Corruption and prosperity don't go together in the Solomons

Kaylea Fearn

Australians watched in horror as the capital of the Solomon Islands, Honiara, was burning in April this year. After hundreds of millions of dollars invested by the Australian government into the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), the Solomon Islands was still floundering.

Six months on, the reports from the Solomon Islands have died down, but the question still remains: what would cause a community to burn down its own capital city, and when will the violence be over for good?

In July 2003, Australia joined ten other Pacific nations in sending RAMSI to restore law and order, after years of ethnic and historic tension led to violence perpetrated primarily by militias. The violence resulted in over one hundred reported deaths, approximately 30,000 people being displaced, and a collapse in the already struggling economy.

Since then, many Solomon Islanders have looked to economic investment and trade with countries such as Australia and Taiwan as a potential way forward. Despite many efforts, there is currently very little sustainable industry and even less infrastructure. Businesses in Honiara often go without electricity and running water for days.

While the absence of basic services and reliable business practice is a visible concern, the heart of the issue provoking the continuing unrest in the Solomons is more of a moral one.

According to Martha Horiwapu, coordinator of the trauma-counselling program for Caritas Solomon Islands (CSI), the underlying issues stem from a culture of mistrust, corruption and unhealed wounds. High levels of trauma have been recorded amongst the population and there are arguably specific links between overcoming trauma and lasting peace.

“We [the Solomon Islands] won’t be able to achieve complete reconciliation until there is healing. When people’s minds are healed, they can move on and live their lives again,” she says.

“We try to create a space for rehabilitation of the mind. People have witnessed and committed terrible acts of violence during the ethnic tension and need specific treatment."

With these needs in mind, CSI has developed a community-based trauma counselling program and the results have been encouraging. Martha reports that one example of the program’s effectiveness is a drop in cases of sexual and domestic abuse in participating communities.

Despite many successful programs enacted by NGOs, continuing community distrust is demonstrated in the possession and use of firearms. Furthermore, governmental instability following the April elections has been a focus for the international media. There have been many reported feuds between Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Attorney-General Primo Afeau.

However, David Mills, member of Initiatives of Change and organiser of last year’s Winds of Change: Solomon Islands conference, has seen a dramatic shift in community attitudes since the April elections.

“Before, for most people, the very idea of corruption was inconceivable. Now, there is recognition that it exists within the community and that it is a bad thing. This is a significant transition. The people are ready to consolidate,” he said.

Judith Fangalasuu, general secretary of the Solomon Islands Christian Association (SICA), agrees with Mills and adds that not only are Solomon Islanders now aware of corruption, they are keen to change the culture.

“People in Honiara are ready to move on and do something about combating corruption. They now realise that it has been the major contributing factor to our instability,” says Fangalasuu.

In the past six months, conferences held by major community groups to discuss the principles of integrity and transparency have been extremely well attended. The same influence groups have also convinced RAMSI to start handing back responsibilities to the Solomon Islander people.

These major developments have led SICA to organise ‘The National Ethical Leadership Conference’, which will be held 1-2 November, and will include 52 parliamentarians, all the provincial premiers, and prominent business people.

Fangalasuu believes that this conference will help lay the foundations for developing trust in the community, but also stresses that people adopt an anti-corruption mentality for the country to prosper.

“It’s easy to say that politicians and business people need to change. But we all need to realise that we have to change on a personal level too, and consider our own integrity. [But] it’s hard for people when the price of living keeps rising and there is no cash around."

With Solomon Islanders preparing to work more closely with RAMSI on identifying ways of institutionalising community input and outreach, there is an opportunity now for the country to take its first real steps as a fully independent nation. The hope is that in reaching for a brighter future, some are not left behind.

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