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Thursday, January 27, 2011

It's a two way street, gentlemen!

 J. Roughan

27 January 2011


Recently, the Solomon Islands Taxi Association proposed a serious hike in taxi rates . . . more than 40% above the present one of $7.00 per kilometre. SITA members are asking the travelling public to start paying $10 per kilometre at the beginning of February this year.


Certainly the rapid rise in fuel costs both petrol and diesel has forced taxi owners to review their cost structure and they feel the public must bear these new cost increases. However, it would be most re-assuring if other South Pacific nation's capital cities taxi costs were included in their discussions. How does Honiara compare to Port Vila, Suva, Moresby and other cities in taxi costs?


Is Honiara once again leading other Pacific cities as it does in the costs of telecommunications, electricity, water, etc. services? Fuel costs across the Pacific have gone up dramatically! Honiara is not alone in feeling the costs of higher transportation fuels. But have other taxi services across the Pacific asked their public to shoulder a more than 40% increase in one hit? Please, SITA do some basic homework, find out what other Pacific nations are paying and share the info with us.


But as important as the proposed rate hike is to the Taxi Association is, there are other areas of public concern which could be worked on and which would be a great help to Honiara's riding public. Let me share these concerns with you, how the Taxi Association could bring to the minds of the nine groups which are currently running the taxi service.




Although most taxi drivers do their best to make their cabs clean both inside and out, there are just too many vehicles which are not passing the test. It certainly is heartening to see the many taxis lining up along the cemetery road, getting washed down and teams of women brushing and cleaning out the interior of these cabs. But this cleaning station, unfortunately, is too often the exception. An increase in basic taxi fares should also mean a cleaned up and neat inside and out of every taxi as well.




The taxi itself well might look in mint condition—clean, shinny, neat—but if the driver is dressed more like a Hollywood extra for a pirate movie, what kind of a reception is that?. His headgear has all the trappings of a bright flag wrapped around the head, his shirt would well be advised to be introduced to hot water and soap while his trousers are in need of patches in a number of areas.


Perhaps we in Honiara have grown used to such 'pirate' dress but believe me the overseas visitor comes with different expectations. At Henderson Airport, for example, where more than 90% of people visiting the Solomons for the first time come into the country, visitors need to be reassured by taxi cab drivers who are carefully dressed and driving cabs which not only look respectable but are truly inviting.  




Of course before a taxi is legally allowed to travel our roads, it must pass the safety requirements issued by government. It's system of checking on the good working order of breaks, tires, signal, etc. of any vehicle before allowing it to work our roads, needs help from the Taxi Association as well.


Road safety calls not only for safe cabs, but more importantly, the taxi drivers themselves must be screened as well. The raw ability to steer a car, work the gears and step on the break is not sufficient training for drivers who are allowed to pick up passengers and are expected to transport them from A to B safely.


It is here where the Taxi Association could play a pivotal part in making taxi travel not only pleasurable but most importantly, safe. If the proposed taxi fare increase could also guarantee a cleaner vehicle, neater driver but most importantly a more competent and careful driver, then the increase of fare would be more than worth it. It's a two way street: fare increase must also mean cleaner, neater and safer taxis trips.

A second coup?

J. Roughan
19 January 2011
In June 2000 the nation suffered its first and until most recently its only coup. Misguided leaders of the time thought that by using the business end of guns, they could overnight right many long standing injustices, correct government shortcomings and gain a bit of loot for themselves on the side. Yes, that Civilian Coup certainly did achieve results, most of them destructive--dozens of Weather Coast killings, torture, house burnings, hundreds of displaced villagers, rapes, bitterness, etc. The Coup left the nation reeling in misery for the better part of 5 years. 
In the minds of most of our people the Social Unrest years of 1998-2003 seemed to be on the way out and heading for a happy landing. RAMSI had been invited in and now into its 8th year of presence, it seemed that the idea of people taking the law into one's hands and doing things the 'bush way' was slowly on the way out. But, unfortunately, last week's events put a stop to such thinking!
Last week's shady and underhanded way of freeing a self confessed criminal--James Lusibaea--from a court ordered prison sentence must go down in the nation's short history as another kind of coup. The 2000 Coup had focused its attention on the elected government of the day. It forced the Ulufa'alu Government, for instance, to vacate office and the Coup Masters installed a new one, something more in tune with its understanding of how a  'proper' government should act.
Of course rarely do such results come about the way we plan them! What the Solomons actually received, however, was a destructive social situation as stated above--killings, unrest, burnings, etc. What then can we expect from this, the latest of Coups, this one against the nation's court, justice and prison systems. The Law of Unanticipated Consequences, much like happened after the 2000 coup, will now darken our future. 
In the 2000 Civil Revolt, for instance, few Coup Leaders expected such dreadful consequences that occurred on Guadalcanal, parts of North Malaita, in the Western Province and a few other places. They were convinced that they would be able to contain most evil deeds because they alone had gun-power which they were ready to use. But once a group of poorly trained leaders think they know best, have guns at hand  to enforce their plans but are not truly formed by time-tested principles of good behavior, then all kinds of unintended evil begin to root in society. 
The recent Lusibaea Saga will bring about its own serious consequences. One of the first things that will hit us is the drying up of investment monies to the country. What international business house, corporation or individual won't be thinking twice about sinking serious money into a country where a small group of political elite play so loosely with court convicted criminals. Already many outside investors are running for the exits taking their monies to other shores where the return on investments is as good as here but where the Rule of Law actually operates for all in a fair and transparent way.
But of course the drying up of much needed investment monies will become the least difficulty because of this Justice and Prison Coup. What's far more serious, as actually happened in the 2000 Coup, are the social and community fall outs. The nation, some now believe, operates two kinds of justice. If a criminal doesn't agree with the way the present court system works, then he will get cronies to mount a campaign of intimidation, pressure weak politicians to bend to their will and have their man out on the streets once again. This can happen no matter how serious the crime committed.
If there are two criminal systems at work, the clever, well connected criminal, will opt for the easier way out. What criminal wants to spend years behind bars, deprived of freedom and live a strict life under supervision when with a bit of creativity freedom can be once again available. 
We in the Solomons are fond of practicing the strange doctrine of 'charity to one at the injustice to the many'. Mr. Lusibaea's freedom has been bought at a huge cost--placing in danger the well being of our society. Just like the 2000 Coup, a few dozen leaders and their cronies had convinced themselves that their way would be best for all. When the dust of the 2000 Coup finally settled, it became crystal clear that the majority of our people had become worse off, dozens of them dying in the process, while only a handful of coup leaders ever faced the courts for their attempt to destroy the nation for their own greedy purposes. 

Living on borrowed time!

When a tsunami, cyclone or earthquake hits the country, there is little the nation can do until the event plays itself out on our shores. We can just hope for the best! Have we prepared ourselves and the community well enough--heading for higher pieces of land, stocking up on food, water and other necessities, planning for temporary shelter, etc. etc? In other words, many natural disasters can and must be prepared for. Leaving everything to the last minute is a recipe for a greater disaster.
J. Roughan
13 January 2011

However, there are some disasters which are rarely forecasted on the radio or written about in newspapers. These are what we can call the 'silent disasters' which have a habit of sneaking up on us and literally killing many in a community. One such disaster has already claimed dozens and dozens of lives PNG and in this new year has already sickened almost 300 sick people in Port Moresby. It has an excellent chance of hitting us here as well. It's the cholera epidemic! 
In Haiti, for instance, more than 3,000 people have already died from the cholera epidemic which hit that poor island after the devastating earthquakes of January 2010. Its an epidemic that is far from over and the country is bracing itself for many more of its citizens to die. PNG recently received a helping hand from mainland China with a gift of several hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight this disease.
Cholera, a highly infectious disease features watery diarrhea, vomiting and cramps which can lead to death within hours especially among young children. One of the best preparations against this kind of disaster getting a foothold in groups of people is plenty of clean water, proper sanitation and taking care of solid waste. These are the very things that Honiara and most villages are in terribly short supply.
Honiara's new city council's top priority is to increase the salaries of its workers. That is a solid idea since many of Honiara's longest serving workers find themselves at the bottom end when it comes to monthly salaries. But not far from that payment priority must be doing something about the city's poor public health track record over the past ten years. Truly Honiara's citizens 'live on borrowed time'! 
Anyone staying in town has a first hand knowledge of the shocking state of our water supply. Add to that serious health condition is the fact that the Solomons only city does not have a single public toilet, its record on collecting rubbish from its 70,000 inhabitants has been dismal and its handling of solid waste leaves much to be desired. Each of these serious problems acts as an open invitation to the cholera disease to take hold and produce a lethal epidemic which would certainly overpower No. 9's ability to stop it. 
Currently we are sitting in the midst of a 'silent disaster' which could hit us at any moment. Cyclones, floods, earthquakes, etc. are beyond our  power to stop. All we can do is make the damage they will cause a bit less by proper preparation. But a disaster like cholera is some thing quite different. We can actually stop this disease in its tracks, before it has a chance to take hold, not by hoping for miracles, but by strengthening the basics of ordinary city life: insure a clean, abundant water supply, pick up people's rubbish on a daily basis and take care of the city's solid waste..
But one of the greatest defenses against a killer disease like cholera, however, has been totally forgotten by Honiara authorities for more than 10 years now. It is the city's duty to take care of human waste, to have a number of public toilets scattered around the town. Currently I know not a single public toilet that is working anywhere in town. 
Of course public toilets are an expensive proposition! People don't use them correctly. They waste too much water! City workers don't want to have anything to do with cleaning them! Etc, etc. Public toilets don't come cheaply. But try cholera! See how cheap that is. PNG has already lost dozens and dozens of its citizens to this dreaded disease which is preventable.
Please read what I'm proposing to Honiara's newest elected members to plan to do in this matter of public toilets in my column next week. Can the city make public toilets less expensive, in fact, a money spinner? What is your answer to the fact that we are 'living on borrowed time!'

A Dual Development strategy!

J. Roughan
6 January 2011
Every new year gives the Solomons a chance to write up a new page in our short history. A chance of starting over once again! To review what hasn't been working for us over past years and start doing certain things differently. After all, a fair definition of mental madness is to insist on doing the same action over and over again and expect a different outcome.
Each and every Solomons government, from its earliest days in power, has fervently preached the development message. Once in power, so  each successive government solemnly promises, people's development will be first and foremost on its mind. In fact, the word development is never far from its lips, it fills their programs of action documents and directs policy statements. Yet, when it falls out of power or is voted out of office after a few years, little is seen at ground level of any kind of development.
And people are well aware of this profound shortcoming and know all about this failure in their very bones. That is why they currently cry out for more and more of the constituency funding to go directly to them and not get lost in politicians' pockets. People's reasoning is clear, simple yet persuasive! For almost 33 years now millions and millions--at this writing development funding has already grown to BILLIONS--have been  handed over to parliamentarians, given to government ministries and spread among provinces and State owned Enterprises but the country has little development to show for the tons and tons of money so generously showered on them.
It has become so common that the ordinary citizen now thinks that development can only come about if and when people themselves get direct funding for their projects. Government's position, in this kind of thinking, is seen as being an interested by-stander but it is the village man and woman as the main and major agents of change.
But it wasn't that way in the beginning! Not at all! In the nation's earliest days--1978-1984--for instance, the governments of the day started their development plans off in the traditional way: enhance medical coverage, strengthen and extend educational opportunities, assist villagers with their agricultural production and help people earn modest amounts of income from small businesses, sales of produce and employment.
However, when Namu Cyclone hit us (1986), political thinking began to change radically.. It became clear to many leaders, our political masters and moneyed individuals that the traditional development strategies would take many, many years to accomplish, cost millions of dollars to  bring about and those very leaders would no longer be around to gain credit for the up turn and progress of the masses.
There had to be a quicker and more local way to bring about this fundamental development change. The answer to their problem was literally staring them in the face: invite southeast Asian loggers to harvest the nation's tree wealth so that millions of dollars would flow into the country. Such a profound money injection would allow the state to gain millions of dollars of revenue almost painlessly and with that money in hand, real development would begin in earnest. There would be no need to beg for donor money any longer since our round tree log exports would supply the necessary funding.
Many political leaders saw few negatives coming from such a great plan. None of them, for instance, realized that by 2015 the forests which were covering the Solomons at the time--1987-2000--would almost completely disappear from our shores. But even worse, society's social fabric would lie in tatters. Our Social Unrest years of 1998-2003 are directly linked to this disastrous decision of allowing strangers from afar basically steal our tree wealth during the years following Cyclone Namu. 
It was during this period that citizens came to the conclusion that development--lifting up the majority of our people out of poverty by bettering their living conditions--would best be undertaken by the people themselves. Government had become less and less interested in raising the quality of people's lives.. SIDT's Report Cards, for instance, published since 1989, more than a twenty-year period--detailed how governments of the day consistently scored failing grades when it came to lifting its people out of poverty and strengthening their quality of life.
Those 8 Report Cards allowed small people of the nation a chance to measure how well or poorly their government was doing when it came to better medical attention, a stronger school system, assistance to people's cash cropping activities and garden production and the availability of ways to gain modest amounts of money. Unfortunately, in each and every Report Card people failed the governments of the day in their efforts to raise the quality of people's lives.
That is why the nation is witnessing a strange dual development strategy: people seeking funding for small projects to raise their quality of life while government busies itself with other concerns: foreign affairs, the state of the economy, large infrastructure projects, e.g. Tina Hydroelectric scheme, etc. etc.  Until government makes the people of this nation it's number one priority, then all its other works will come to nothing.

But it didn't happen here!

J. Roughan
29 December 2010

2010 was one of our best years in a long while! Compared to what happened to us during our Social Unrest Years (1998-2003) and the 2007 Tsunami we did quite well this year. Not that 2010 was perfect but what didn't happen to our country and what could have taken place plus what actually did take place made 2010 a year not easy to forgot! And especially to thank God for!
Just take a few natural catastrophes that struck the rest of the world but almost completely passed us by. In January this year, for instance, the poor people of Haiti were hit by a massive earthquake which killed more than 270,000 in a matter of days. Your heart would have to be stone not to be moved by all the pain, suffering and death that's still happening on this small Caribbean island. How fortunate Solomon Islands has been over the years that a similar earthquake hasn't hit us. What grace worked on our behalf to have been spared such a fate?
No two countries, of course, are exactly alike but some do come off being quite similar. Haiti, although on the other side of the world from us, sits on its own 'ring of fire'--earthquake zone--as we do, both of us are island nations of almost the same land mass dimensions: Haiti has 10,700 sq. miles while Solomons is 11,100 sq. miles. Haiti's land mass, however, is basically a single large island while our country is broken up into major and minor island groupings.
The similarity of social indicators for both countries, however, is striking. Both boast of huge youth populations under 15 years of age--Haiti, 38%, Solomons, 41%; life expectancy for both is low--Haiti, 57, Solomons, 62; there's little difference in Gross Domestic Product numbers:  Haiti, $1,300, Solomons, $1,900; and both have a Human Development Index (a way of measuring economic and social well-being) scores  that are almost the same: Haiti, .521, Solomons, .591. The biggest difference between Haiti and ourselves is population. The Caribbean nation has 20 times our number (almost 10 million) while we have only recently hit the 500,000 mark.
Had Haiti's devastating earthquake hit us much the same suffering, pain and death would have been our lot for sure. Yet, our Guardian Angles were working overtime to spare us that suffering. Even the destructive forces of other natural disasters, Pakistan's floods, for instance, were ours but on a very minor scale. Guadalcanal's northeast corner was hammered in March and April this year by torrential rains but nothing in comparison to those of the East Asian continent.
Our biggest blessings of the year, however, were on the social side of things. We experienced a national election--the 8th one so far--that went off without a major hitch. Overseas observers as well as local and domestic observers were pleased with our people's conduct. Such an accomplishment is a major step in the country's political maturing which many an African nation would give its back teeth to pull off.
At this very reading one African nation, Ivory Coast, is locked into two presidents, two prime ministers, each with separate cabinets. The country's national election went off smoothly enough but the losing candidate refused to gracefully accept defeat. Military action to get rid of the losing candidate is actively being considered. In the meantime, however, dozens of people lay dead and literally thousands are fleeing for their lives to neighboring countries for safety.   
Our own elections, on the other hand, went off like clock work and although some losing candidates did not fully agree with the final results, they didn't turn to the gun but went to the courts for an election review. Hopefully the misguided leaders of our Civilian Coup of 2000 have finally woken up to themselves and realize that the path of violence but breeds more violence and accomplishes very little in the way of social and political peace.
Even this year's severe international financial meltdown which brought so many nations, both big and small, to the brink of destruction was contained by our own institutions, leaders and traditions. The half-hearted Youth Riot which followed on the jailing of a government minister was quickly taken care of. Not only was the Chinese community wise in their way of protecting their stores--iron fences in front of a business as well as strong steel doors--but the police were quick off the mark to contain the few dozen rioting youth. There was no repeat of the 2006 Chinatown Burndown!
We as a nation can do little to change the course of a storm, stop an earthquake or to lessen torrential rains from hitting us. However, we do have much to say when it comes to caring for our social order. We can do one of three things. Leave it all up to God to make things better, try to do things completely on our own or finally, act in partnership with him. The last way, working in partnership with the Lord, is the way he has made the world to work. He doesn't interfere with us if we decide to take things into our own hands. These actions have a habit of self-destructing nor will he do things wholly on his own. But working with Him seems the best way to make good things happen. Perhaps in 2010 we were beginning to learn after all!  A peaceful and enjoyable New Year to all!

Time is not on government's side!

J. Roughan
22 December 2010

The Philip Government has been in the driver's seat since late August. That's more than four months now! Although it has survived a number of dangerous internal shocks--death to two of its members, a cabinet member's return to Rove and other serious internal woes--it still manages to function as a going concern. But that reality is not the same as saying that it is governing the nation. The events of the last three to four weeks--ministerial shuffles, fining of illegal fishing ships, etc.--are more about its own survival than exhibiting a strong governance model!
But NCRA backers are claiming that the Government is still very early into its hopeful four-year term of office. Present difficulties and its hic cups should not be seen as anything very special. A quick review of the reality of Solomons' politics, however, quickly raises doubts about this claim. Basically the present government should only count on being in power for three years, not four, to accomplish anything of note. 2011, 2012 and 2013 if undisturbed by a successful 'no confidence' motion, are the only years open to it to push through its legislative program.
During any government's last year in office, and 2014 is when the next national elections should be coming on stream, national political history  reminds us that Parliamentary campaigning comes on strong, one could say, overwhelmingly in the last year of the life of any parliament.  Little else fills Members' heads during the last year of their term, except, of course, how to win back their seat in the House once again.
So allowing that the last four months of this first year in office has already disappeared like rain in desert sands it is a 'big deal' for any new government to start off strongly in its second year of service. NCRA is going to find it tough to gain back its initial drive of becoming the new government of the land. But that hope must be part of its new year's strategy to gain back people's respect and hope. They are looking forward  to a better and brighter future than what they have received so far at the end of 2010.
NCRA's Policy Statement document is filled with dreams, visions and hope-to-do plans. But few of these plans, given the three-year time frame available to NCRA, are able to get off the blueprint table much less become realities on the ground. There is one project, however, that could be unleashed in early 2011, which could respond to a much forgotten people, historically sidelined by government after government since independence, and answer our youth's hunger and thirst for paid employment and to be part of the nation's development story.
I speak of a villager-crafted road stretching along Guale's Weather Coast from Kuma Village in the west of the island to Marau at Guale's southern end. Such a locally worked road project, if properly presented to the donor community, could open up a whole new stretch of Guale's land holdings to thousands of people who have been abandoned by the authorities for more than 30 years. In fact, it has been this very abandonment over a number of generations that lies at the heart of our Social Unrest years of 1998-2003.
Of course, permanent bridges construction, culverts, strengthening road sections, for expertise, advise and over sight monitoring from outside the local community but the basic road building work would be assigned to village populations lining the road way. Extra workers could come from the youth population when called for.
Such a major development road making project sends an unmistakable message: Weather Coast people are important to the nation, it would bring in much needed income for many levels of society of the area and re-establish links of people with government both on the provincial and national levels.
The message in this short essay is that the present government has little time on its hands to effect projects and works to make a difference to the citizens of this nation. It's vital that the newly established government 'put runs on the board and quickly so'! Its first four months of power have not been that productive and it needs to show the nation that it is the right group of people who given half a chance can bring the nation up to its potential.

A Solomons Stock Take!

J. Roughan
16 December 2010

Successful business people, to keep their enterprises healthy, normally conduct an-end-of-the-year Stock Take. The business owner--counts  what hasn't been sold over the year as well as the business' money already in the bank--to see whether his business has been a profitable one, or still struggling to survive or worse, failing. We as a nation would be well advised to do much the same exercise and conduct our own Stock Take to see how well we as a people have been doing over the last ten years. 
Compared to the nation's first decade of the 21st century, the Solomons has started its second decade off strongly, well and most importantly we are a nation at peace with ourselves. Recall that the nation's first ten years in the 21st century was filled with major unrest and dislocation to our normal island life. For all intents and purposes, during the first few years of the present century, Solomon Islanders found themselves in the middle of conducting a war with itself, a Civil War.
The roots of that conflict were not hard to find. Leadership, especially our senior political leaders, were caught up with searching for easy, fast money. Governing the nation was put on auto-pilot, something best done on its own. One needs only remember the folly of the Tulagi Gold Dig, the Musingku's (Bouganiville's own conman) billion dollar scam, plans to bottle bush oxygen, senior ministers jetting off to the Far East for 'free money', etc. etc. It was no wonder that although these easy money schemes didn't on their own create the Social Unrest years, they certainly added fuel to an already raging fire of national discontent.  
Our 2000 Coup, years of Social Unrest--1998-2003--, RAMSI's on going presence since 2003, the 2006 national election with the Chinatown Burndown, the most recent 2010 national election and the Lusibaea court sentencing have left a series of deep scars in our people's minds and hearts. Not that the rest of the world outside these islands we call home, has been all that rosy and tranquil. Far from it! The world's events have had.too often, direct negative impact on our own island home--the Iraq invasion in March 2003, for instance, made it that much easier for other Pacific Island nations especially Australia, to jump into our lives with the hope of coming here to help us sort things out.
What international events, already afoot in the Big Outside World, will have serious impact on our own lives here in the Solomons over the next ten years or so?  There are many examples of world-wide breakdowns: the many financial crises in Ireland, Greece, Italy and France; the strained relations between China and Japan; the threat of war between North and South Korea; Vladimir Putin's warning of a Russian nuclear escalation; the nuclear build-up in Iran; the deteriorating peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians; the pervasive corruption in Iraq, Afghanistan; Wikileaks embarrassing world leaders, disrupting international relations, endangering lives, and threatening candid diplomacy.
These world events coupled with our own home grown pains and difficulties have a strong tendency to make our next ten years or so more, not less, difficult. That is why it is important for the nation to conduct its own Stock Take, figure out where our next set of major problems are coming from and prepare ourselves to cope with them. 
Not many nations like the Solomons get a second chance to re-invent themselves and end up in a positive position. Africa's Somalia remains a failed nation even after 20 years, Iraq and Afghanistan are in the middle of a nine year war with more years of unrest to follow, etc. Our economy, although not the strongest in the Pacific, still functions well for the Solomons half million people with months and months of overseas reserves to pay for the importation of food, energy and goods.
No, our difficulties will come from an other direction.Climate change, for instance, will test the nation to care for those village communities which will experience the strength of the ocean which surrounds us, Our poor of food security is another areas of concern and one which will test our strength to assist those people who may not be wantoks but certainly are citizens of the country and must be helped when the time comes. 
But the most pressing difficult we face is our unemployed, bored youth who have been at the forefront of each and every riot since 1989. Last month's unrest at the delayed Lusibaea's court case is an example. Whether the unrest is unleashed by swear words posted on a market stall (1989), a failed football game (1993) or a tainted national election (2006), the major actors in each and every riots have been our youth. They are expecting that the new government will create a youth cadre willing and able to help the nation in its infrastructure building or other works that pay modest amounts of money so they can do something useful for the nation.