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Monday, June 21, 2010

Put your money where your mouth is!

J. Roughan
22 June 2010

In most parts of the world, if you are really serious about what you are saying and you want to see things go ahead, then the person backs up  the words from the mouth by investing real, hard cash in the enterprise. If something is so important that you constantly talk about it, then, as the words above say: "Put your money where your mouth is!"
More than a dozen political parties, some new and some quite old, are currently in vigorous campaign mode. Some parties have simply confined themselves to words on the radio or newspaper write ups, while others are actually touring the provinces, holding meetings in provincial capitals and are seriously engaging rural populations on the merits of their party's political agenda.
Each and every political party, however, has one thing in common. At lease for this election they are all saying that the rural person, ( I would prefer if they would speak about villagers), is the most important person in these islands. Finally, at last, the political establishment is correctly reading the reality of the Solomons. Villagers, through their liens, tribes and clans, actually own the lion's share of this nation's land, trees, rivers, reefs, fishing grounds, etc. Unlike many other nations--Australia, New Zealand, America, etc.--Solomon Islanders do control more than 90% of this country. The government owns less than 5% of the land! The 29,000 sq. kilometers of land surface, and according to the majority of land owners, the riches beneath the surface of these islands, is owned, controlled and more and more directed by village people.
It's taken more than 30 years of independence and a mini civil war for our political class, educated elite and power brokers to realize the basic fact that Solomon Islanders through their clans are the real and only owners of the nation. Now for the first time it seems that this message has finally made headway with our leaders and they are beginning to craft policies which will help villagers get ahead.
But words floating in the air mean nothing unless they are put into practice. Hence, the expression: Put your money where your mouth is!" The worst thing that could happen from this up coming election in August is to stick with words alone and not immediately put into action the political party's manifesto when it comes to putting rural people first.
May I suggest here that the first thing done on the day after the election is for each newly elected member to appoint an Action Committee for his constituency to flesh out the details of a Growth Centre which would have three separate but closely tied functions?
1st: Create a communications hub where villagers of the constituency would have telephone access with the rest of the nation. The real owners of this country, although rich in resources, are terribly poor in getting rapid, clear and precise information about what is happening in other parts of the nation. With the advent of the newest telecommunication outfit, beMobile, it would be a treasure for this new company to be in on the ground floor in the establishment of newly formed growth centres. The newly elected member of parliament would be in an excellent position to  pressure the new telecommunications company to set up a telephone system in the member's newly founded Growth Centre. 
2nd: Part and parcel for a well functioning Growth Center would be to cluster basic people's services--postal, banking, repair, information, police post, clinic, government offices, etc.--which villagers would be able to access rather than having to travel over to Honiara or provincial capitals for each and every need. Up to 80% of villagers' service needs could be operational within a well functioning Growth Centre. Many services, rather than being physical buildings, could rely at the beginning on the use of a mobile phone system. In many parts of Africa, for instance, banking takes place over the phone and not in a bank building as such. 
3rd: Establish a competent research unit made up of Solomon Islands' graduates and secondary students whose duty would be to gather vital information through a series of on-going surveys and research work to help the newly elected Member and the people of a constituency know quickly and readily what are the area's vital statistics, facts and information needed to make sound decisions. Every member needs a competent research unit to help establish vital, up to date and pertinent information to help the member formulate sound policies for his people.
By setting up all of these functions means creating jobs, employment and casual labor. A Growth Centre need not wait for a government handout to get started. Member's RCDF and other cash grants should be his first investment priority and over a four year period the Growth Centre could grow and become more useful for the very people who own the Solomons. Such investment would be an excellent example of: Putting money where the mouth is.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Myths driving our politicians (3)

J. Roughan
21 June 2010
Over the past two weeks we have been exploring some of the major myths--a notion that contains some truth inside it but is also filled with error, misinformation and falsehood--which are driving our current politicians. These myths centre on the development funds in the hands of parliamentarians.  . 
The first myth (12 June article) is about the idea that the most important work of a parliamentarian is to handle well the many development funds coming his way. However, it's clear from past election results that just the opposite is true. The more funds a Member distributes the harder it is for him to return to parliament. In 1997, for instance, over half of the members never returned to their seat. While in the 2001 election, the fall out was worse . . .64% of sitting members failed to make it back into office. 
Last week's article explored the myth that raising people's quality of life came about in how well and how much the member could focus his attention and energies on development funds. Once again, not true!
Most citizens need and want to see the quality of their lives made stronger but they speak primarily of quality education opportunities, well stocked clinics and hospitals, assistance in their resource base and chances of gaining modest but assured amounts of money. Of course they are happy to see the funding of projects but these are not their top priority.
Two separate surveys--one from Canberra and the second from SIDT--both made the point that government failure in the nation's social infra- structure was more important than project funding. SIDT's eight Report Cards over a twenty year period makes it clear that people's quality of life issues are at the heart of their concern. Project funding, at the expense of people's fundamental quality of life issues, is going the wrong  way.
# Myth 3
A member's best chance of winning back his parliamentary seat lies in his ability to distribute well and much development aid as possible. Other works--passing worth while national legislation, keeping government on its toes, monitoring government policies in the field and bringing to parliament strong views--are all seen as secondary, almost redundant, to many members of parliament. The poor attendance record by many parliamentarians and the thinness of their debate on matters of national interest over the past four years indicates where their hearts are.
Although development funds handed out to members of parliament have substantially increased over the past few years, regaining one's seat in parliament has become more and more difficult. As mentioned above, on average, more than 44% of all sitting members lose their seats in  any national election while in two recent elections--1997 and 2001--the failure rate soared. Come August this year the nation will witness even more members failing to carry their seats in spite of literally millions of dollars dispensed for projects by members.
Many of our parliamentarians do work hard but they focus their energies on the wrong things. They have not been elected to act as project coordinators/managers, certainly not to work as social welfare officers handing out funds for school fees, travel fares, medical visits, etc. and walking around like Automatic Teller Machines dispensing money to their constituents.
The nation's problems have much more to do with reducing poverty, creating more jobs especially for youth, strengthening our resource base of agriculture and fisheries and by adding value to our food and fish production. But these goals are not addressed by focusing on project funds for development as needed as it is. But dynamic and creative members of parliament could make a major dent in working for new job  opportunities. For example, pushing for and insisting on overseas employment chances--fruit picking in New Zealand and Australia, home care in Canada, Taiwan and others should be the 'bread and butter' of parliament and its work. 
Our members have been turning aside from these works and substituting other kinds of work which, as important as they may be, are not parliament's first task. The well being of the nation is and that's in the hands and hearts of our members.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Myths drive our politicians!

J. Roughan
7 June 2010
It would do parliamentarians and those running for high office a great deal of good for themselves, but especially for the nation, if those seeking to be Members to thoroughly study why so many act the way they do. National elections, due this August, will probably vote in more new  Members than old ones who are looking to come back to the House. This is the time, then, for all of them to take stock of their motives for seeking high office.
A myth is a notion that has some truth inside it but it is so surrounded by half-truths, falsehoods and errors, that it is often hard to separate the good from the bad. A popular myth in the beginning of the last century, for instance, had it that the Whiteman was better than those of an other color. Such an idea is understood as nonsense today but it did have its believers for a while. Our parliamentarians also carry around in their heads a set of myths which when deeply studied turn out to be false or at least misleading.
# Myth 1
A successful MP is one whose first task is to properly handle the RCDF funds (as well as the other money schemes:e.g. Rural Livelihood, Millennium, Special Mini Projects, Parliament Mini Project Funds).     
Although development monies given to Members have increased a great deal over the years--$400,000 in 1993 when the scheme first started to today's $2 million--the number of parliamentarians returning to the House after an election have gone down in number not up. At each national election, approximately 4 out of every 10 members are never re-elected. That number has stayed the same over past national elections. However, in the 1997 and 2001 elections, more members than ever lost their seats, although funding administered by Members had grown substantially, more and more of them have lost their seats in parliament. In 1997, 51% never returned while in 2001, the number of Members losing their seats rose to 64%!
If development funds were so critical to voters to help them gauge whether their member was doing well, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Members should easily gain back their seats because this development fund base was increasing, not decreasing. But as stated in the above paragraph, that has not been true.
Of course MPs mismanagement of development funds has become part of the current political picture. Some constituencies are already calling in the Courts to demand that their Member show how and where all the funds given have been properly accounted for.These cases have not come to trial as yet but when they do, it will show that properly handled RCDF funds is a two-edged sword--able to cut two ways.  
Unfortunately, managing development funds has become, in the minds of many members and not a few of their voters, the most important aspect of judging whether the person is a good parliamentarian or not. Out the window has gone the idea that a member is first and foremost a law maker, keeps the government on its toes and guides sound policy for the good of the whole nation.
Isn't this why so many parliamentarians have been failing to turn up in chamber and when they do decide to be present hardly say a word in the debate which they are voted into office for? Transparency Solomon Islands recent study of Members poor daily attendance at Parliament was shocking. But worse still was the fact that few Members had anything to say about the laws that were past.
Next week I want to uncover a few more myths which are driving our politicians to act the way they do. No one is saying that proper care should not be given to development funds. But that's not the job of Parliamentarians. Their duty is much higher: to be our representatives in the highest reaches of government. Leave project management, social welfare work and acting like walking ATMs for those who are better prepared.

Competion is good for the soul!

J. Roughan
31 May 2010

Last week's essay--The Solomons biggest problem: Honiara--explained how our fastest growing, mega city has been driving the rest of the country down the wrong path for more than 30 years. That essay made it clear that Honiara will not easily change its ways, nor cease  demanding more and more resources to feed its life style and will never be shy about pushing its weight around to make sure that things stay that way long into the future. 
It would be wonderful, however, to report that with the new bunch of MPs elected into their positions in the up coming national poll in mid-year and marching off to the Big House on the Hill, things would indeed change. Don't hold your breath! It's not that this new crop of MPs are bad people, only out to fill their pockets and give little attention to the small people. It's the system! More than words are needed to bring change. That's why a healthy dose of competition could make a world of difference.
What kind of competition? Our nation has 50 constituencies, the backbone of our political system. Up to recent times, however, the monies and resources given to individual MPs have hardly made any lasting impression in their home grounds. In most places, it would be hard to take a  photo of anything new or special in any of the constituencies. It seems that the $2 million a year pumped into these constituencies should have worked a miracle or two by now.  $2 million yearly is a whole lot of money and if wisely invested in each of constituency, it could begin to make a big difference in how this country could be run for the health and welfare of the majority of our people.
Take for instance people's desperate need in these rural outposts to have a fair access to a phone service, banking facility, an information centre, a fully equipped medical outpost staffed by a doctor,  a thriving food centre, etc. to bring to rural people some of the very services we in Honiara take for granted on a daily basis. Our people, on the other hand, must travel great distances, pay high ship fares and spend serious time away from their families for the simplest of services we in Honiara take for granted.
Other countries already boast of setting up these services in places called GROWTH CENTERS.  Yes, villagers do like to come to Honiara but usually its for a distinct and clear purpose. They simply don't travel on uncomfortable ships for hours at a time costing a high price for the sheer joy of coming over to town. Usually these people time their journey visit so as to check in with a doctor, fix up their eyes/teeth/ears, do a bit of banking, find out about the extended family, check a child's progress in school, etc. etc.
If, however, many of these same services were firmly imbedded in a local GROWTH CENTRE, fewer and fewer of our people would be forced to travel long hours, on expensive, uncomfortable ships and then seek a place to sleep at the end of their journey. Part of the problem of why Honiara grew more than 30 times over the past 50 years, was it never really faced any kind of competition from the provinces. If a villager needed medical assistance, information, understanding, there was only way to achieve it:: travel to Honiara or do without the assistance.
And the time for the establishment of provincial GROWTH CENTERS seems to be well timed. Our new bunch of parliamentarians would be open to new, innovative ideas since the old method of MPs doling out bits and pieces of money but seeing little difference in their people's life style has gotten them nowhere. beMobile, the newest telephone company, will be rolling out its mobile phones about the same time as our new parliament is taking root. What better time than to make a deal with this new communication giant to be at the heart of any GROWTH CENTRE.  
Of course a centre which brings together 'under one roof', as it were, information technology, banking, medical and other services also becomes by definition a job centre as well. Yes, some of these higher services would require specialists but at least half of all jobs--building,  plumbing, electrical trades, food outlets, trucking, markets, accommodation, etc. would have to root in such centers. Up wards of 50-70 new jobs could be created by the formation of such centers.
In past years, an MP thinking along this line of drawing together many services for his people, ran into a fundamental problem: where does the money for this growth come from. Now that each and every MP is on the receiving end of a large grant, surely, over a four year period, large amounts of these grant monies could be focused on building up a service base which our people so desperately need. Once these centers begin to root, for the first time in Solomons recent history, Honiara would face stiff completion which would make it less and less attractive to the rest of the country. Perhaps then, MPs would truly make their own constituency their home base, NOT Honiara!

The Solomons biggest problem

J. Roughan
25 May 2010

Honiara was my port of call--planes landed at Henderson only once every other week--when I first arrived in the Solomons in 1958. At the time, Honiara was truly a small town. It boasted of 2,300 people, about the same number that visit Central Market on a busy Saturday morning. Our 2009 Census hasn't come out with its report as yet but don't be surprised to read that this urban centre has reached the 80,000 mark. The last 50 years has seen tremendous growth, from a small town to a mid-sized city. In five decades, then, Honiara has increased its population about 35 times.
But our country is a Nation of Villages! 8 out of 10 citizens actively live village life. The basics of normal life--food, shelter, medicine, water, recreation, etc.--are found in the village. Not so in Honiara where the almighty dollar reigns supreme. A villager at home can go a whole day without ever buying a thing but it's next to impossible to live in town without deep, full pockets.
But give credit where credit is due. Honiara's rapid growth over very few years has helped Solomons people to become a nation. No other town--Auki, Kira Kira, Buala, Gizo, etc.--could have accomplished this work. But our current independence has come with a price tag, a rather high price tag.  There has been an over centralization, over concentration of goods, services, wealth and influence in this one part of the nation and it has come at the expense of the rest of the country.
Honiara has not only become big but some would say fat and bloated. More than 90% of all commercial activity takes place in the tiny area between Henderson in the East and White River in the West. While favorable arguments for this fact can be made, the outcome for the nation has been less than helpful. The village is too often seen by Honiara's political elite as something foreign while the real Solomons is here in town. In other words, we are seeing the growth of two kinds of Solomon Islanders: those living in Honiara and the rest of the nation in the village.
But that type of growth was never part of the our Founding Fathers original vision. Our first years of independence--1978-1982--focused on establishing a workable state with the election of parliament members, passing laws, setting up ministries, etc. Nation building, it was thought, would come quickly enough once the trappings of statehood were firmly in place.
Unfortunately, however, by the mid-1980s some of the more powerful leaders of the time had another vision, round tree logging exports. This type of development was suppose to bring great material advances to those most in need, the villager. But just the opposite happened. SIDT's 8  Report Cards dating back to 1989 and stretching into 2009, twenty years of surveys, showed that from the people's point of view government after government was failing them. Services of quality education, strong medical attention, resource assistance and availability of money were growing weak and in many cases becoming non existent.
As Honiara grew, became more important and more dominating in Solomon Islanders lives, the village, the backbone of local society, was weakening and growing poorer. For example, the annual average revenue given to all 9 provinces between the years 1995-2000 was $96.6 million out of a national  annual average of $336.3 million. Honiara alone absorbed almost $240 million each year. Honiara's domination of national wealth had resulted in a 70%/30% split with the lion's share going to the city. No wonder that provincial advancement has proven to be so difficult.
But this type of domination happened again last week. The World Bank plans to pump into Honiara almost $24 million over a five year period to tackle youth unemployment. Great! Good! But youth unemployment is a national issue and must be fought in all the provinces. If only one place--Honiara--gets funding then youth will simply flood over to town to get a job. Honiara's poorest people will then to asked to pick up the pieces since many youth will lodge themselves with their wantoks who already find it hard to feed and care for close family members. The last thing they need is another few mouths to feed and care for on a daily basis.
Parliament is the primary source of those who think that if Honiara grows bigger and fatter, it means that the country is also thriving. In parliament's last session in April, for example, it tried to increase its membership from 50 to 67 but fortunately did not succeed because the extra funding needed for these seats didn't exist. But this is the kind of strict diet which the country must use more and more. Honiara's tendency is to demand more and more without fully realizing what such demands do to the rest of the people of the nation.

The Respect Ruler: Early Warning System?

J. Roughan
18 May 2010

An early lesson Solomon Islanders taught me many years ago was about the importance of showing proper respect. Of course the customs and traditions of my own people also put great weight on the need to show respect for the other. From my earliest days, then, even as a child, I was taught to say thank you, please, pardon me, etc.etc. Not to do so, failure to say thank you when given something, for instance, showed a serious lack of respect.  
In other words, courtesy, good manners and hence, respect were shown to others--those older than myself, my playmates, in fact all other people --were respected both in my verbal as well as my outward behavior. Not to do so was considered a social 'sin' and in some cases, simply rude and not to be tolerated. 
However, in a Solomons context respect for the other, as I continue to learn, covers much more than mere public courtesy and certain social expressions. Respect means something deeper and more profound than saying some proper words and showing certain gestures.  Respect for the other, his culture, relatives, history, was something that went deeper and had much more profound meaning than the mere saying "Sorry!" when another was hurt by words or a "Thank you!" for the unexpected gift. 
Respect goes to the heart of how we publicly accept the other. Mere words, no matter how well said, hardly touch the core meaning of respect in the local context.  It's made up of our whole approach to the other and our very life style which speaks much to our understanding of what we mean by showing  respect to another.
But these words are not being written here to present a lesson on courtesy, public conduct and respect but something much more important. It's about our up coming national elections which will be upon us by the end of July or there about. Are we ready for them or not?  Our 2006 election went off well, no violence and the nation conducted a 'free, fair and valid' election. But right after a calm, correct election came the 18/19 April 2006 Chinatown Burn Down, when a riotous mob burnt Honiara's Chinatown to the ground. 
What special things has the nation done in the past four years so that such trouble won't befall us once again. If I could only point to a government sponsored Youth Employment Bill which had been created to produce thousands of jobs yearly, I would sleep a great deal more peacefully. But since 2006, I can't pin point one government initiative that would make this up coming election period a safe and secure one. Just the opposite!
Over the past few months,  I have been using my own Respect Ruler to gauge how well or how poorly our young people have been acting in public space to conduct themselves. I have a feeling that our next riot will come from our young people who have been so pushed to society's sidelines. Most of them are desperately looking for work, even low paid jobs, but in our present economic slowdown, even such jobs are few and far between. As in the 1989 Riot, bored and discouraged youth are prime candidates to seek trouble. As one youth I interviewed back in 1989, said when asked why he had joined in the riot, "Nothing to lose and a good chance to pick something up worth while!" 
Little things like poor public actions at Honiara's Main Market, stoning cars driving along the road at night, verbal abuse in Honiara's streets, jumping bank lines to get first, car/bus/taxi driver conduct along Honiara's roads, blocking back roads to force drivers to pay a 'road tax',   etc. have been chosen for my Respect Ruler. All these actions are socially negative, cause unneeded publicly distress and are far from friendly.
These actions and others like them, I find, are on the rise and are making an appearance on my Respect Ruler.  Are these actions fair examples showing that youth and the not too young are leaning towards trouble come election day? Perhaps there are more important early warning signals of trouble to come but I'm sure our authorities should be sensitive to them and preparing themselves if and when serious  trouble raises its ugly head.

Cats can't talk because they have no eyebrows!

J. Roughan 
11 May 2010

An early lesson Solomon Islanders taught me when I first landed on Honiara's shores many years ago is that the locals are fond of using their eyebrows and the rest of their face to send messages. Of course, people here use many languages, more than 60 at last count, but their ability to use their facial muscles to send out messages is second to none. 
Strangers to these isles soon find that answers to questions come more often than not from the flick of an eyebrow, a lift of the brow or a widening of the eyes. In a real sense, then, the lift and lowering of eyebrows and widening of the brow acts like another language.  It's a  language, however, that the eye alone catches but the ear misses completely.  In the Solomons, then, one needs to pay great attention to the many messages sent by the eyebrow and face as well as those spoken out loud by the tongue. Shouldn't the nation employ this rich resource to the fullest?
Unfortunately, however, our political masters place much more emphasis on the overseas poll watchers rather than recruiting citizens right under their noses. In 2006, approximately 50 overseas personnel, using a budget of more than $3.3 million, parachuted into our country to be present at the national elections. Our leaders didn't seem bothered at all that these overseas personnel didn't speak a single local language, knew hardly a word of Pijin and were quite ignorant of our customs. Of course they never heard of the islanders' ability to communicate through eyebrows, eyes and face.
Yet, at the end of the day it was this team of overseas experts who verified that our 2006 election was 'free, fair and valid' having visited only a handful of polling stations and being present a few hours at the most in any single polling station.    
It seems only sensible, then, that when polling date rolls around in the middle of the year, that local people with their language skills should be  the major part of the monitoring system at each and every polling station across the nation. The nation has thousands upon thousands of people, young and old, men and women, who look forward to be part of the up coming national election, so vital to the country, if given a chance.   
In 2006, for instance, just before our last national election, SIDT organized more than 140 young people who were primed and trained to be present at a handful of polling stations. With no budget, not even enough to give these volunteers bus fare, to help them turn up at SIDT's weekly training session, these young people were eager to assist at polling stations to insure that the election went off 'freely, fairly and validly'.
This time around, however, we hope things will be different. To prepare for this election, SIDT has submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs a project proposal to train up approximately 2,000 local poll watchers. In the 2006, there was 970 polling stations but with the increase in population the number of official polling stations will probably rise to something close to 1,000. 
The project proposal plans to place two locals--one man and one woman--in each polling booth station who would remain at post for the  complete 10 hours while voting takes place. These poll watchers would be drawn from their own area where their language abilities--both verbal and non verbal--would come into play. As important, the funding sought--$2 million--would be supplied from outside donors and not  burden the government of the day. 
There is little time left to get this work on the way. Of course, bring in outside poll watchers but have them team up with local people who are already at post. Final reports coming from a combination of local and overseas personnel would carry the necessary weight verifying that the election was indeed, 'free, fair and valid'. Solomon Islands citizens with their great language skills, both those of the tongue and body, would out perform any overseas expert on their own and be a whole lot cheaper. Unlike cats, however, Solomon Islanders with their eyebrows and all could do a marvelous job in keeping this next national election on the right path.

Political parties finally catching up?

J. Roughan
5 May 2010

Well before independence day in 1978,  in fact hundreds of years before that date, the heart of Solomons life was already found in village living. Not only  were most Solomon Islanders village born, but the vast majority of them lived their full lives in and in most cases died in these very same sites.  Yes, these living sites were much smaller than present day villages, probably better termed hamlets, but villages still the same.  And in a profound sense, village life continues to be at the centre of our people's everyday lives. Our political parties, at long last, have turned a corner, now publicly recognize this major sociological fact and are currently inviting themselves to the party. 
Unfortunately, our political party personnel still can't speak about villagers but prefer to call  these people rural dwellers, grassroots folk, etc. when  what they really are talking about are men, women and children who live life to the fullest in a village setting. For a village is not simply a person's residential site, a place to sleep, but is a shorthand meaning for a completely different way of living than found in more developed parts of the world. Village is a symbol of and code word for the reality in which the overwhelming majority of our people choose to live.
The Solomons, then, is best and most profoundly defined as a nation of villagers. 84%+ of our people live, work and exist in these settlements which are much more than dormitory sites. Children are born, grow up and dwell in a particular a village setting because it's very location attests to the presence of life's essential resource base--food, water, shelter, medicine, fuel, etc. etc. 
But culture, politics, economics, life education, security, world view, etc. and other essentials are also part and parcel of the typical village life as well. In other words, cultural, physical and mental basics of island living are found in the village setting. So it is with great satisfaction to finally read in newspapers and listen to on the radio that more and more political parties are at last turning their antenna towards this living reality of Solomons life.
In recent past years, both the Sogavare--Bottom Up Approach--and Sikua--Rural Advancement--governments have fully accepted the idea that our nation will make little headway in development and nation-building until and when the majority of our citizens' lives--read village lives--are at the centre of government concern. More recently, the People's Alliance Party (PAP) took this concern a step further. It made it clear that to insure ordinary people's lives are front and centre in government's thinking then the national budget must reflect that reality.
PAP detailed its deep concern for the villager by publicly disclosing how it would allocate funding to the betterment of people's lives. Overall, in the first year of its presence in office, PAP intends to increase financial allocation to the nine provinces by 5 times. From a bit more than $37 million yearly to almost $200 million a year.  Such a bold step, putting in clear terms, what it costs to re-allocate funding to the majority of  citizens away from Honiara's elite.
But more than money is at stake here! Of course, over the three decades which the Solomons has eked out its existence as a nation state, the bulk of national monetary wealth was cornered by a select few, found mostly in Honiara who are closely connected to its political establishment. For example, the annual average revenue given to the nine provinces between the years 1995-2000 (a five year period) was $96.6 million out of a national annual average of $336.2 million. This unfair distribution resulted in a vertical split of 29% to the nine provinces and 71% to Central Government. 
At the heart of any explanation of our country's Social Unrest years in 1998-2003 can be traced to this terrible 70/30 split of national wealth to a select few which made sure it received the lion's share while the Poor's pockets received a lot less. If political parties begin to address this severe injustice by putting the village first and re-allocating financial assistance in that direction, then, the Solomons will begin to respond to its need to become a strong state. 
But along with any re-allocation of funding towards the bulk of our people's lives must come a re-education program of our political masters, politicians and national decision makers. Money, funding and re-allocation of grants on their own without a revamping of our leaders mind set will fail. For more than 30 years now, Honiara and all it stands for has been the main winner for the country's vast wealth. Most newly elected members to parliament certainly think that way since it is the main reason why these men have decided to try their luck in the up coming election. The last thing they would look forward to is a revamping of the financial pie with larger and larger slices going to any one else than themselves. The nation has a major fight on its hands starting the middle of this year.

National Food Security is much more than agricultural issue.

J. Roughan
27 April 2010

Last week Vanuatu hosted a Pacific Island agricultural minister's conference with many food experts in attendance. For a full week, serious toktok about Food Security became the focus of their discussions. Every island nation of the region, they agreed, currently faces growing serious food shortages. Island populations without exception are expanding fast and more and more scarce lands are pulled into production  to feed all these new mouths. Yet outside food sources have not only become more expensive but are more and more unreliable to import.
Less than two years ago in 2008, for instance, Solomon Islanders stared in shocked disbelief at the cost of rice in stores. Right in front of their eyes a 20k bag of Solrise went from well below $200 to over that mark in a matter of weeks. People's beloved rice, the food which had become daily fare at the nation's food table and been taken for granted, had literally climbed out of reach for many local people.
Immediately ordinary town people as well as those from the countryside, from every walk of life, began pressurizing government to do something, to get new sources of rice, do something anything so as to reduce the great rice price hike. Unfortunately, across the whole world--India, China, Indonesia, etc.--were also feeling the same effects of the great rice price hike. In fact, it was only in the latter part of 2009 that rice prices began to slowly come down since new sources of this grain were now entering the market. But the lesson was there for all to learn: food security and secure, sound living are national worried and have to be worked on at a national level.
Fortunately, even today we in the Solomons have always enjoyed a back up position. Our women gardeners, masters at root crop production,  produce potato, yam, pana, tapioca, etc. in great variety and output. Our fertile land, availability of abundant rain water and especially our skilled food producers churn out tons and tons of these precious goods without costing the nation a penny. Few of our farmers use pesticides, fertilizers and insecticides and yet they feed the majority of our people.
Only recently, for instance, during the Social Unrest period--1998-2003--when the nation's political elite were dithering and offering precious little leadership, most villages fed themselves. Our small farmers, fishermen and food/fruit gathers jumped in to fill the gap. Through painful political turmoil, a partial civil war on Guale's Weather Coast and unrest in Honiara, the bulk of people fed themselves, not so much with rice, flower and other imports but what they planted and harvested from their own gardens. 
Now leaders of the country are beginning to grasp that to bring about food security means organizing, assisting and empowering the villager, especially the woman gardener, to produce greater amounts and different kinds of food to feed our growing population. Of course they can and are already planting, caring for and harvesting serious rice production. But the best scenario when it comes to local rice production must be counted in decades, not in months.
Our yearly import bill for rice remains close to $200 million which the nation can not afford. That is why planting, caring for and harvesting our own rice production is a smart way to go. But before we reach that level of rice production the nation depends upon its most productive sector for food production, the village woman. Yet, simply to ask her to produce more root crops is not enough. She must be assisted to get her production to the market place where she can receive a reasonable reward for her labor.
During the first days of the Ulufa'alu government in 1997, he commissioned SIDT to conduct a national survey: Government  Investing in People's Lives.  Almost 13,000 people across the nation were asked to pinpoint the best place for government to invest monies to increase people's chances to gain a bit of prosperity. Their first choice in Resource Investment was for government to focus on people's gardens  Closely following was for the government to set up markets where villagers could bring garden production for sale. And second in their investment priorities was a system of robust shipping to get farm produce to these markets.
Here we are more than a dozen years afterwards and through five governments of the day and still they have failed to listen to people's priorities. Of course Food Insecurity grows more and more serious. Our recent history tells us that the market place with its rising prices, distance and unreliability is the last place we can place our trust. If we had no local capability, little fertile ground and hardly any rain, we would be in serious trouble. Yet, the nation has been truly blessed with all of these for abundant food production. The two last governments have said much about the Bottom Up Approach and Rural Advancement. Well, here in the person of the woman gardener is a perfect place to put rhetoric into action.

Gap between the super rich and the dirt poor grows alamrmingly

J. Roughan
23 April 2010

The public's response to the heavy-weight increases in Parliamentarian salary packets and their other perks rubbed a raw nerve among local citizens. Members couldn't have chosen a worse time for flaunting their immense wealth in the face of the vast majority of poor Solomon Islanders who don't know where the next few dollars will come from to feed the kids . . . and the other 13-15 wantoks who crowd around the dinner table each night.
Most members, however, are actively thinking, talking about and working on plans to be re-elected to parliament. Attendance at parliamentary meetings are secondary because their whole attention is to work on ways to get back into power. Yet, their right hand doesn't know what their left hand is doing! Do they really think that voters have such short memories that come election day--probably at the end of June this year--voters will already have forgotten how their members have pocketed thousands and thousands of dollars in a time when most of the country doesn't have much at all?
Solomons' electoral history, over eight separate elections, dating back to 1984, already shows clearly that at least 4 out of every 10 members never make it back to the House. In fact in the last two elections the number of parliamentarians failing in their re-election bids rose to more than half of all sitting members. In the 2001 election, for instance, more than 6 out of 10 sitting members failed to return to power.This will be, I suspect, the lot of most members in the present house--more than half of them will be looking for new jobs come the middle of the year when the polling day rolls around..
But most members still think that if they had a bit more money, then they could be reassured of getting themselves back to their parliament seat. But that's an illusion! It's not merely money that swings the electorate to back a person getting into office but how well has the member served his people. Since 1998, however, the Solomons nation has turned a corner, a rather disturbing corner. The average Solomon Islander is poorer now than at any time in its 32 years of history.
SIDT's eight Report Cards over a twenty year period, since 1989, show a disturbing trend. Thousands of Solomon Islanders have failed eight governments of the day on how they have treated the backbone of society, the small person, the villager, the woman gardener, etc. in their reachout programs. Now, Canberra's People's Survey 2009 of Solomon Islands, added its own voice. It said much the same thing: governments of the day were not doing their best to reach out to those who need the most help. 
Over the past two weeks, also, the Bishops of PNG and the Solomons have been holding their annual general meeting in Lae. They pinpoint the growing levels of poverty as painfully worse in both countries in spite of the great natural wealth in both countries--minerals, timber, fertile ground, abundant water, etc. Bishop Panfilo, president of the Bishops Convergence stated bluntly, "we know that the conditions of our people are becoming worse rather than better. We know that social services are very inadequate and our people are becoming frustrated with the Government."
Too many of our senior politicians live in another world. They think that if they can hand out some project monies, take care of voters daily needs like pocket money, ship fares, school fees, doctor's visits, etc. then they have delivered as politicians. Of course, most people do need these kinds of help because job creation has stopped--really never begun with the CNURA government--, youth employment has dried up and simple ways of gaining a few dollars has become harder and harder.
Villagers currently stream over to Honiara because there are so few ways of making some money at home and think that the town wantok must have tons of money, enough to take care of his own family as well as many village visitors. Feeding 12, 15 and even up to 19 hungry mouths at dinner time each night has become part of the Honiara scene. Yes, our parliamentarians face much the same problem--feeding dozens and dozens extras daily--but at least they have deep pockets where too often RCDF monies and other rural assistance funds that should be spent in the constituency end up here in town in the mouths of visiting village relatives. 
We fool ourselves, however, if we think there is none of the African poverty here where starving children are seen on TV, wolfing down bits of food to feed their bloated stomachs. Fortunately, we do not have that kind of poverty but poverty takes on a different face as you travel from country to country. Our poverty takes the form of begging, not the kind that one is growing on Honiara's streets, but using the wantok system or the modern version of it "Member's Slush Fund" to meet daily needs. 
Perhaps it's foolish to think that the next lot into parliament will be different but things are changing. Voters have become much more savvy and are pressing their politicians to wise up, pay better attention to them and their lives and stop thinking that the odd hand out is the way to do it. Next parliament's main work will be to plan for new jobs, especially for youth and make sure that the rural funds actually get to the village and are not diverted to taxis, buses, stores, rest houses, member's family, etc. Otherwise, the gap between the very well off and our poorest will grow wider and more dangerous.

They still don't get it!

J. Roughan
13 April 2010
Present government members plan to run as an united group in the forthcoming national poll. According to themselves, they have done such a marvelous job of leading this nation as a group over the past two years that their six party coalition should present itself to the voter as a unit. May I dare to disagree? In fact, the best thing for an individual government member would do to have half a chance of making it back into Parliament is to run on his own, distancing himself completely from government's so called track record.
Why? Because the Sikua-led government's accomplishments over these past two years are fundamentally weak! In its defense, government backers may well quote the number of bills it has passed and how these have become the law of the land. Good! Great! Yes, passing a bill into law is an essential part of governance but being solid leaders to the whole country is a much more important test. For instance, what about its two failing state enterprises--SIWA and SIEA--sitting right under the government's nose which seriously fail their customers.
Electric power is consistently cut twice a day during the middle of the daily business cycle for two hours at a time. Not a single government authority has made comment on the issue, much less doing something about restoring power to the country's one business hub over these past four months. Tens of dozens of local business houses, the Honiara Town Council itself, private citizens, etc. if they can afford generators, all have bought their own power generators. They have given up on government's miserable attempts to supplying power and find it cheaper, certainly more reliable, than SIEA's erratic and expensive power output. 
SIWA is another sore point among people. Its constant denial to Honiara's 80,000 people's for clean, abundant water is fast becoming a serious health risk. Unless a householder has purchased at least one large water tank, then, counting on daily cooking, drinking, cleaning water remains a distant dream. Last week, the National Referral Hospital had become the latest victim of the poor water supply. 
Parts of Honiara, for instance, have not had its rubbish collected since before the early days of the Social Unrest, 1998. That's more than 12 years now! The piles of rubbish along Honiara's back streets is the favorite nesting place for rats, cockroaches and other vermin. Perhaps the rubbish is collected in and around the city centre but most people live, not down town, but in and around the town. Failure to pick up and dispose of rubbish is another serious health risk. 
Why in the world would anyone vote in a second round a government that has been inactive when it is currently unable to properly respond to  people's basic need for water, power and rubbish removal. Government's select committee recently conducted a thorough-going review of the National Referral Hospital's failings. What it uncovered were serious issues in the nation's health outreach programs and the committee came up with dozens of recommendations. When Parliament had a chance to study the committee's findings, government's response was curious. Few recommendations have been acted upon. 
And villagers living outside of Honiara and other urban centers haven't fared much better from the present government's outreach as well. Quality education, well stocked clinics, new roads linking markets and women's agricultural production and a major push for youth employment still remain at the planning stage level with little hope that these most needed basics will root in rural people's lives any time soon. Two separate surveys done the same year, 2009, said the same thing. Although the message was delivered by two different messengers, the message was the same in both cases.
SIDT's Eighth Report Card (July, 2009), for instance, showed that more than 2300 people marked the Sikua Government a failure. It showed how weak government had been in its handling of people's need for quality education, health issues and job creation. But the other survey, conducted by Australia National University personnel, said much the same thing. In both surveys, SIDT's and the Canberra survey, were in agreement: 40% of Solomon Islanders thought that the government's track record on improving basic services was not good.
Of course the government has run out of time! Parliament finishes its last seating on 24 April, less than two weeks away. May I suggest that the best and probably only viable strategy that members who plan to make a return bid to Parliament must clearly inform voters how their lives have been bettered since 2006, the country's last national election. How and where has the sitting member battled poverty? How many jobs, livelihoods and employment opportunities has the member funded, backed and worked on during his 4 years in office? With these facts in hand, the member can confidently appear in front of the voters with positive results and promise to do a better job in the future.

Grateful, heartend but saddened!

J. Roughan
6 April 2010
Parliament's chamber echoed loud and clear last week when parliamentarian after parliamentarian stood up in the House and voiced out their sincere appreciation for Taiwan's people's continuous support for our country. Member after member recounted in great detail how a country so many miles from us. which had suffered greatly over past decades and only a few years older than ourselves has consistently been our friend.  Taiwan has given generously to our well being, our elected members recognized this truth and told the world. 
I was particularly grateful that our members' recognition was finally made publicly that they, not merely a government statement, were the authors of these sentiments. Yet, I was also saddened by what they said! Parliament's 50 members were right in their praise of Taiwan's generosity to the people of the constituency. They erred, however, in their misunderstanding of who the members of parliament actually are and what is their essential work. First and foremost they are the country's national leaders 
No matter how well a parliamentarian has been able to serve his own constituency--paying for doctor visits, school fees, emergency help, ship fares, helping the poor, etc.--by using Taiwanese funds, parliament is fundamentally the one and only body which is mandated to the fundamental duty of steering this country, the whole country, to peace, tranquility and prosperity.
No matter how well a constituency has been helped, assisted and raised up by another country's generosity, the parliamentarian's main work remains the well being of the nation, its health and its future prospects. Members, of course, are truly elected by the people of a particular constituency but they are elected to effectively lead a nation, not merely a particular constituency.
I am the last to complain if a particular constituency rides high on the back of Taiwanese largesse. But such funding must not be at the expense of little or no government initiatives to get national youth employment policy out of the doldrums, conduct a massive drive pushing quality education at all levels, a drive to raise country wide literacy standards, an energetic push to tap into women's agricultural prowess, etc. etc. A truly effective national food security strategy, for instance, is an effective step towards raising the livelihood levels of thousands of families. Half hearted statements about rice cultivation is not a national food security strategy but something from a wish list.  
In other words, insuring that one's constituency does well out of Taiwan funds can never be the primary yardstick measuring a parliamentarian's success or failure. As hard as it is and having little traction with the voting public, a national plan engaging our youth in jobs, for example, is worth much more to national well being than thousands of dollars spent on individual project proposals, welfare payments and personal handouts. If the only substantial thing a member brings to his electorate year after year, is another country's funding and fails to bring national policies and sound legislation, then that member ceases to be a national leader. 
Of course many voters don't see it that way at all! If I am an olo in a village, youth employment, quality schooling, food security, etc. has little meaning to me. A hundred or two, given to me by my member, sitting nicely in my pocket, makes all the difference in the world. That's the reality of today's politics. It's a hard act to follow but if a member wants to be a national leader than he must constantly work on country-wide plans, come up with new ways of understanding the fast changing Solomons world and continuously work on changing people's thinking.
Some members currently call for the election of a completely new membership--except themselves, of course--in June's national poll. We have heard this tune before! However, even if each and every member of today's house was replaced by a brand new face, much of the same thinking and conduct would continue.
No, something more radical, more fundamental is called for. Parliament has become too bloated, too out of touch with the rest of the nation. What is needed is a complete review of how this country should be governed. Already the seeds of this new governance pattern is being hammered out where the bulk of decisions are made by people close to the action, close to the nation's resource base and closer to Solomons reality. The Solomons is a nation of villages NOT a group of Honiara people out of touch with this reality who have legislated the bulk of the national  wealth flowing to themselves.   

Our God is an action word!

J. Roughan
30 March 2010

Languages world wide use different bits and pieces. People who speak a language string bits and pieces like nouns (names of persons, places or things), verbs (action words), adjectives and adverbs (helps to change nouns and verbs) and other small things--pronouns (take the place of nouns), prepositions (help connect things), together. When a speaker or writer brings these different bits and pieces together in proper order, then, meaning comes clear. That's how we communicate--getting our thoughts out of inside our heads into the ears of others.
And God has done much the same with us as well. He used words and sentences to have us understand him, his plans, what he wants us to do. The Bible, both Old and New, the Koran and other sacred texts make it abundantly clear that the Almighty uses the human way of communicat- ing. He uses human language. In fact, one could say that the written word is God's normal and usual way to get his meaning over to us.
Yet, we know that people use other ways to communicate. Words/sentences are great but they are not the only way of telling others our story, what's going on inside us. A wide smile, a crunched up painful face, a child's cry, etc. are powerful ways of getting messages off to others as well. Words are not used, yet the message is quite clear. Can God not do the same? Must He always be limited to the printed or spoken word?
We Christians believe that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, the Word, actually became man. The New Testament, the second part of the Bible, relates his life story in great detail. Words and sentences, especially Jesus' sayings, make up the bulk of the writing. Yet, some of Jesus' most powerful messages don't contain a sentence, not even a word. Yet, His message is crystal clear!
Take for instance Christ's clearest messages--befriend the down and out, sinners and worse still, tax collectors--when he actually ate with them and had all these awful people at table with him. No where in the New Testament are we told what was said while they eat, what he told them, what the table conversation was all about. Yet, His message is quite clear and compelling. Some call these events Silent Parables.
Christ loved using parables! It was his favorite teaching tool. Yes, parables are short stories but stories with a twist! The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the mustard seed, etc. these parables are known far and wide. A parable story gets to the innermost part of the heart well before the listener has time to throw it out or disagree with its message.  But their long lasting effect comes through powerfully. Many Christians recite the traditional parable's very words by heart.
But His Silent Parables--washing the apostles feet at the Last Supper, his sand scribbles when the woman caught in adultery was being publicly humiliated, etc.--are powerful if less recognized teaching tools as well.
This week, Holy Week when the whole of Christ's life comes together as it were, is a continuous Silent Parable. His Easter story is about action words--suffering, dying, rising--with few words and sentences. The overwhelming feeling from the Garden of Gethsemane, through the court trial, carrying the cross, dying on Calvary and rising from the dead focuses on action words. It's as if the time for talking, words, explaining and clarifying have come to an end and only action words can make the point.          
These scenes from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Resurrection contain few words but the power of this Silent Parable is unmistakable. Our God is an action God. Of course words are important. That is never in question. But what is more important is action, work and deeds which must flow from words.
Our God then is really a VERB! As wonderful as words are and the beauty that they bring fall into something small compared to the need for action, work and doing. That is why at the very beginning of this essay it's stated that God is an action word and why it is important that we too use Silent Parables--working with the down and out, serving others, standing up for the outcast--as our normal and most usual way of working with Christ.

An era ends but not without a fight!

J. Roughan
23 March 2010

In the Solomons, a few people, mostly by getting themselves elected into Parliament, have managed to absorb the lion's share of the nation's wealth. But those who actually are the owners of the nation--its land, trees, rivers, seas, reefs--the villager through the lien, clan, tribe, in other words the landowners, have had to do with so much less. That short sentence, in a nut shell, is a brief history of where the nation's wealth has disappeared over the past 30+ years. However, this year may well see the beginning of the end of that history.
At independence day in 1978, we had little time to work up a home grown constitution that would accurately reflect Solomon Islands customs, traditions and history. We left the writing up this vital document to a group of overseas experts who had, however, little knowledge of our country. Now with more than 30 years of experience under our belt, having suffered a severe Social Unrest testing period (1998-2003) and now with a people restless for basic change that would bring a better and more productive life to the majority, has arrived. The time is ripe for a deep review of our original Constitution.
And that is what's been happening! A group of dedicated citizens, men and women, from across the nation have been working on just such a project. That is exactly what the Constitutional Review Congress has been doing over the past two years. The initial step of reviewing the present Constitution clause by clause, shaping it to better reflect the nation's present needs and adding things that weren't thought of before has been their labor of love. The first part of that work was basically completed by the end of last year, 2009.
The second step in the process--presenting a Draft Constitution to the people for their approval--is currently taking place as you read these words. Since it is the nation's citizens who will live under any new Constitution it is only fair and just that they have a major say how they think Solomon Islanders should be governed in the future. Province by province, teams of those who crafted this new Constitution, currently travel across the nation, explaining the whole idea behind this new document and seeking, not only people's understanding, but more importantly, their consent to continue working to create a new Constitution.
The third step, having Parliament pass the new Constitution into law, will be the most difficult. There are other forces at work which prefer NOT to see a new Constitution take effect at all. These, the nation's political elite, the whole Honiara establishment, for instance, are more than happy to continue with a way of life which has brought them riches beyond their wildest dreams. Wealth they never worked for and certainly never paid a penny to enjoy have become theirs. A new Constitution would slow down and then stop the over centralization process in its tracks and devolve more and more power to the community level. That is exactly what the political elite and the Honiara establishment do not want!
The new Constitution's basic aim is to break down this over centralized process which has made it possible for a select few to gain so much but at the expense of the many. To re-allocate national wealth--overseas grants, the nation's resource base, multi-national funds, etc.--that has taken deep root over the past three decade is totally against what they, the elite, stand for. The new Constitution plans to empower people themselves and to have more and more governance take place at the local level where the vast majority of our people live.
And it's not simply a shift to provincial level politics but at the local, village level especially, that the new Constitution has in mind.. Don't forget that long before white, colonials came to this country, people were their own masters. They lived off their own resource base of food, housing,  energy, medicine, etc. Yes, compared to today's needs, that resource base was skimpy. Recently, however, when pressed to become self sufficient all over again as they were forced to do during our Social Unrest years, they moved up and met the challenge. Less than 5% of our  nation went off the social rails during the time of tension. Villagers protected their most vulnerable--olos, young, women, sick in their society--with little or no assistance from the political elite who were scurrying around protecting themselves.    
The villagers reward for keeping the nation going, being the cement gluing our many provinces and people together and continuing to function has been just the opposite.  Last year, for instance, Parliament passed into law making room for 17 additional seats. The nation already finds it hard to sustain a 50-seat parliament with its salaries, perks, travel, etc. etc.  as it is! How then does an additional 17 seats make it easier for the nation's tax payers to sustain such an additional growth. 
This type of thinking--the centre demanding more and greater wealth at the expense of those who live at a distance--is normal, natural, almost  an inevitable way of understanding how our modern political and business leaders view the Solomons world. Expect them to protect that way of life since it has been so good and kind to them for so many years. They will not give up a single perk which, in their eyes, they have worked so hard to gain and will fight tooth and nail to keep that over-centralized world that has been so kind to them, unchanged.  

RCDF destroying Parliament!

 J. Roughan
16 March 2010
Last week the Rural Constituency Development Fund and its various wantoks--Rural Livelihood, Millennium, Special Mini Project, Parliament Mini Project Funds--once again entered into the working heart of Parliament. Something that was suppose to be of secondary importance, a thing on the side, as it were, has become more and more a hindrance to Parliament's essential work.
MPs are elected first and foremost to work at law making, to look after the affairs of state and to keep government departments and its agencies on their toes so that they work in the best interest of the nation's people. Since 1993, when Solomon Mamaloni introduced it, the RCDF and its various off shoots have come to dominate members thinking, planning and operating. What was suppose to be a side line event, something set up to assist MPs better handle the needs of their people, has, instead, taken over and dominated the process. 
And strange as it may seem, back in 1994 people already knew in their bones that the CDF (as it was called at the time) would prove to be too much a temptation for parliamentarians. The former Minister of Finance, Chris Abe, intended at that time to seek parliament's approval to put an end to the CDF because of the many abuses that were turning up. SIDT, before the CDF proposal came up for debate, had already conducted a survey asking approximately 1,200 people, rural and urban, what they thought about scraping the whole CDF idea. 
Most survey participants, more than 90% in fact, demanded that the funding scheme must continue but they were also convinced that the Honorable must NOT handle the funds. Allow another group, reflecting different communities in a typical constituency--men, women, youth, pro- fessional, etc.--be elected and deputized to admin these various funds and, most importantly, be held legally accountable for all monies distributed. However, the member must not be involved in any way with the giving out of monies, passing judgment on project proposals or having a say on how the fund was administered. After all, these funds really do belong to the constituency, NOT to the member.
That event, unfortunately, never took place! Over the years MPs no longer focused primarily on law making, monitoring government's outreach programs to its citizens and working hard for the better implementation of the laws of the land. Instead, typically, a member's time is seriously taken up by acting as a Project Director, Social Welfare Officer and a walking ATM for constituents everyday needs, e.g. transporting dead bodies back to the village, paying out school fees, ship fares, bags of rice, Honiara walk-about money, etc. etc.
And most unfortunate, many constituents couldn't care less about their member's lawmaking ability and keeping a critical eye on government's education, medical and infrastructure work. All these tasks are government's business with little to do with the their member, so they say. But the member is fundamentally elected to be part and parcel of government's outreach work and must have much to say about how the nation is governed.. 
A good case also could be made out that members' attendance in parliament has grown weaker and weaker over the past years. MPs too often act as if parliamentary attendance is a kind of volunteer work and required if and when the member has enough free time to attend. On more than one occasion, for example, the Speaker of the House has suspended a sitting until a quorum of members has been reached and the meeting can go ahead. Even on the best of days, Parliament's chambers are far from entirely filled!
This essay is not a plea to abolish the many versions of CDF that have grown up over the past two decades or so. But it does call into question the wisdom of continuing along this line which is basically undermining Parliament and all it stands for. Of course a full public disclosure of how the more than $2 million has been spent by each and every member is still called for. But this current essay is a plea to disengage members from the nitty-gritty of dispensing money and other assistances in the vain hope that such an exercise will insure a member's re-election bid.
Past electoral history, however, disproves such thinking. No matter how much new money, new funding and new sources of income are uncovered, electoral defeat has remained constant: a 44% failure rate in the re-election cycle. Those who are actually re-elected to parliament count on other means than the distribution of loose cash. Proper attendance in parliament, strong advocates of certain policies like women's presence in decision making positions, job creation for the nation's youth, a strengthened school system, quality health care, etc. is the more important factor for re-election. Demanding more and more CDF money and seeking new funding sources has proven to be less successful in re-election bids.

Pushing the panic button!

J. Roughan
11 March 2010
Our MPs are in full panic mode! Each and everyone of them must face the voting public within the next few months. The majority of them feel they are ill prepared for this vote which will determine their fate for the coming four years. And they have every reason to run scared! They have lived well, better than ever before in their lives. But that life style is in serious danger of coming to a quick, inglorious end for most of them when they face their people's vote of confidence in mid-2010.
Ever since the 1984 national elections, on average, 44% of sitting MPs have failed in their re-election attempts. This up coming election will not only confirm this high turn over rate but more MPs than usual will bite the dust. In fact, according to my calculations, up to 55% of the present house will be out of a job come the end of June, 2010.
At this stage, our MPs are frantically pulling out all stops. Their first line of defense is to pressure the Government to immediately dole out their constituency grants--Rural Livelihood, Millennium Fund, Special Mini Project, RCDF and Parliament Mini Project Fund--or, as the rumor flying around town has it, they may threaten not to attend Parliament's very last sitting. MPs realize that their track record over the past four years has been less than sterling. Few of them can claim that most Solomon Islanders' lives better now than when they first arrived in Parliament.
The different kinds of development funds held by government are the only tools in their grasp to help convince voters that they should be re-elected. However, the history of sitting parliamentarians attempting re-election in national polls runs contrary to these expectations.Since 1984, 44%, on average, of sitting MPs have failed in their re-election attempts.
% of Parliamentarians failing in Re-elections.
(see separate printout)
Too many MPs are counting on a last ditch exercise of handing out development grants to constituents at this late hour to make up for their lack of concern for them since the last national poll in 2006. MPs' fading hope is to change voters minds by throwing development monies at them at this late stage. But that type of thinking has long since passed! SIDT's most recent Report Card (July 2009 below) can be viewed in a context of the last 7 Report Cards dating back to 1989. Not a single Report Card over a twenty-year period indicates that the politicians of those times were actually thinking and acting for the benefit of the ordinary Solomons citizen.
Report Card Summary(see separate printout)
There is a close connection between the failure of many MPs seeking re-election and their disregard to the lives of ordinary Solomon Islanders. As noted above, 44% of all MPs suffered defeat in their bid to be re-elected to parliament. The foundations of the Basic Life in Solomons does not rest on doing development projects but on getting the basics of island living right. People want and need quality education, well run and properly staffed health clinics and hospitals. resource assistance and the availability of modest amounts of money on a regular basis. Projects  are only the icing on the cake but they are not the stuff which the cake is made of.
Of course people look forward to working on a development projects but their main concern is that their everyday lives offer hope for a better future for their kids and themselves with quality education, well staffed clinics, their resource base of food production helped and the hope for jobs are met first. Future MPs would be well advised to pay immediate and constant attention to past and future Report Cards to assure re-election rather than pushing the panic button at the last moment hoping that a project or two will turn the tide that is fast going out on most of them.

Different messengers but same message!

J. Roughan
5 March 2010

In 2009, Solomon Islanders were greatly helped in understanding the state of their nation by the findings of two general surveys  The more comprehensive one,--People's Survey 2009, the third in a series, the first one dating back to 2007, focused on local living conditions, RAMSI's presence, social infrastructure, etc.--was conducted by a group from Canberra. An earlier survey also in 2009, SIDT's 8th Report Card, the first Report Card in the series starting back in 1989, 20 years ago, was also conducted during the Sikua Government's tenure in power. 
Both surveys, although conducted by two completely different and independent organizations--one hailing from Australia National University in Canberra and the second from Solomon Islands Development Trust--came up with much the same message. The two surveys although using different methodologies and different ways of searching for the deep feelings and thoughts of typical Solomon Islanders had their conclusions reinforce each other's findings. 
For instance, the Canberra survey found that 40% of the people asked thought that the National Government's track record on improving basic services and the economy was not good. SIDT's findings, on the other hand, gave the government a slightly higher but still failing mark when it came to  asking villagers and town folk about the nation's basic social infrastructure base of education opportunities, health services and the availability of money.
SIDT's surveys have been tracking people's understanding of the national economy in its Availability of Money category in its eight Report Cards over a twenty year period. Over this time--1989-2009--citizens consistently scored the governments of the day with a low 44%, on average, for the Availability of Money. This one section in SIDT's Report Card of making a bit of money for normal living has always attracted low marks. During the Sikua Government's years, for instance--2007-2009--people scored the Report Card's section on Availability of Money  with a low of 45%.
The RAMSI's sponsored People's Survey 2009 findings were not much different. It found that 47% of those asked thought that youth's chances   for work were weaker than before, 72% had "no access to any agriculture program" and a serious number of those who had tried to start a business had experienced problems.  
But the purpose of this essay is not to show that these two separate, independent surveys were sending the same thing. This writing was not a way to prove that the local survey instrument was just as valid as the one conducted by overseas experts. The main reason for comparing both surveys is to ask the question when will Solomons governments accept the findings of these kinds of surveys and more importantly, when will  they start doing something about these findings.
By the middle of this year the nation holds its 8th general election and a brand new government will be formed before the end of June, 2010. It would be great if the newly formed government whoever runs it, would seriously study the findings of these two surveys and work on ways to respond to the shortcomings surfaced by the surveys. In past years perhaps parliamentarians had thought SIDT's 8 Report Cards were not accurate enough or the survey was poorly done and government didn't feel the need of listening to a home grown survey.
After all, as one MP said to me, 'a bunch of villagers had conducted these surveys and they couldn't possibly come up with a valid and worthwhile survey!' Now, it turns out that a professional and respected survey conducted by overseas experts has come up with many of the same responses as that of SIDT's Report Card. A national politician simply dismissing the findings of these Report Cards because they were conducted by village people doesn't hold water.
These surveys are telling our politicians and the political class that the bulk of Solomon Islanders are sending a clear message to government members. People are fed up with 'business as usual' approach to governance and want something new to happen in the newest sitting of parliament to take place later this year. It's too late for the present members to respond well and creatively to these surveys but the new parliament would not hurt itself if it accepted the findings of these surveys. After all, two different messengers, coming from different parts of the world sent the same message. Isn't it time to listen to our people?

Student Loan Scheme

J. Roughan
11 February 2010

Solomon Islands government is one of a handful of nations worldwide that pays big bucks for its students to attend university classes. For the past 40,years now--during colonial days as well--governments of the day dished out money for air fares tickets, accommodation costs, tuition fees, pocket money and other costly items to insure that its students study in overseas institutions.
Few countries, including the richest ones like Australia, New Zealand, USA, etc.underwrite the costs of their citizens attending universities. Students, for the most part, pay for their higher education costs out of their own pocket. Of course they must repay the loan once schooling is finished and they have entered the labour market. 
Rich and poor countries alike, however, have set up Student Loan Schemes which allow qualified students a chance to attend university courses and college level training. In other words qualified graduates from secondary school take out loans to cover the high costs of attending universities.
Most of the time, however, this loan money comes through commercial banks which loan out the necessary money to cover most of the costs of students attending university level education. Normally, banks shy away from lending out money for such worthy causes because it's the rare student who has enough security to back such a loan. However, if a commercial bank could secure a government guarantee to back such a loan, many banks would leap to get into this market.
Unfortunately, here in the Solomons I doubt if any of the three commercial banks now operating in Honiara would touch such a student loan scheme if it were simply backed by a Solomon Islands Government promise. No, any student loan scheme would have to be backed by an overseas government commitment before a local bank would seriously think about getting into the business of lending money to students for higher education.
As it stands at present, a qualified student has only two options to fund higher education: self funding which is hardly an option for the vast majority of Solomons families or secondly, to qualify for government sponsorship. As we have witnessed these past few weeks and in fact every year about this time, only a limited number of students win government sponsorship while the others have no other option.
Slowly, over the next 5 to 6 years, basic education--adult learning, pre-school, primary and early secondary--must become more and more  government's focus. Upper secondary, post secondary and especially university level classes' costs, however, must some how be funded by the very students attending higher education classes. 
From before independence, the most expensive education costs--those connected to university level education--have been borne by the nation while the vital education years--adult, pre-school, primary--have fallen to the nation's poorest, villagers and the urban poor. That trend which is slowly being reversed--government now pays for primary school fees--and a new era of students themselves paying for higher education must be introduced. In other words, basic education costs are government's work while higher education costs are to fall to those who will gain most  from their diplomas and degrees.
But there are few if any ways for a budding student hoping to gain an overseas degree to secure sufficient money to cover high education costs. A Student Loan Scheme administered by a local commercial bank, with a guarantee from one of the nations donors--Australia, New Zealand, EU, Taiwan, etc.--is a viable option.
The nation can not continue its present course of funding the vast majority of overseas training even when much of this funding comes from other countries There is a great need for the Solomons to have its own university . . . USP and UPNG already recognize the Solomons great academic potential and have already set up their own universities right here in Honiara. The least our nation can do is convince one of its donors to guarantee local banks to make funds available for worthy students to cover the heavy expenses of higher education.