Is Our Job Done In The Solomons?


The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) commenced activities on 24 July 2003 and is now entering the final “transition” phase of its mission. Responsibilities previously held by RAMSI personnel will be handed back across the entire public sector, and the external military presence in the country will be removed. Only the policing contingent will remain within the country.

The anniversary will be marked by a multi-country dignitary party in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara, from 23-25 July. The intervention has been heralded in some circles as a blueprint for similar “whole of government” approaches. Other see it as having facilitated the continued logging boom.

The initial phase of the mission successfully quelled the violence that raged in and around Honiara, from 1999-2003. The second phase was more controversial. This period of assistance sought to strengthen the machinery of government within a fragile and arguably dysfunctional state apparatus.

Australia’s outgoing Defence Minister Stephen Smith recently announced the ADF contingent, previously stationed in Honiara, would gradually be drawn down, with all personnel out by September 2013. This is not surprising; the military have performed a minimal function since the 2006 riots, with most security functions now completed by the Participating Police Force and, in those parts of the state where duties and responsibilities have been fully handed back, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (the Solomons lack their own military).

The second “strengthening phase” of the mission sought to build the capacity of local nationals within public service positions. Sections of Honiara’s elite, such as former Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, criticised RAMSI as a parallel government that effectively overruled the Solomon Islands government, creating a climate of dependence.

In the face of this criticism RAMSI has attained a number of its goals set within the 2009 Partnership Framework, such as becoming party to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). It has also established Anti-Corruption Taskforce Workshops and strengthened the Office of the Auditor-General. Despite these undertakings, corruption is still viewed as systemic within the Solomon Islands, with the Minister for Development, Planning and Aid Coordination, Connelly Sandakabatu, recently publicly stating corruption is entrenched in government ministries.

Sandakabatu recommends the Constituency Development Funds Act as a better way to make sure aid money gets to civilians, instead of the much-criticised Rural Constituency Development “slush” fund. However, Transparency International has said it will only reinforce and further corruption within the system. These admissions flag the clear continuation of corrupt practices within the state. These events raise questions as to whether RAMSI has really assisted in cleaning up corruption — or if it has facilitated or permitted it.

RAMSI's last phase saw the Special Coordinator, Nicholas Coppell, shift the focus from strengthening to development. In December 2012, Coppell stated the development assistance provided by RAMSI would smoothly transition to a longer-term development program led by Australia, New Zealand, the EU, World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank. RAMSI was “always a short-term intervention”, he said, a statement in clear opposition to an earlier remark made by then PM John Howard on a visit to the Solomon Islands in December 2003, that “RAMSI will remain until the job is done”.

Has the intervention been completed? Or has Australia’s commitment wavered?

Corruption has not been stemmed, especially in the forestry industry. Recent commentary by Shahar Hameiri noted RAMSI has permitted the continued expansion of logging within the state. Economic growth has been one of RAMSI's central objectives, but the entrenchment of a single commodity export reliant economy is not in the best interests of the state. This raises another issue — the sustainability of the state beyond the logging boom, which will end in the near future when the forests are logged out. Clearly this is problematic for future sustainable economic growth of the state.

RAMSI isn't solely to blame — those with even a cursory knowledge of the forestry industry in Solomon Islands would understand the long history of this issue. But to assume economic growth will continue in a post-logging era may be equally as worrisome. One of RAMSI’s stated aims is to “increase the standard of living and economic opportunity for all Solomon Islanders” through “creating an environment that encourages local and foreign investment and assists with Solomon Islands economic growth”. It seems logical for an assistance mission to push for economic growth beyond the forestry industry.

To some degree this has been completed. To improve business confidence, legislation to makes foreign direct investment easier has been introduced, leading to Solomon Islands jumping ahead in the World Bank's Doing Business Report. The 2013 report saw considerable movement under key indicators of starting a business, and negative movement in areas of getting electricity, credit and protecting investors, indicating the delivery of key services remains a problem. Further, the significance placed on starting a business fails to address the core concern: that the state relies excessively heavily upon the forestry industry for revenue and the resource is finite.

So, has RAMSI has really finished its work? It has clearly achieved some of its stated goals, but has inadequately addressed the Solomons' systemic corruption and dependence on forestry. For both economic and dependency reasons, RAMSI must at some stage, “pass the baton”, to the Solomon Islands government so the state can run its own affairs. But there have been concerns with the achievement both of stated goals and of those that lie outside the ambit of the mission, such as issues of social concern. Unquestionably RAMSI has made inroads, although whether or not now is the correct time to transfer power is definitely up for debate.

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.