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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Out of sight, off stage and behind the scene!

J. Roughan
28 May 2009
Sometimes life's most important actions take place out of sight, off stage, behind the main scene, as it were. Of course our media--print, radio and TV--normally cover the actions of the major public actors, or the lead political spin or the 'bad news' story that grabs the headlines. Often, however, it's the story that happens off centre stage or at the side, almost not seen, that brings the greater good to more people for a longer period of time. And in the long run, it's that one that really counts.
Take what happened down at SIBC for the whole of May. A dedicated group of 45 or more citizens struggled to hammer out a new national constitution. Each day for the past four weeks, for instance, these men/women, old/young, highly experienced/novice, former public servants/   teachers,housewives, mothers, urban elite/village chief met for 8 hours daily and methodically worked through the 2004 Draft Constitution. 
They were bent on creating a new home-grown document which would fit Solomon Islands for the 21st century.
Some might be of the opinion that all this fuss about a constitution is an emphasis on secondary issues and goes the wrong way. What is needed, they say, is more of an accent on getting the nation healed, wealth production plans in this time of financial chaos and having a strong focus on the getting our people dedicated to the future. Most if not all those who labor down at SIBC these past 20 days would be the first to say Amen.
But they also realize that part of the recent troubles the nation experienced in 1998-2003 were fundamental issues. Of course mis-development, corruption in high and low places, poor leadership, land issues, etc. etc. played their part in searing our nation and bringing it to the breaking point. But at the heart of many of these areas of concern is the fact that the our original constitution, handed to us ready made at independence, was anything but a home-grown reality. 
The original document was crafted by UK legal craftsmen who knew little of Solomons people. As good as the document was, it was a  constitution not locally rooted but prepared by persons who knew little about the Solomons' reality, customs and traditions. At independence, it would have been impossible for Solomon Islanders even with great expertise at hand to craft a new document which would act at the touch stone for a country entering the late 20th century and a fit preparation for the 21st century. 
Our 30 years of history with its ups and downs, its good years as well as bad, blessed at times with brilliant leadership but suffering years of mediocrity as well had to be felt, lived and experienced first to make this most recent attempt at producing a new constitution, one which would reflect a Solomons reality.
And that is precisely the point. Our 30 years of Solomons experience has become the touch stone of what works for us as well as a crystal ball showing us why we actually went off the social rails for five years. In a real sense those dedicated people down at SIBC who are sweating daily to craft a document for the newest century are in a process of un-learning.
What a fortunate bunch of people! These 40 or so dedicated citizens have been given the luxury to deeply study the nation's foundation document and in their wisdom and experience to do their best to make it more endurable for the nation of their children and grandchildren. They know that at 1978's independence the whole of Solomon Islands were euphoric: finally their own sons and daughters would be leading the new nation to great heights.
Unfortunately in 1998 that very same dream came to a screeching halt. For five long years of pain, humiliation and sorrow the nation endured  deep suffering. Who could have guessed that in the wake of those dark days, the nation's sons and daughters would be spending long hours seeking to make sure that that terrible nightmare would never re-appear. Yes, great things are happening behind the scene, off camera and out of sight! Pray for them!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Putting our money where our mouth is!

J. Roughan
21 May 2009
The world's severe economic downturn is turning up new thinking or at least dusting off old ideas trying to make them work. Nation after nation   are coming to understand that the economic disaster, tsunami, perfect storm, or whatever words used to describe what's undermining our economic health is something new--we haven't seen the like for 70 years--, unusual--affecting all nations across the world--and really frightening --bad things will and are happening to many, many people.
More than 70 years ago--1930-1939--countries all over the globe suffered their greatest economic depression. During that decade, millions of workers couldn't  find jobs, countries refused to trade with each other except under their own rules and the whole international banking system, the heart of a nation's economy, were in collapse. 
Many nations, ourselves included, are currently traveling that same road. As in the earlier 1930's Depression, this  economic meltdown will not leave us quickly. It's here to stay for 2009 and unfortunately for much of 2010.
Last week two of government's senior persons--the Governor General and the Director of the Central Bank--called upon Solomons village people to ride to the nation's rescue. Much like the Social Unrest years of 1998-2003, before RAMSI had ever entered the picture, the village person had kept the kids fed, housed the family, protected the old, children and women and functioned as a stable social force. Once again these same people--the poorest and least able--are asked to perform the same miracle they performed at the turn of the 21st century.
And of course the nation's village sector will do its duty to protect, feed and sustain the bulk of the nation's people.They know in their bones that if they don't rise to the occasion and take on the burden of keeping the nation afloat and ticking over, there are few other institutions that would be in a position to do so. But, the village is also asking, what does government and its institutions plan to do to soften the blow of a staggering economy?
Rural dwellers know that government has in its power to focus its vast amounts of money to the agriculture sector, to make it thrive and be the engine of growth for all people, both rural and urban. For instance, root crop production is the life blood of local agriculture. As good as rice cultivation could become in the years to come, at this stage of our development the humble potato, yam, pana, cassava, etc. still lie at the heart of our people's productive capacity.
But the issue is more than about growing a few more potatoes, yam, pana, etc. but ways of making these farm products reach the customer and bring much needed income to rural communities. That is why, back in 1997 when the Ulufa'alu Government asked SIDT to conduct a survey on where best to put the investment dollar, 14,000 people made a clear decision. Government must construct more and more food markets and insure that these products reach local markets in a timely and economic ways. Here we are two decades later and the same rural cry is heard. Help us the backbone of society!
Rural dwellers also ask that its young people, both women and men, get a chance to work the agricultural fields of New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan. Recently more than a 100 young Solomon Islanders returned from fruit picking work in New Zealand. Some of these workers  returned with healthy bank accounts but more importantly, Kiwi fruit owners sang their praises. They want more and more of them to help harvest their fruit trees. In other words, they want to see more of our people in their fruit orchids and they want them now. This is where government with its strong contacts with foreign governments must come to the rescue of its people. 
The closest agent to the people, however, is not government as such but the Member of Parliament with his bulging cheque book. Project funding remains strong among every constituency of the country. May I make a point that the project that needs the most funding is in the agricultural specifically the food production area? MPs should earmark funds for women's gardens, getting their products to the market and market places for them. Funding women in this kind of enterprise ensures that the money will be spread out among the poorest of society and have a large multiplying effect. In other words, fifty dollars to a woman gardener will find its way to better health for kids, stronger homes and a more content rural population.
The present ghastly economic turndown can be a great opportunity to strengthen villagers who are the backbone of Solomons society.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The world as seen by Somali pirates

J. Roughan
7 May 2009
Young men from Somalia are currently grabbing the world's attention. A handful of them in tiny, fast moving dinghies, speed boats and skiffs have been capturing massive-sized trade ships, super oil tankers and luxury liners. Once these ships are captured the pirates trade them off for big bucks, millions and millions of ransom dollars. How could a small, poor bunch of kids bring the world's mighty nations to their knees?
Little known and realized is the fact that the failed state of Somalia--some 20 years of non-governance, lawlessness and chaos--is causing major grief among the nations of the world. This small, poor and insignificant country off Africa's eastern coast has become the centre of piracy in the 21st century. The world had already written off the whole piracy idea as something found in history books of the 18th and 19th centuries. Somali teenagers, however, have revisited this old 'business' enterprise and raised it to an art form.
Twenty years ago, piracy was hardly known in that part of the world. However, in the early 1990s when Somalia was in the process of falling apart right in the front of the world's eyes, it's early death raised few eye brows among the rich and mighty. A failed-state Somalia meant nothing to the world's elite and so this small. poor and insignificant nation was allowed to fail and fail spectacularly.
It's said that nature abhors a vacuum and so too do international thieves! Somalia's thriving fishing stocks were just sitting there for the raping by richer and more powerful nations. And their fishing ships came into the seas around this dying nation and plundered its rich fish resources. With no functioning state around to protect people's resource base, stealing fish stocks was easy to do. And that's exactly what happened!
Local fishermen whose whole livelihood and family life depended upon catching fish along the sea coast lying off Somalia saw their lives  destroyed before their eyes. At the time, there was hardly a peep from leading nations of the world. Somali fishermen, however, decided to take things into their own hands and to do something about this injustice.
They began preying upon the 20,000 large ships that sail the shipping lanes yearly off Somalia. If pirates could steal only a few ships a year,  hold the boats crew, cargo and the ship itself for ransom, then at least the millions of dollars demanded from ship owners would keep the pirates' families and way of life together.
It is interesting to observe how the developed world handled this crisis. Most African experts are convinced that piracy would come to a screeching halt if the Somalia nation could begin to stand on its own two feet and start functioning once again. But no, the world's major nations decided that fleets of very expensive warships, thousands of personnel and dozens of helicopters and planes would be the better answer. Presently almost a dozen nations--US, UK, Norway, Japan, China, Canada, etc.--have ordered their warships to patrol the sea lanes off Somalia and if necessary, blow away these nasty pirates. 
The developed world's warships, sailors and planes response currently costs millions of dollars to patrol, monitor and chase after pirates. A much smaller investment to re-root a new Somalia, the African failed state, could be much more effective means to put a stop to piracy.
Obviously, the warship response--huge naval ships chasing after a bunch of teenagers in speed boats--will win in the long run. But the Somalia failed nation problem will continue unresolved. The mighty nations of the world will win at sea but lose on land until Somalia's basic failed nation problem is answered.  
Does the Somalia failed nation story have anything to say to us in Solomon Islands?