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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Solomons' Third Rail

J. Roughan 
28 October 2010

Solomon Islanders have rarely seen a subway train up close. This kind of train operates much like a public bus except it usually travels underground but doesn't use either petrol/diesel power. Subways are driven by electricity delivered along a special steel rail. This rail is highly charged, quite dangerous but effective in delivering power to move a train.
Although this third rail, as it is called, is great for powering trains, it is also highly dangerous, and can be lethal to anyone who touches it by accident. Some political commentators use this third rail picture to warn the general public as well as politicians that to discuss certain national issues can be really dangerous, must be carefully studied before going public and that all be put on notice of their potential danger.
We had a case of a Third Rail topic on Friday afternoon last week. Solomons Law Forum set up a public discussion on government's up coming Forgiveness Bill proposal. More than 100 participants from across Honiara turned up for SIBC's two-hour live broadcast which featured a number of leading Solomon Islanders. Fr. Sam Ata (chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), Hon. Manasseh Maelanga (Deputy PM), Mr. Andrew Radclyffe (Legal practioner), Mrs. Ruth Lilogula (Commissioner of Lands) and Rev. Ellison Baku (Pastor) were panel members.  Mrs. Moodie Nanau, Supervisor of SIBC's Program Presentation led these Forum members in a lively discussion concerning this Third Rail subject: Government's Forgiveness Bill.
Although the exact wording of government's proposed Forgiveness Bill proposal has yet to be drafted, many Panel Member as well as those in the audience voiced out their disquiet on the merits of such a bill. It didn't take long during the discussion period for many to raise some basic questions both from the floor as well as from the dais. Forum participants zeroed in on the issue with such questions as:  'Forgiveness for whom?', 'Forgiveness for what?', 'Who has the basic right to forgive: the government, society in general or the victim?'
So even before a single sentence has been written about a possible Forgiveness Bill, people are lining up not only to study what Government might want to enact into national law, but, in this case, are questioning the very basis of such legislation. In past years, national leaders were ever so quick to reach for amnesty legislation when something terrible had been done. Before the courts could begin to operate, some politicians were calling for amnesty for those who had committed the crimes. The Townsville Agreement comes to mind. Heaven forbid that some Big Man face a court of law, be found guilty of committing a serious offense and then sent to Rove for years for his crime!
Although the Townsville Agreement was conditional--all arms had to be returned before any amnesty would begin to operate--few if any guns were returned. It made little difference to those who were demanding amnesty that high powered guns had been returned or not. Only when RAMSI came on the scene in 2003, were many of these arms finally surrendered. Even to this day, it's common knowledge that some high powered guns are still out there in villages and are yet to be returned. But that doesn't matter! The Amnesty part of the Townsville Agreement must be honored no matter what is said about the unreturned high powered guns.
This basic imbalance is one reason why last Friday's Forum surfaced people's distrust, disquiet and disgust which a Forgiveness Bill would create if it were made the law of the land any time soon. As many said during the Forum, who is it that can offer forgiveness? Isn't it first and foremost the victim, those who suffered major loss of loved ones killed, serious property damage and loss of livelihood? Is forgiveness simply a juridical thing? Is government thinking that there should be legislation dictating that certain crimes at certain times can never be tried in a court of law?
How such a mind set could bring lasting peace back into the hearts of people who have yet to be compensated but only a handful of the offenders have stepped forward and said from the heart: "I'm sorry for what I have done to you and your family! Please forgive me!" Once that giant step has been taken, then a Forgiveness Bill might have some meaning for society and a chance of being passed by Parliament.
During last week's public Forum one participant made the point that the proposed government legislation would best not be called a Forgiveness Bill but something else, e.g.  a Restoring Justice and Peace Bill with an emphasis on reconciliation, personal, communal and national. But mere word change is enough! There has to be national preparation geared to change minds and hearts. For years, now, SIDT has been running a Restorative Justice Program which police personnel, police trainees, Rove prisoners, village groups and women's organizations have participated in. The present Truth and Reconciliation Commissions' reach out program is another way of touching the hearts of our people and showing how important healing and reconciliation are to the national health.
For our political leadership to bank solely on a piece of legislation to heal a divided people who have been so terribly hurt is the wrong way to go. Before any legislation comes before Parliament, victims and offenders should be given a chance to reconcile. A few pigs, some shell money and a heap of yams on their own will never accomplish this task. It takes people meeting together, looking into each others eyes and saying from the heart: "I'm sorry for what I did!" Perhaps with that major step taken, legislation could be crafted which would seal the healing process.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When did Adult Education disappear?

J. Roughan

22 October 2010


Each and every political party which contested last August's national election, made a special point to stress the need to seriously increase the education budget. The promise made was crystal clear! If a particular political party formed the nation's newest government, then it promised to spend big bucks on education.

The present coalition government, NCRA—made up of at least six political parties--was no exception. It put teeth into its education promise in its recently published Policy Statement. NCRA "considers education as a key ingredient in all spheres of human development".  Its Policy Statement details what it means by saying it "will fund tertiary education, including scholarship for SICHE", "recognizes the importance of promoting distant learning" and give serious consideration "to establish a National University of Solomon Islands".

However, lost in all this education shuffle is the vital place of Adult Education in the lives of our Olos. Of course tertiary, secondary, primary and pre-school education lie at the heart of keeping our nation up to the mark and running well. And the mantra that 'today's youth are tomorrow's leaders' is whole heartedly accepted! We know in almost backward fashion that our youth population makes up more than half of all our people. And it makes perfect sense to focus on youth, their education needs and what future the nation faces if it fails to educate its youth.

Yet, it's the Olos, not the kids, who still control the nation's resource base. They are the ones who must say "Yes!" if the land is to be used for oil palms, coconuts, cocoa, etc. But, here we are well into the 21st century and the Olos education base, compared to ten years ago at the turn of the century, has improved very little. Yes, you say, these Olos are close up to the grave, in fact many of them have one foot in it, so why pay attention to what they say or don't say. Well, let me inform you loud and clear that if we continue to try to get around them, dismiss their importance or just don't listen, then nothing will happen. Malaita gave us a clear signal!

In the 2006 Sogavare Government, great effort was expended to have Malaitan landowners sign on the dotted line to allow their land holdings be used for new palm oil plantings. The government at the time spent big bucks trying to accomplish this task but at no time that I am aware of was there serious attention given to discoursing the land issue with landowners, making them aware of the importance of this type of planting, etc. Too often raising land owners awareness, the resource owners concern, was too often simply a matter of waving bunches of dollars in front of them. Then, we expected then to jump at the bait. Well we all know what happened! Here it is four years later and not a single, solitary oil palm has been planted on Malaita.

When the Colonial Government became serious about establishing formal education in the Protectorate in the 1960s, things took off. When I first arrived on the scene, for example, the school fee at that time--1958--was two sticks of tobacco which I would hand over to a child's father to allow me to take his child to school at Tarapaina in South Malaita. By mid 1980s, however, school fees were no longer a few sticks of tobacco. They had jumped to hundreds and in some cases even thousands of dollars per year. Island people had been convinced of the worth of education and were willing to shell out large amounts of cold, hard cash to buy into the system.

Of course paying school fees was an accepted investment. People's reasoning was clear enough: have my child get a solid education and the world of work, paid employment, income and salaries, opened up for the educated student. The pain, sacrifice and hard work of getting enough money to pay school fees became an acceptable reality. This investment, after a few years, would begin to pay off for the family, uncles, aunts, relatives and wantoks who had scraped together the necessary school fees.

Why hasn't this same logic been followed in the case of oil palms and other large scale cash crop plantings? First of all little or no land was in question when school fees entered the picture. Families across the nation eagerly bought into this new thing called  education. People could    experience almost on a daily basis that the educated person had advantages and little was lost of any real wealth, their land and its resources. The world as they knew it and had lived by since childhood had not going to this new thing called school.  

But giving over large tracks of precious land for many years to perfect strangers really attacks the very basis of how they think this world works. The only reality for the typical Olo is the land and its resource base. Few if any of them stash cash under the bed, even fewer operate cheque  accounts or have IBD deposits with the banking system. All they have in this world is what they rest their feet on each day, gather their daily food intake and are comforted constantly, their land.

Taking that security away from them is like asking them to start off a new life in a foreign country. Yet, I do feel change is in the air. The Olo is not stupid, not dumb but is searching for a new way of remaining on his beloved land, living off it and still preserving a way of life that, although new in some respects, has a great deal of the old still sticking to it. That's where Adult Education must come into the lives of Olos. Less than 50 years ago many of them embraced a new way of living when they worked hard to get school fees. These same Olos are open to change but the nation has to help them find this new world which guarantees a way of life which protects their most precious gift, the land, and a people's future.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Some good things; many hard ones but some definitedly dangerous!

J. Roughan
14 October 2010
Government's National Coalition for Reform and Advancement policy statement has at last made it into the public arena. Although a bit on the thin side, it's still remarkable that in less than 50 days, half the time normally expected of a newly-formed government to publish its dreams, visions and plans into black and white, NCRA has done it. Of course, the devil will be in the details, how these dreams, visions and plans are actually carried out in a Solomons real world.
Some of Its aspirations--meeting the Millennium Development Goals, raising the quality of life (rather than the trite and overused D-word development), rural-based economic growth, etc.--are admirable. Other visions and goals present hard choices like registering customary lands, emphasis on all aspects of education, doing something creative in the forestry sector, substantially build up tourism, etc. are certainly hard areas of concern which will surely test NCRA metal.
But NCRA's most dangerous goal of all is to fundamentally test the idea that "control over resources will continue to remain with the state or outsiders." In uncompromising language the NCRA policy statement boldly announces that "ownership of land reverts to the control of resource owners" (p 12). This means a new direction for Solomons Islands and on the face of it, definitely dangerous. Dangerous to the nation's growing establishment--national politicians, Honiara elite, business interests, power brokers, etc.--which over a 30 year period has built up empires of money, power and position.
The Solomon Islands Constitution clearly states:"the natural resources of our country are vested in the people and the government of Solomon Islands;" Few of the country's landowners, however, have ever agreed with this statement. Its their understanding that the people through their clans, tribes and liens are the only legitimate owners of the nation's resource base. All others, including the State, are outsiders!
Over the past 30 years, however, government after government ever since 1978 simply assumed that they and they alone controlled, directed and for all intents and purposes acted as if they owned the nation's land and sea resources. Because of this belief by Honiara's elite, over a three decade period of time, Solomons people, in the process, have been changed into two different kinds of societies. One became rich, well educated, politically strong and dominant. The other part of Solomons society, the vast majority, the nation's citizens, traveled in another direction! Too often, it was the villager, although the true owner of the nation's resource base, who to this very day remains poor, half educated, politically weak and subservient.  
For example, the annual average revenue allotted to all nine Provinces between the years 1995 and 2000 was $96.6 million. During that same period, the Honiara based elite through government salaries, housing allowances, different perks, vehicle allocation, etc. etc.--managed to gobble up a lion's share, $239.7 million each year. This terrible imbalance of national wealth resulted in a vertical split of 70% going to Honiara's special groups while the remaining 30% was earmarked for the rest of the nation.
It is no wonder then that some rural wealth producers finally rebelled and the nation experienced a Civil War during the 1998-2003 period. But leading up to those years of strife, ordinary Solomon Islanders were already voicing out their deep displeasure, in no uncertain way, by failing each and every government of the day. SIDT's twenty years of Report Cards scored 8 separate governments, starting with Mamaloni's one in 1989, to the Sikua-led group in 2009, with failing grades.
Governments' basic service delivery to the nation's poor majority has been consistently judged inadequate. In these people's Report Cards, citizens marked the governments of the day with a score of much less than a 60% mark. It was the people of the nation who consistently gave the governments of the day these failing grades. Yet, rarely did government listen to their plea and try to lift scores into passing grades.
That is why the NCRA government's plan to bring the natural resources back to the landowners will find difficulty in changing the mind set of those who have governed this nation since the late 1970s..These have so much at stake in how the present system works which awards them so well, to change. They find it hard to accept that the nation's wealth should be more evenly distributed. Our new government has finally  detailed its dreams, visions and plans. Some of these plans are good, many, however, are going to be hard to put into practice but at least one plan--"ownership of land revert to the control of resource owners"--will be dangerous to implement. But it must be done to insure that this nation belongs to all and not to the select few.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Parable out of the blue!

J. Roughan
8 October 2010

Most Solomon Islanders are already aware that Christ was fond of using the parable. It became his favorite teaching device. As he said more than once, his people were a stiff necked mob; very difficult to accept new ways of thinking. But the parable in his hands became a great tool to penetrate people's inner most thinking, offer a new way of looking at the world or at least undermine the certainty of their convictions. His Good Samaritan parable remains classic.
But the parable never died out! Even today in a Solomons context the parable remains an important teaching tool able to move people to re-look at their lives, to present a different way of understanding events or at least cast doubt on what was often considered unchangeable. Allow me to share with you a parables of an important Solomon Islander taught me more than 40 years ago.
Aliki Nono'ohimae, co-founder of Ma'asina Ruru with Nori, the father of Andrew Nori, lived in a village near Kiu in West Are'are. Our paths crossed many times during the 1960s but the most memorable came in 1968 when a group at the Rohinari mission station planned to erect a major health clinic in that part of Malaita. The building planned would be 30 meters long, 14 meters wide, steel framed with roofing iron and all the things necessary to make for a major construction.
In January of that same year, I called for a major meeting of all the Arahas of the area, including Aliki who was the Paramount Chief of West Are'are and beyond to discuss the construction of this huge building. The meeting was well attended, more than 150 chiefs from as far south as Maka to the north at Hauhui. During the meeting I made three non-negotiable demands: each family had to contribute $10 which at the time was serious money. After a bit of discussion, it was accepted. The second demand--each of the 9 villages involved would send 20-25 workers each week until work on the clinic was completed. This caused much debate but finally it was decided that as difficult as it was, it could be done.
However, my third demand almost proved insurmountable. I asked that the Are'are custom of holding feasts (houra)--marriage, death, compensation feasts, etc.--be suspended for the next 8 months or until the clinic was finished. I knew that even with the little bit of donated money at hand, without a work force the project would have come to grief. A feast given at Wairokai, for instance, would certainly attract hundreds from neighboring villages in Waisis, Rutorea, Kiu, etc. etc. That would mean no work force and lost time!  
My explanations on the matter fell on deaf ears. No, said the majority of those present. Such a request was going far beyond what the group could agree to. Arguments for and against raged on for at least an hour with no break through in sight. Then, Aliki raised his hand to speak and the classroom meeting grew quite silent. He asked me: "Are you finished speaking?" My only response had to be a polite yes and I sat down in the front of the classroom waiting for Aliki to deliver his verdict.
Here was the Paramount Chief, fully in charge of custom and tradition, and rightfully accepted as the highest authority in these matters. I was a White Man of only ten years residence in the district and was asking that custom and tradition of many years standing be suspended in favor of building a clinic. The outcome for my plans didn't look particularly bright and already my mind was racing to think how to save the day.
Aliki rose from his seat,  strode down the center of the classroom and at the same time he was reaching into the small woven pouch which hung around his neck. As he neared where I was sitting, he stopped, pulled out a 5 pound Australian note (worth $10.00 in Solomons currency) and gently placed it on the table before me. He announced in a loud voice: "Here is my contribution! Talk stops now and work begins tomorrow!"
Everyone in the classroom except myself understood the full meaning of his action. Not only had he blessed the project, he had also made it  clear that, although he himself could never use the newly built clinic (in his spirit world, it would be taboo to enter any building where a woman had given birth) he wanted it for his people.
Aliki with minimal words had decreed that in spite of people's important customs and traditions, other forces were of more worth . It took me many months, however, to fully understand the full meaning of his action. As Paramount Chief he, in full public view, had stated that other forces were beginning to work in the area and a new mind set had to take root. His action was a Parable out of the blue!

We all come up together or no one does!

J. Roughan

7 October 2010


Our people suffer from a deep, profound and weakening sickness. More than 6 out of every 10 citizens can't read or write. The world around us, including many of our island neighbours, boast of having better literacy rates than ourselves.


The modern age is marked by a transforming information network whereby people on the other side of the world knew as much about ourselves, our nation and our problems as we do. Australia, for instance, is currently spending more than $3 billion to lay fibre optic cables so that even those citizens far from urban centres and living deep in the bush will be connected up. Expensive for sure but absolutely necessary if their nation is to exist far into the 21st century.


Its thinking is: invest in faster, more secure and reliable information technology or come in a distant second in the Information Revolution. We, on the other hand, don't seem to mind if the bulk of our population remains in the 19th Century. 


This Information Revolution is not about dry, dusty words in some book or other. Nor is it simply a repetition of the old ways of thinking but much faster and quicker through computer use. No, it is truly a Revolution, a brand new way of looking at this fast changing world. It's one of profound new ideas, new ways of thinking. No nation, no matter how rich with its natural wealth of land and sea can long last if more than half of its people are unable to enter the Information Revolution.


Unfortunately, our ruling class—politicians, business elite, educated personnel, moneyed leaders, etc.—feel little unease that most our people are unable to compete in this new world. Our people are crippled with a kind of 'polio' so that it's impossible for them to compete in the Information Revolution race.


Literacy, national leaders say, is a school problem, isn't it? Let the education system come up with worthwhile solutions. We will study them and if found acceptable, we will fund them. Our attention must be focused on more pressing problems like our salary increases, entitlements, housing allowances, etc.


But illiteracy is much more than an education issue or basically about village living. This profound basic issue lies at the heart of why our nation is currently so deeply divided into the 'haves and the have-nots'. What makes our national problem so serious, probably more than in other countries, is the fact that our 'have-nots' are the real owners, controllers and directors of the nation's resources. The 'haves', on the other hand, control little and even the little bit they do have a say in is fast slipping out of their hands, e.g. re-writing of a new Constitution.


But a major step to reversing this serious illiteracy issue is at hand. The present government is seriously studying the idea of establishing Growth Centres in each of the nation's 50 constituencies. A Growth Centre is basically an information hub where villagers will be at the centre of learning. With the use of an FM radio reach out, informing and opening up of new ideas on a daily basis, broadcasting in local language daily for a few hours, our Resource Owners could be energized to embrace the idea of reading and writing.


Already, however, even before a single Growth Centre has been established, different voices are accenting another kind of Growth Centre, one which business, commerce and the almighty dollar are king. Information, yes, it's important but put first things first, these are saying. People are cash poor and getting a bit of cold, hard cash into their hands immediately must be the order of the day.


It makes little impact on this kind of thinking that although the nation already experiences a tsunami of money—3 commercial banks, an expanding work force, new and multi-storied buildings spouting up in Honiara, hundreds of cars, trucks, buses, taxis roam our streets, yet many of our people remain poor. Government itself finds it next to impossible to reign in its spending ways. Supplementary budgets are dwarfing the whole budgetary process.


A Growth Centre, on the other hand, accents the vital need of people's interaction for information, first and foremost. Less we forget, it was only a few years back, that it was the small time worker, village gardener, fisher, etc. who snapped the Solomons economy from below zero in 2002 to take a giant step up to 5.8% in 2003, before RAMSI came on the scene.


All of this economic activity was not driven by government investment, or Honiara business involvement. It came from the small villager's limited information base, a great deal of local enterprise and sheer determination to make things happen for the better.     


Literacy is not about 'them'! It is the basic step of the nation to lift itself out of poverty. We can't have part of society 'living high off the hog' while the vast majority sink more and more into poverty.