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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Village: An information-poor zone!

J. Roughan

30 September 2010


In 21st century Solomons, village people are cash poor. Unfortunately, this reality has grown over many years, really since the nation's independence in 1978. And it really shouldn't be that way at all since it is they, the villager, who actually own and control the nation's vast mineral, tree, sea and water wealth.


Now that commercial logging is beginning to seriously dry up, government is starting to push the panic button. Its asking itself: Where will it get funds to run the nation—education, medical, salaries, etc.—if its biggest money-spinner no longer generates the necessary cash?  


Gold Ridge when it comes on stream will still be at least a year away. The whole mining sector which is just getting on its feet still has a long way to go to imitate the logging industry of the 1990s and 2000s. During those days it furnished government coffers with much of its most needed revenue.


Solomons rural areas with its vast population base—8 out of every 10 islanders—are village based. The Ministry of Finance must be tearing its hair out trying to figure out ways of tapping into this great tax base. Currently most village people are cash poor; they don't have money under their beds, in check accounts at the bank or in their pockets.


So if economic activity could be markedly increased at the village level, then the nation's tax base could be substantially increased and the huge financial hole which the treasury is currently feeling would began to close. Hence, this is the major reason why the present Government and others on the other side of the house are interested, quite interested, in fact, on the idea of Growth Centres.


But the whole idea of starting up a Growth Centre is about bringing the bulk of our people into the 21st Century which is truly one of access to clear, pertinent and accurate information. Once our people are on the receiving end of this kind of information, then economic activity is not far behind.


Do you remember what happened in the early days of our Social Unrest years—1998-2003? Many Honiara families who se husbands were government employees—teachers, doctors, nurses, ministry workers, etc.—found themselves without a salary on payday. Mothers of families didn't just descend into panic but opened up barbeque stalls, became betel nut sellers, hawked donuts, small cakes, etc.


In other words the economy didn't just dry up just because the government wasn't able to pay its workers on time. People simply took up newly created jobs and remained economically creative. In less than five years, for instance, the growing of flowers, preparing funeral wreaths and doing of flower arrangement became a thriving industry.


Government's dilemma of not having enough cash on hand to run the country shouldn't force it into short cuts. Growth Centres at the constituency level is a sure fire way of generating more and more income for those who have traditionally been overlooked. But the real lack at the village level is less about cold, hard cash but the severe lack of up-to-date, pertinent and clear information about the world about them.


To this date, the olos of our country have never been exposed to a constant and clear understanding why it would be in their best interest to allow their land holdings to be used for development. Four years have now passed since the 2006 signings, when Malaita people were informed how beneficial oil palm plantings would be for them.  Yet, not a single oil palm has been planted.


Is it a case of the olos not being able to comprehend or is more likely to do with the constant, continuous and consistent information flow which they have lacked for many years now? The Village still remains an information-poor zone and it has hurt us economically.

Hundreds of islands, dozens of languages but One People!

J. Roughan
28 Sept. 2010

The school kids were among my first teachers! I was running a small school (about 250 boarding pupils) in the southern Malaita area during the early 1960s. On a clear day the southern-most tip of Guadalcanal was clear to see. While standing on a near-by reef I pointed out that part of Guale and asked the kids with me what was that large land in the distance?

The kids, almost in chorus, told me: "That's the Solomons!" What about this piece of real estate we were now standing on? Isn't this the Solomons also? "No, this is Malaita!" they confidently informed me. In their minds eyes, then, Malaita and Guale were not only two completely different pieces of real estate; they had very little to do with each other. But that was 1960!

Now 50 years later, most Solomon Islanders are beginning to accept that these different island groupings do form a single country. We have, of course, a long way to go before everyone accepts completely that all these different island groups make up a single nation, one people. But compared to the 1960s we have moved a great distance in our thinking.

Our recent Civil War—1998-2003—attestes to the fact that these hundreds of islands, dozens of languages, many different traditions and customs but a very brief history of oneness continues to be an uphill struggle for the whole nation. Fortunately the present government is not simply sitting by and hoping that the task of forging so many different people into a single nation comes alive. It has publicly informed the people of the nation, for instance, that each MP has been given a significant yearly touring allowance. Visiting villages in one's constituency is a critical way to forge the country into a single nation.

But Government's most important step so far to this end has been its blessing on the idea of establishing Growth Centres for each and every constituency. These centres, however, must be thought primarily as information hubs, places for up-to-date, accurate and empowering information brought to the nation's people constantly, continuously and consistently.

Rural people's most pressing poverty concerns, for instance, have much more to do with not being aware of what's happening throughout their district, province and nationally. Economic life best takes root, depends upon and follows on when a people are made well aware of the different forces in their lives. Isn't that the major reason why so many land owners are reluctant to allow their lands to be developed? Money alone is unable to move them to give permission since they remain unaware and hence unsure what will be the consequences to the lives of their people down through the years.  

Although more than 8 out of every 10 people nation-wide do not live in urban centres, and who actually own and control the nation's land, trees, rivers, fishing ground, reefs, etc. remain the least informed even today. Yes, of course, they are certainly cash poor but their most profound poverty has more to do with their information lack. Too often a villager leaves his home site, travels long distances on less than a comfortable ship to reach Honiara in order to re-join that most favoured part of society.

A Growth Centre is an attempt to invest in the village sector with some of the information, services, employment, etc. which we living in the urban parts take for granted. Investing in a Growth Centre is a way of bringing social equity to the bulk of our people so that all citizens bloom. Over a 32 year period and if truth be told even during colonial days, there has been distinct bias favouring one part of the nation over the other. Honiara has absorbed the lion's share of national wealth and has continued to do so at the expense of the well being of all our people.

One of the most effective means of keeping scattered and hard to visit villages is to use broadcast radio. Already some institutions—Don Bosco Society out at Tetere and SIDT here in Honiara—have found that a 3 to 4 hour daily broadcast time in language on a daily basis has increased significantly the information flow to people. Now that Government has allocated money to help Members visit their villagers, a broadcast radio set up in each constituency could only assist in this same work. Rather than a Parliamentarian visiting only 8 to 10 villages each time after a House sitting, the member could inform all his people through radio what exactly the recent sitting was about and how the member had addressed local problems.

A Growth Centre's major purpose is to give the majority of our people a chance to be part of the fashioning of a new Solomon Islands which works for all. For too long only the select few, found in urban centres, have been at the core of doing well while the rest of the nation saw their dreams of a better future falling further and further behind. A new government can implement a program where the majority of our people can look forward to a better and healthier life.

Monday, September 20, 2010

On Judgment Day we won't be asked what we read but what we did!

J. Roughan

21 September 2010


Currently, there's much fuss about the fact that one of Danny Philip's cabinet ministers can't read or write. Yes, I too would have been more pleased had the MP selected for that ministerial post, was skilled at reading/writing. Although I have yet to met the man at all, I do know he's self made, runs a successful construction firm and knows how to get the best out of his workers. All these skills are vital in running a vibrant and productive ministry. Good luck to you, Minister!


But I think the public's concern would be better served by focusing attention on more fundamental weaknesses within our political system. Not being able to read/write, though serious, is not in the same league as ex-convicts holding down major political offices, or seriously sick members trying to carry out the duties of office and represent their constituencies and once again our political system's recent rejection at the polling booth of well qualified women all send red-flag signals that our political system needs serious review.


Years ago, I think it was in the late 1980s, Ben Kinika, a Makira man, held the post of Minister of Finance in a Mamaloni-led government. I knew Ben quite well and on one occasion asked him how did the typical member handle the complex, difficult bills coming up for parliamentary debate. I found reading these bills myself a challenge, one that forced me to read and re-read them again and again before fully grasping and understanding them.


Ben shared with me that, yes, a number of MPs had come to his office, some would throw the Bill Paper on his desk and say: "Ben, tell me what does it all mean?" These members had no trouble reading these Bills but understanding them was something else again. At least these Members knew well enough to approach a peer and get a proper and full explanation from a trusted source.


So although illiteracy at such a high level is a worry, there are other issues in our political system that cause more serious concern. The nation now has three ex-convicts holding down senior governmental positions which raises far more serious concern than not knowing how to read/write. The public service, especially at the Permanent Secretary level, is ideally positioned to assist ministers who find it hard to handle technically difficult position papers and such.


Not so the ex-convict! Although a lawfully discharged prisoner has served time and has now been set free, society must accept him back into the community. However, it should also be recognized that many times the community may well demand higher standards of public accountability and, in some cases, a better performance than other parliamentarians who have never been behind bars.


Hence, the former prisoner has a double hurdle to overcome. Not only must he do his ministerial work well but he must also be conscious that not all in society will be willing to listen and follow his directives. Our people are a forgiving lot but find  it more difficult to forget which too often colours their response to government requests. The Public Service system has no ready answer to lighten a minister's work load but to constantly remind the world that the minister's previous serious faults have been paid in full.


A third category—seriously sick men—is more tricky. During the 8th Parliament, 4 sitting parliamentarians died, although relatively young, while in office. Already the present government has suffered the loss of one of its youngest. It's not difficult to predict that more members will die while in office. The question that should be on our leaders minds, however, is how to minimize the number of seriously sick persons from entering the political race in the first place.


While the national Constitution is silent on the issue of physical health, one would think that political parties, the political elite and voters themselves would send a clear directive to all candidates that only persons who have passed a medical fitness test should be eligible for such high office.    


The most serious challenge facing the Solomons, however, is the continued rejection of women entering Parliament at all. This error continues on even though its 32 years old. We are basically hurting ourselves, trying to fly with one wing when the rest of the world already knows that unless both wings—men and women—are part of political life, than expect more and more difficulties in the years to come.


The inability of a member to read/write is unfortunate but the system can manage it. Past serious criminal actions open a fragile and slowly steadying governance to stresses and strains it has little experience in handling. A seriously sick member will certainly test not only the individual Member but the constituency which voted him into a position of power. The continued rejection of qualified women, however, is dangerous to the nation's health and well being.


Each of the above challenges sends a message, a mixed one at that. How these are handled over the next four years will determine whether the message is mostly positive rather than negative. What meanings our young people read from these messages, however, will determine the future of our beloved Solomon Islands.    

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

No one wants to be servant!

J. Roughan

15 September 2010


Recruiting stewards and stewardesses for international as well as in-country airlines is getting harder and tougher these days. Yes, these airline people like the pay, they love travelling all over the world and they look forward to all the excitement but balk continuously about being servants . . . serving people during the flight.


People, these days, don't want to be considered servants. Leaders, yes! Big Men, certainly! Any title is fine so long as it doesn't have too much connection with service, putting others before oneself. Isn't this part of our national leaders current problem! How they love hearing the title 'Honourable' but find it hard to see themselves, their role and their duty primarily to serve those who have voted them into power!


And this attitude of not accepting that a Member's first and foremost duty is servant introduces dangerous practices. It's so much easier to hand out project proposal funds than making sure that No.9 is functioning well, that the toilets are not overflowing with human waste and the doctors, nurses and technical staff are hard at work, each day, every day.


Much the same could be said about teachers. Rural schools too easily loose out having the necessary teaching staff who are actually in the classroom for five days a week for the 40 weeks of the school term. Members have a duty to the people of his constituency to make sure that this happens.


Our young people cry out constantly for more employment, better jobs and ways of regularly making a few dollars. Waiting for the overseas investor to come in and magically produce these jobs does not work. Yet, parliament has yet to set itself up as a major help in this field. RAMSI, for instance, has poured in more than 6 BILLION dollars (1 Billion Australian) into the Solomons since 2003. Yet we don't have a fruit picking program for our young people in Australia as New Zealand has done in its own country. This is where an active Parliament comes in handy. It has the mandate to create legislation formerly requesting Australia to be as generous in their agriculture areas as they have been through RAMSI.


Over the years, certainly since 1989 when SIDT ran its first Report Card and published the poor survey results over a twenty year period of Report Cards, it became clear that a major shift was happening right under our noses.  Parliamentarians were changing their understanding of what was primary and essential as members: law makers, monitoring government's performance, steering the ship of state away from reefs and danger. 


But they began to view their work less and less as service to people and what was actually asked of them as law makers, monitors, and managers of the Ship of State.  Many were giving higher preference to becoming project supervisors, social welfare workers and walking ATMs dispensing money.


Witness Transparency Solomon Islands recent report of the members of the 8th parliament. According to its findings, five members could only drag themselves to parliamentary sittings 50% of the time and many, many of them actually participated little in the drafting of national legislation. The vast majority of members hardly ever spoke for or against the 44 bills brought to 8th parliament.  


And the national elections of last month once again underlined the close connection that voters see between Members primary work—legislation, monitoring state work and steering the Ship of state, the MV Solomon Islander--and what is much more secondary—funding project proposals, welfare work and dispensing hand outs.


The 2010 election results speak for themselves. Half of the members of the former house never returned to Parliament. Normally, on average, 44% of members don't make it back to the House. This year, however, there was a major increase in members failing to make it back to their seats. 


It is early times for the 9th Parliament. It can accept itself either as Servant to the people of this nation or continue down a road which has proven disastrous to many ex politicians.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The government truck is all gassed up and ready to roll; its drivers have been hand picked; but, no one is sure where it's going!

J. Roughan
13 September 2010

The above statement sums up what is happening in the Solomons these days. The nation is anxious for the newly elected politicians to step up to their work and begin governing. Our elections, thank goodness, went off smoothly. We now know who is in Cabinet, but exactly what direction the nation is headed for is unknown as yet. What does the government think are the most pressing problems the nation faces and how we are going to overcome them remains still a deep, dark secret.
We are told, however, that the newly appointed government is currently working on a draft document, a plan, which outlines its strategies for the next four years. In the meantime, the 19 Crown Ministers who are suppose to direct hundreds of public servants, who are chewing up millions of dollars weekly, are not even at the starting blocks as yet. Yes, they are undoubtedly sitting at their desks but what exactly they will do while waiting for the government plan to roll out, is unclear. Do they carry on with the last government's priorities, experiment with something new, do their own thing or what?  
This is no way to head up a government which will be spending millions and millions of tax payer's money in the next few months. The nation can't afford the luxury of waiting until this government plan is publicly unveiled and to find out where we are headed for this year. It's been almost six weeks now since citizens elected the 9th Parliament into office but we are still back in limbo, not knowing how government plans to tackle the many serious national problems. These won't go away any time soon but will become more difficult as the days pile up.
If ever there was a good reason for a strong political party system, some are saying, the present weakness of having to wait almost two months before a government begins to exert its power, proves the point. Yet, when studying the results of the recent poll, politicians themselves don't want political parties either. They feel they can make a better deal going it on their own.They much prefer standing as independents! Only the SIDP (SI Democratic Party), for instance, did well in the last election with 14 of its members gaining seats. Yet, few independent winners  decided to cast in their lot with the SIDP.
I think, as in the recent Australian election and earlier this year, the UK election, both sent a clear message to their political masters: 'We don't like the way you've been running the country!' The Solomons voter has sent much the same message to its political elite. Rather than establishing political parties which generate more heat than light, more confrontation than cooperation and more conflict than harmony, do something different the electorate is telling us..
Before independence in 1978, there was little talk, much less action about starting political parties. During those days, Legislative Council business was conducted through a committee system. Politicians with different points of view, sitting in on the same committee, would hammer out compromises rather than having winners and losers. It was less a contest than a way of coming to solutions for hard problems where there was many more winners and a fewer losers. Of course, the committee system takes more time but it produces outcomes better for national life than one that is built on confrontation and conflict rather than harmony. It's a practice much closer to people's customs and practices.
Because of Australia's recent 'hung parliament' where none of the big parties won a majority, there had to be a great deal of 'horse trading' before a government could be formed. What was unthinkable before--working out compromises and cooperation with minor parties and different small groups--became the order of the day. It will be interesting in the next few months to see how Australia and UK work out politics in this new way of governing.
Our own citizens have shown much more wisdom than we give credit for. DSE (Development Services Exchange), for example, just finished a most successful Domestic Poll Watching exercise where every one of the nation's 50 constituencies were covered by trained and dedicated citizens. Locals from the 50 constituencies attended 15% of the 910+ polling stations across the nation on polling day last month. Overseas Poll Watchers some of whom have experienced many other countries' polling days, were surprised and pleased by these villagers who proved to be so professional. The overseas official report about local Poll Watching activity is making its way to the UN and The Commonwealth Foundation. 
The nation has come a long way since 1978! Its people are much more experienced, informed and active. They want to be and will determine to be much more of a force in national political life. Writing them off as 'bush', or uneducated or lacking sophistication no longer makes sense. Our political masters will do themselves well and assist our own people in the process if they help this nation live up its full potential. It would be well, then, for the present government to draw in some of its ordinary citizens while the drafting of the new four year plan After all this same plan concerns people's lives and who would be more interested than the people themselves.