders to articulate a vision and inspire others. We have had so many ‘failures’ that everyone is expecting more. We need someone with at least 10 per cent of Mandela’s charisma and mana .

So who is trying to articulate a vision for Solomon Islands? In the recent general elections, a number of successful MPs had written visions, but they have not been able to articulate these in public. So, as has been the case for the past 20 years, technocrats and consultants in backrooms try to develop public policies. They have always come up with rational plans, and, as in years past, donors and consultants will be suitably inspired.

But who or what will inspire the people in our 7000 villages?

The 2003-2007 National Economic Recovery, Reform and Development Plan (NERRDP) was financed by Australia. Work on the sequel is being funded by the World Bank. Community leaders and citizens need to be brought into the discussion.

Our leaders need RAMSI but don’t seem to know how to help RAMSI do what needs to be done (let alone help themselves). They are inspirationally (and some would say intellectually) handicapped, as most were elected not on ideas and vision but by letting money talk. They are not in public communication or consultation mode because they themselves are unsure.

Amid this uncertainty, RAMSI goes about restoring the system and recreating the trappings of ‘State.’ As one NGO manager noted:

Current structures are not necessarily going to allow the real problems to be addressed. Rebuilding structures of the central state/government/politics without really considering and addressing why they haven’t been working won’t resolve or improve things. The Australians have a template based on the Australian (or Canberra) public service that they would like to transplant wholesale.

A Royal Australian Regiment Private based in Townsville conducts a patrol
with a Royal Solomon Islands Police Officer in Honiara Markets.

(One example of transplantation is the ease with which RAMSI persuaded the Finance Minister and Cabinet in the last Solomon Islands Parliament to change the title of what used to be the Ministry of Finance, National Reform and Planning to ‘Ministry of Finance and Treasury.’)

There is a bridge to be built between State and society but I don’t think the engineers working on it in Parliament and in RAMSI have a viable and sustainable work plan, because they have yet to understand the source of the weaknesses. Until this is understood, the two ends of the bridge will never meet.

Leaders elected by the current mindset, with current systems and expectations, cannot behave differently and survive in politics. I believe we have to get cracking urgently on electoral reform. Fiji recognised this and made adjustments (although the system has not yet provided the stability that was hoped for) and PNG is experimenting with preferential voting. Australia and New Zealand were the first to have preferential systems in our region. Nauru has a preferential system and now has a cohort of leaders who can make tough and necessary decisions to rescue their nation from bankruptcy.

There are a couple of ways to learn more about the predicament in Solomon Islands. One is to conduct basic needs assessment in villages, and then work back through the process of meeting those needs.

Another is to commission case studies of village organisation and leadership in selected locations in the country, with reference to resource extraction, Church activity, livelihoods, health status, women and children’s rights, and linkages (if any) to provincial and national Government. This would provide a cross-sampling from which to ascertain successes and failures, and a solid baseline for capacity building (or getting locals trained up to do the jobs, rather than well-meaning outside ‘consultant’ and ‘advisors’).

My hypothesis is that people’s traditional processes of selection and election of community leaders has been corrupted by government and donor behaviour. This has resulted in distorted (or corrupted) notions of good governance, and led to the failure, not only of the State, but of voters to elect those capable of rectifying the situation.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.