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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

There but for the grace of God go I!

J. Roughan
20 January 2010
The pictures, stories and suffering coming out of Haiti this week are grim. 40,000 people already buried with another 50,000 on the way and  experts predict a doubling of that number in the next week or so. Your heart would have to be made of stone not to be moved by all the pain, suffering and death that's happening on this small Caribbean island. How fortunate Solomon Islands has been over the years that a similar earthquake hasn't hit us. What grace has worked on our behalf to have been spared such a fate?
No two countries are exactly alike but some nations do come off being quite similar. Haiti, although on the other side of the world from us, sits on its own 'ring of fire'--earthquake zone--as we do, both are islands nations of almost the same land mass dimensions: Haiti has 10,700 sq. miles while Solomons is 11,100 sq. miles. Haiti's land, however, is basically a single land mass while our country is broken up into major and minor island groupings.
The similarity of social indicators for both countries, however, is striking. Both have huge numbers of youth under 15 years of age--Haiti, 38%, Solomons, 41%; life expectancy for both is low--Haiti, 57, Solomons, 62; there's little difference in Gross Domestic Product numbers: Haiti, $1,300, Solomons, $1,900; and both have Human Development Index (a way of measuring economic and social well-being) scores that are almost the same: Haiti, .521, Solomons, .591. The biggest difference between Haiti and the Solomons is the population base. The Caribbean nation has 20 times our number (almost 10 million) while we have only recently hit the 500,000 mark.
But Haiti's recent devastating earthquake physically shook the entire nation to bits and it has some similarity to our own national 1998-2003 trauma. Haiti's physical destruction and Solomons social destruction literally tore both nations apart. Their earthquake lasted but seconds while our social earthquake rumbled on for more than 5 years. The social destruction, however, was similar for both poverty racked nations. 
Each lost its police force but in different ways. Many of theirs died being trapped in the fallen rubble of houses and offices. Our police force became useless either by throwing in its lot with one side of the conflict or the other or completely disappearing when most needed. Haiti's economy is currently in utter shambles while ours during our Social Unrest years dipped well below zero.  
Haiti is searching for much needed leadership from their own politicans. Fortunately for this stricken country, other nations--UK, EU, USA, China, Canada, etc. etc.--have stepped into the gap to deliver tons and tons of food, water, medical supplies, housing material, etc. etc. However, their own political leaders seem to have disappeared from sight. Just when most needed, they are no where to be found.
Doesn't the current Haiti scene remind one of what happened during our own social earthquake days of 1998-2003? More than 20,000 oil palm workers were forced out of their homes and lost livelihoods in 1999. To this day, for instance, we still don't have a clear picture of how many   people were murdered, raped and abused during that same period. Many overseas people working in Honiara at the time evacuated by ship and air  because the nation's social fabric--constant looting in town, stealing of vehicles, lawlessness, etc.--became intolerable.
But here the sameness of the Haiti situation and what actually happened in the Solomons in the early 2000s stops. People's reaction to these two events produced quite different results. Solomons people who lost all police protection and political direction relied on themselves to guard the most vulnerable--olos, children, women--by feeding, protecting and guarding them for more than five years. Solomons people also lost political leadership who became quite invisible and basically inept--except to mount a civilian coup--during the same period.
What was particularly instructive, however, was our people's ability of jump start the national economy from below zero in 2002 to 5.8% BEFORE RAMSI landed in July 2003. As Rick Hou of Central Bank observed in his review of the 2002 national finances, both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank had never seen such a recovery any where else in the world.
Yet to this day, the debt that the nation owes to the backbone of the country, the villager, has never been recognized and certainly not thanked. SIDT's many Report Cards before and after the Social Unrest period reminds our political leaders what dismal failures they have been. Of course it wasn't simply people acting on their own that produced such a stunning result. They are the first to admit: there but for the grace of  God goes the Solomons!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Winning over minds and hearts!

J. Roughan
12 January 2010
Our Social Unrest years--1998-2003--seem a long time ago in the minds of some people. So much of what happened, they say, happened in the last century. We now live in a new century, in fact, a week ago we finished the first decade of this new century. Let's focus our minds on the future, they caution. Basically, forget about the past, the years to come need our insights, work and attention! Let's move on!
Although such thinking does have some merit, many of those hurt, traumatized and pained of that time are of another mind. They are the ones who currently drive the Ministry of National Unity, Reconciliation and Peace to address the pain, suffering and disappointment they experienced during those awful years.
Not only do a crippled and hurt people of that period thirst for justice, they seek to have their pain and suffering acknowledged. Losing a loved one suddenly through sickness or accident is always hard to take. But when such a disastrous event happens right in front of one's eyes, the guilty one is known--a friend, an acquaintance, even a relative--and government authority doesn't seem to care, this makes it more than likely  these serious painful incidents will be repeated once again.
Of course many people who currently walk today's villages and town streets have their own explanation why parts of the Solomons went so badly off the social rails during that 5 year period of murder, rape, arson, beatings, humiliation, etc. Growing levels of poverty, poor development patterns, terrible leadership, corruption and not the least, the land issue go a long way in explaining why we suffered the social unrest period. Once the Ministry of National Unity begins to publicly listen to people's testimony, however, many of these very same reasons will certainly rise and help explain to the people of this nation why, after 20 years of relative peace, our beloved country exploded into chaos.
But if we cast your minds back to our earliest days, the period immediately after independence, 1978-1986, another more profound reason begins to emerge. Our first eight years of local government were ones of great hope and promise. Finally after 85 years of colonial government, our own people now held the reigns of power. Solomon Islanders to a person headed up government as Prime Minister, ministers of the crown and each and every ministry was directed by Solomon Islanders all.
At long last the nation had accomplished a rare feat, complete inclusion! Each island group, men, women, youth, all ranks of people were now actively included in the political life of the country. The nation was experiencing, it seemed, a country where there were no such thing as an outside group except those who were indeed born outside the nation. Of course most people easily allowed that certain groups in society because of education, training and skill were there to lead but no one was actively excluded.  
Then things began to slowly change in the 1987-1998 period when round tree logging became the rage. During our first eight years of national history, as difficult and as expensive as it was, there was an active desire to bring education chances, medical attention and infrastructure building to the bulk of people. It was a slow business! Our leaders and not a few of our village chiefs thought they could speed up the whole  development process by selling off their tree wealth to wealthy logging firms, pocket all this easy money and voila, the nation would achieve development. On the national scene, however, it became clear that only those groups--those with accessible timber areas--were more important than those where timber was much difficult to harvest. It soon became clear, for instance, that Guale's Weather Coast which had always been a hard place to get to was becoming much more off the map of government's political concern.  
Of course things didn't go that way! Rather the easy, fast money not only turned the forest lands of good, abundant, clean water and rich soil to a shadow of themselves. But the social breakdown in logging areas came on fast and furious: brother against brother, son against father and family fighting family was too often experienced.
Certain areas of the Solomons were being actively excluded in government's concern. Take for instance what SIDT's many Report Cards dating back to 1989 was measuring. Social reachout in the form of education, health attention and living standards were not strengthening but seriously  weakening for most people. The typical villager was slowly but surely being excluded from the Good Life. What had started the nation off on a strong footing of total inclusion was failing and descending into more and more exclusion. The further a villager was from an urban centre, for instance, the weaker was government's reachout to their ordinary way of life. Our Social Unrest years--1998-2003--became an extension of the elite's understanding of politics.
Our new parliament's main job then come June 2010 is Winning over minds and hearts! Money alone won't do it. A new type of political leadership is needed which will include the whole of the Solomons, leaving out no one!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Politician's New Year Resolution!

J. Roughan
7 January 2010
These days are a great time to make New Year Resolutions! Big Smokers, for instance, may promise themselves to stop smoking or at least cut down on the number of cigarettes smoked each day. Others, on the heavy side, may promise themselves to stop eating too much so as to lose some weight. Many people in different walks of life make New Year Resolutions about one thing or another.
May I suggest, in this the year of National Elections, that budding politicians but especially those seeking to gain back their parliamentary seat, promise to visit a medical doctor. Why? To get a physical check-up! Before a candidate begins campaigning, he should make sure his body is really up the difficulties of the elected position.  Be able to share with voters during campaign tours that a medical doctor has given them a thorough exam and has declared they are in reasonable health. They do not suffer diabetes, their blood pressure is under control and their heart is in good shape. The doctor is reasonably sure that It would still be ticking strong while in office for the next four difficult years of Parliament.
Of course the Constitution is silent about physical health. The framers of this document took for granted that those aspiring to the highest of offices in the land would be in reasonable good health. The Constitution, however, is quite clear that a person seeking high office must be of sound mind to carry out the onerous duties of office. When it comes to physical health, then, the Constitution writers just took it for granted that a politician's physical health should be a given.
Unfortunately, however, many of the present members of parliament leave much to be desired. Three of the original 2006 elected members--Ulufa'alu, Samuel and Sanga--have already passed away. Another four members--Kauwa, Hune'ehu, Kanairara and Sitai--are seriously sick men and find it increasingly difficult to fulfill their duties to the nation and to the people of their constituency. How many more of the present house are in the same boat? 
The sicknesses I speak of are not bad cases of malaria, a dose of pneumonia or some other kind of temporary ailment. As serious as these diseases can be, they are treatable and basically curable. However, diabetes, cardio-vascular difficulties and stoke are not simple ailments but in reality life threatening ones. Malaria can be treated and cured within a few days if proper medicine is taken and doctors orders followed. Not so those who suffer diabetes, heart trouble or stroke. These are serious conditions and are life threatening! It's hard to stay on top of one's job with such ailments and do the work called for.
Our people are terribly forgiving! But it's wrong for a seriously sick person to present himself to the electorate when it's clear that the politican in question suffers serious health conditions that could probably prevent him from carrying out his duties of office. As said previously, the sickness I speak of is not a temporary one like malaria, a serious cold or skin infection but those which medical science has no cure at hand. Office pressures especially in parliament where one is on the national stage, are exactly the types of stresses which make diabetes, stroke, cardio-vascular weaknesses, etc. most difficult to treat.
Yes, there is nothing in the Constitution which prohibits a seriously sick man running for parliament. What I ask for here is making one's  physical well being part of the public debate when choosing the best person for parliament. The nation doesn't have sufficient funds at hand to cover new elections when a member dies in office from sicknesses, well known before election day. We owe it to our people to offer them the healthiest, best and most qualified person to represent them in Parliament's high office.
A routine doctor's office visit, asking for a thorough medical check up and seeking a doctor's certificate to inform voters of the constituency that all is well should be sufficient. There is no need to detail the candidate's health condition but just a doctor's verification that the said person   suffers no major health problems which would interfere with a parliamentary work load once in office. 
If every candidate produces such a doctor's health certificate then the whole campaign would be conducted on a level playing field. Those refusing to comply and simply claiming they are in the best of health, send out a mixed message. If they are in such fine physical shape as they claim, why don't they prove it by producing a doctor's certificate? Let voters then make up their own minds what is it that the candidate seems to be hiding.

Elephant in the room!

We've come to the end not only of another year--2009--but also the finish of the twenty-first century's first decade. It's a good time, then, to review how we as a nation lived the current year which is fast fading into the history books but more importantly, to take a long hard look back over our last ten years as well. What were some of the things we did or did not do that have left serious marks on the country which will either  bless or haunt us in the future, our own lives and that of our kids?
Fortunately, 2009 was a peace-packed year for Solomons people! This statement, so easy to write, but in reality dozens and dozens of countries worldwide would gladly trade their back teeth to make such a boast. While we basked in peacefulness, the world's mightiest nations--America, UK, European Union--were up to their ears fighting two major wars--Iraq and Afghanistan. Being a small nation, however, didn't automatically translate into peace. Many a tiny nation--Palestine, Israel, Sudan, Chad, etc. etc.--found themselves in the middle of fighting smaller but no less vicious conflicts. But for us, a tiny, far away nation in the middle of the Pacific chalked up another full year of peace, quiet and order. Truly a blessing! 
Yet it wasn't always so! Just turn your attention to the beginning of this fast fading decade. Our nation entered the 2000-2009 period with a  small but no less vicious conflict raging right within our midst. Our 1998-2003 Social Unrest years took us by surprise. Over the previous twenty year period of peace, we had come to believe that peace, order and tranquility were ours by some kind of divine right. The killings, rapes, burnings, beatings, etc. that grabbed out attention at the beginning of this decade were surely happening some place else not in our own land and among our own people.
Our political leaders, fortunately, made a momentous decision in 2003! The civil unrest which was rooting in the Weather Coast, Honiara and a few other places was growing beyond government's power to contain. Our police force was ineffectual and the country was beginning to slide out of control. To his credit, the Prime Minister at the time, Sir Allen Kemakeza, called upon the Pacific community to come to our aid. 
Solomon Islands had publicly begged for assistance from the UN, Australia and others earlier in the decade but on its first request it received only negative replies. Only when the world scene had changed dramatically--the US and its allies had invaded Iraq in March 2003--did Australia feel it safe enough to come to our aid. Of course, RAMSI's presence was different than what had happened in Iraq. We as a nation had formally invited this military-civilian force in to assist us.
But the 2003 Australian, New Zealand and other Pacific nations intervention force remains with us even now after 7 years of presence. It has become the elephant in the room! No matter how silently and quietly the elephant acts it remains a serious presence in the nation's affairs of state. In some ways it has become a second government, welcomed by many citizens because it has been a major factor in the continuance of peace and order. In some quarters, especially in the rural areas, villagers would like to see a more.not less active RAMSI presence doing those things that the central government seems to have forgotten about: grassroots development, medical work, road building and repair, etc. etc.
Next year's national election will present a newly elected Parliament a serious issue. In the middle of its four year term, 2013 in fact, RAMSI will have been present for 10 consecutive years, more than a quarter of the years of our whole national existence. At the beginning of its 2003 intervention, however, no one across the nation seriously thought that RAMSI would still be here more than 7 years after stepping off the planes at Henderson in July 2003.    
Make no mistake about it. RAMSI has been a great if expensive gift to Solomons people! It stabilized a weak and ineffective State and was quite needed to bring about national peace and order. And for this great generosity we must be eternally grateful. However, when all is said and done, RAMSI forever remains a foreign body. It has different sets of agendas and understandings of what makes for a strong, vibrant and home grown nation. Its priorities are different from ours. The recent Moti case is a vivid reminder that what RAMSI saw important for its goals and objectives proved unacceptable to Australian's own judicial system much less to ours.
The second decade of the 21st century will surely bring its own set of surprises, challenges and trials. We have grown strong enough a nation to weather these difficulties. Our strengths--a rural population able and willing to feed a nation and a youth component filled with enthusiasm--make the nation hum with the good life for all of us. Let us thank RAMSI for its great work but also make it clear that we the people of the nation have to do the work necessary to make our country a better place for all. There is no need for the elephant to be in the room any longer.