Saturday, July 31, 2010
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Saturday, July 24, 2010
25 July 2010
Come Wednesday next week, Solomon Islands Election Day, more than 250 village people—men and women—will take official seats in more than 150 polling stations. That's about 12% of the total 975 official sites designated by the Electoral Commission. These village people will closely watch the workings of the voting system and monitor how well our electoral system is working.
Having villagers closely involved with the nation's elections, monitoring polling station's officials conduct and judging the validity of the electoral system, is a far cry from what villagers are expected to do. In past years and right up to the present, for instance, a villager's only task, basically, was to turn up early at a polling booth, cast a vote and then disappear. Let the professionals take care of the rest was the common wisdom. Fortunately those days are fast coming to an end and are to be replaced by a new system.
For more than 32 years, the Solomons' political elite have assumed that they and they alone could govern the nation. All that villagers were allowed to do, they decreed, was to cast votes and then get out of the way. Now for the first time in three decades, ordinary people will be closely watching the electoral process right up close. As one of the newly trained poll watchers said: 'This is our country and therefore our election. We want to own all the steps needed to make sure this election is 'free, fair and valid'.'
Back in the 2006 national election, ordinary people attempted for the first time to be more involved in the electoral system, more than simply casting a vote for a candidate. During the last election cycle, for instance, a few dozen locals, mostly youth, witnessed and monitored a few polling stations. This time around, however, the number who will actively monitor polling stations has dramatically increased. The goal of Civil Society by 2015, hopefully, is to have each and every polling station monitored by one man and one woman, people from the area who have the necessary language skills and a long time presence in the area. Such an active presence should make voter fraud, misrepresentation and other irregularities hard to take place when trained and vigilant of local villagers are present.
However, government's recent past performance along this line leaves much to be desired. Governments of the day much preferred to call upon overseas experts and professionals, than call upon their own people to be involved with the electoral system.
In 2006, for instance, 50 overseas observers, who didn't know a single local language nor Pijin, were called into to monitor our national election at a significant cost: $3.3 million to cover their airfares, hotel accommodation, salaries and food needs. This year will be no different except that there could be more than 55 overseas personnel and at higher cost.
Yet, there will be a significant change from what went on in 2006. This election will see many more villagers taking an active part in monitoring the elective process and at significant savings. But this election will see a more involved participation of Solomon Islanders. Not only as voters but Solomon Islanders themselves will be actively monitoring the whole voting process right across the nation. Development Services Exchange (DSE), the premier NGO group representing more than 60 local NGOs, has been busy selecting, training and monitoring more than 60 local trainers who are expected to travel to each and every one of the nation's 50 constituencies this very week.
While in their own constituency, they will train 4 to 6 other villagers—one man and one woman to a polling station—who who will be present for the whole 10 hours that the polling station is opened for business while citizens cast their votes. DSE intends having a presence in every one of the 50 constituencies. It is hoped that by 2015, however, when the next national election rolls around, that each and every polling station would be so covered. This time around the Electoral Commission has designated more than 950 polling stations. For sure, by 2015, that number will have increased!
While it is fine that overseas people are invited in to observe our national poll, it is vital that Solomon Islanders be as actively engaged as well. After all, it is their election! The overseas observer brings special expertise. Many of them have witnessed other national elections and can inform us if our attempts are up there with the rest of the nations of the world. Their experience helps strengthen our system of voting and gives a objective judgement to our law makers for any future changes in national elections.
But local men and women officially participating in the voting process are critical as well. Our poll watchers have never had the experience of being official observers in other nation's elections but their language skills, local experiences and many years of living in the very area of the polling station is without a doubt a big boost to make sure our national poll goes off fairly, freely and validly.
Of course preparing this nation-wide outreach, covering the nation's 50 constituencies, is a complicated, difficult and long term work. Late last year, for instance, this project was conceived, brought to the European Union for possible funding and the Ministry of Home Affairs was made aware that this kind of work was forming. After many dips and changes, a number of international organizations came on board, gave their blessing and most importantly, the necessary funding.
The European Union has been the project's main sponsor with more than $1 million Solomon Dollars donated. UNIFEM, another major sponsor, earmarked SI$70,000 while the UNDP and Commonwealth backed the concept of local poll watchers by sending trainers and giving moral backing. It is hoped that the newly elected members of parliament recognize the sea change that is happening. Local poll watching is another step in the understanding how important the village person is to the health of the nation. Yes, of course feeding the nation with its food production is accepted by those in power. But here is another step in that same direction: enabling the owners of this country, the villager, to flex their electoral muscle as well.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
19 July 2010
Our Founding Fathers were courageous enough to take the plunge in forming the Solomon Islands state and they backed up their vision by starting small—creating a parliament from the ground up, forming a workable government, setting things up in order for our small country to take its place among the mighty of the world—and then they began the long and difficult process of growing.
However, along the way, probably 1987, another vision began to root among a new brand of leaders. This new group did Think Big but it was all about themselves. Although all these men, and it was all men, had been village born, housed in leaf houses for most of their lives and raised on basic garden food, they dreamt of leaving the subsistence village life style and jumping straight into an affluent life style. But that could only happen if 'big bucks' were at hand. An education ticket, bought at government expense, of course, prepared them to cope with town life's easy going ways, living in government gifted houses and driving around in expensive cars. It is no wonder that the 500+ candidates are now seeking election, chasing after the 50 parliamentary seats.
These 500+ candidates who are currently banging on the election doors desire to flee village life and head for the pleasures of imported food and drink. Most candidates, unfortunately, are ill prepared to take on the heavy duties of parliamentary work. First of all the majority lack the necessary education levels, not a few of them are seriously sick people and probably more importantly most have little or no public service track record. But where else in the world could one with so little money—a $2,000 election fee—have the possibility of winning a million dollar lottery!
We the voters must be dreaming to think that these very same politicians will have much to do with village life once they safely secure their parliamentary seats. Yes, of course, any politician worth his salt and reading the signs of the times, currently talks about rural development, village life, the Bottom Up Approach, etc., etc. but their hearts are not in it. No, most unfortunately, have their sights fixed on affluence and the more of it as possible.
Also our new set of leaders refused to Start Small but after the 1986 period constantly dreamt of the BTO: the Big Time Operation. Big projects like oil palms, Taiyo cannery, Gold Ridge, Honiara itself were always upper most in their minds. The small, vital and potentially helpful project for thousands and thousands of our people were never seriously considered. We have always been a country with a modest resource base. The country does not have mineral and petroleum wealth. But it has been abundantly enriched by rich soils, ample rain fall, knowledgeable and hard working gardeners who actually feed hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis.
This more than modest accomplishment of feeding a whole nation for long periods of time have been entirely lost on the new brand of leadership. If the nation doesn't have mineral wealth, they thought, the country did have another valuable commodity for sale, the nation's natural forests. These forests now have been harvested ruthlessly since the mid-1980s and the rape of the land goes on until today.
Since well before independence day and certainly during our Social Unrest Dark Days our women folk have literally fed thousands of the nation's citizens with scarcely a nod of recognition from central authority. This sector should have been the normal, natural and almost automatic area for investment. Just imagine what could now be happening to the nation each year if the glut of pineapple, mango, melon, etc. , could be processed into nutritious fruit drinks. Rather than feeding our smallest ones with coloured water and sugar ice blocks, they would be nutritiously fed and at the same time a new industry—fruit juice ice blocks—would be launched. How many jobs and new businesses could have been created across the nation rather than transporting these fruits long distances to central market areas.
Instead the new type of leadership changed our Founding Fathers motto: Think Big! Start Small! And Grow! They followed their own motto: Think Big (for themselves). Start Big and Take! As someone has said: If you want affluence, prepare for war! Why? Because only the select few will live in affluence while the rest of the nation is reduced to poverty. Isn't this a picture of our recent history? The new political leadership brought affluence to a few but the nation suffered Social Unrest for five long years, 1998-2003.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
14 July 2010
Ethel Sigimanu, PS of Women's Affairs, recently raised a critical question: Why do so few women ever make it to the national honours list? Last week, on 7 July, our Independence anniversary day, a single woman among seven men was publicly recognized on our annual medal presentation day. But every medal presentation day is always the same—many more men than women. Surely the answer can't be that this one lady was the only candidate that government could find out of the 257,323 (2009 Census) women in the country.
No, the answer lies in the fact that a number of major systems and structures—political, cultural, economic, historical, etc.—are actually and firmly structured against women and their vital interests. Is it by accident that 349 men have sat in parliament since 1978 but only a single woman in these 32 years has beaten the system and made the grade?
Over a three decade period, then, Solomons men have been announcing to the world and in no uncertain terms that they and they alone can safely steer the Ship of State! Women, least of all, should apply! Yet a brief review of men's handling of the Ship Of State is revealing. Their 32 year track record during is filled with many incidences of economic incompetence, political failure and miserable leadership.
Back in 1982, for instance, our currency was as strong as the American dollar. During those days, one Solomons dollar could be exchanged for a US banknote. Now it takes 8 Solomon Islands dollars to buy a single US note if you can find a bank willing to make the exchange. Certainly overseas banks won't touch our currency when you try to use it while travelling overseas. Some of our Pacific neighbours —Samoa and Vanuatu—have had to weather the same financial storms as ourselves over these past years but have escaped the worst poor leadership which we have had to endure.
Unfortunately, this economic mismanagement continues to this day in spite of the nearly one billion dollars Australia pumps into our economy yearly through RAMSI and other aid arrangements. As a matter of fact, Solomon Islands receives more foreign aid per person than any other Pacific Islands nation. What is wrong here? Could women do as badly?
But surely, I hear you say, our members know all these facts and are working furiously to correct the situation. Unfortunately, just the opposite is happening.
Take the issue of illiteracy. Back in 1989, Dr. Mosley, a medical practitioner working for Honiara City Council at the time, conducted a solid survey on literacy rates across the country. Her findings were upsetting: only 24% men could read but women's literacy rates were lower at 19%. With such poor literacy rates, you would think that Parliament would have long ago set up a strong literacy campaign. In today's world, no nation can safely exist if its citizens are unable to read or write. Yet, none of our political leaders and no political party could bring themselves to galvanize the nation into a major literacy campaign to raise literacy rates across the nation.
Yet, these same leaders are calling for more government money for university education when their own people, especially their own women, rarely enjoy adult education classes and instruction. There is no short cut to creating a strong nation. Focusing on the training and education of a select few at the expense of the many is a recipe for failure.
But the most dangerous thing about a nation unwilling to raise all its citizens equally is severe social unrest. We have already witnessed this very situation during the 1998-2003 period. Make no mistake about it, besides the poor development planning, deadly levels of corruption, land mismanagement, lack of solid leadership at all levels and money politics, the down grading of women is no less central in explaining why our nation went off the social rails during our unrest years.
Finding a proper place for women in our parliament must never be viewed as a luxury. Our nation needs their experience, insights and strengths to insure that our nation actually flies with two wings and is not grounded permanently in the mud.
Sunday, July 4, 2010
5 July 2010
Most political parties are currently busy publishing lists of their preferred candidates who will stand for the party in the 4 August national election. Unfortunately when I read the names of former parliamentarians—those who sat in the nation's 8th Parliament—some should never appear in any party's candidate list.
Today's political parties have inherited a great tool for weighing up who should be included in the list of preferred candidates and who should never make the list at all. Transparency Solomon Islands did a marvellous job of studying which member of the recently dissolved parliament had attended sittings and how many times a member had contributed to the passing of legislation.
TSI's report covers the full four years of the 8th Parliament. Unfortunately, It makes for less than happy reading. Five members, for instance, could only drag themselves to the parliament building less than 50% of the time while national debate was going on. Another 13 members missed out on more than 30% of the time. Attending parliamentary sittings is a member's most important task. Everything else is secondary!
What's more upsetting however, many members not only missed out showing up at Parliament sittings but when they finally did get there rarely had anything to say. When it comes to actually participating in the legislative practice, they were conspicuous by their lack of adding anything to the process. For all intents and purposes, most parliamentarians added little to the legislative debate and simply sat mute in their chairs.
For instance, only 14 Parliamentarians had little to say in a third of the bills. The vast majority of members hardly ever spoke for or against the 44 bills brought to parliament. Solomon Islands uses representative democracy to govern. This means that its representatives—the Parliamentarians—have the right and the duty to speak on behalf of those whom he represents in parliament.
Not to speak up, to fail to be part of the public discussion and not to represent one's people during parliamentary debate times is a fundamental weakness among our elected members. Pushing development projects, acting like welfare officers or functioning as a walking ATM dishing out money is not the essential work of parliamentarians.
All of these kinds of work can and should be done by others. What can't be accomplished by others—representing voters in parliament,—can only be done by the elected member himself. All other works are simply secondary to the most important role of the Member, attending parliamentary meetings and participating in its debates.
It's important, then, for political parties to cast a serious and critical eye over candidates whom they wish voters to seriously consider when voting in a national election. Many potential candidates' track record on public service and leadership quality are hard to come by. But political parties have been given a gold mine with Transparency Solomon Islands findings. Its study makes it clear which members were serious about their commitment to parliament's essential work and who weren't.
Poor health, chronic sicknesses and serious physical weaknesses are other signs that a person is unfit to carry the heavy work of the parliamentarian. David Sitai's decision not to run in this upcoming election was a brave one. He had been one of the longest serving members of parliament since 1978. I wish that others who are just as sick as he make the same decision and allow their constituencies to be represented by some one of robust health, able to do the onerous work of being a Parliamentarian.