Photo by Natalie Behring / PANOS
It is not hard to imagine these Pacific islands as they were in the 1500s when a Spanish explorer came, found gold, and gave the Solomon Islands their name. The islands are still dotted with homes made from wood and sago palm and some 80 per cent of the population still have a subsistence lifestyle through farming, fishing, or hunting and gathering. Ownership of land and property is still spread out over family and kin networks, rather than being kept by individuals. This is what remains of the ‘old’ Solomon Islands where life is ruled by kastom – commonly accepted behaviour rooted in tradition.
But visitors who arrive in the capital city of Honiara, get one of the many taxis beating out reggaeton and weave their way through the car and footpath traffic, will see the ‘new’ Solomon Islands in full force. In Honiara are mingled many different Melanesian tribes from the islands, Polynesians and Micronesians wearing lavalavas (sarongs), as well as wakus (Chinese entrepreneurs) going about their business. Kastom here is more about the strength of local cultural norms in the face of foreign influences; life is more about the balance between where you are from and where you want to go.
Economic development and aid have been restarted following a period of violent conflict between people from the islands of Malaita and Guadalcanal (where Honiara is situated) in 2003. The economy grew by almost five per cent in the first year of peace and, to the surprise of many a Western economist, studies found this growth was entirely due to industrious small-scale fishers, farmers and other family-run businesses.
The arrival of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands has had many unintended effects. This began as a peacekeeping force initiated by the Pacific Islands Forum and morphed over time into an Australian-dominated law, justice and statebuilding ‘intervention’ that has now lasted over five years and looks set to continue for another five. Among the byproducts are a rapid growth in housing in Honiara, which has in general favoured those city dwellers with already established assets and businesses, while the poor have been pushed further away from the city centre. Despite this marginalization, malnutrition and extreme poverty are very rare thanks to the wantok system of strong social obligations to care for the extended family. Ironically, this safety net is also a key obstacle to better distribution of wealth via government, as politicians tend to channel privileges and assets to their wantoks.
As islanders look towards the imminent next election in 2010, it is with a general sense that something has to change. A law granting special payments to spouses of Members of Parliament (MPs) caused widespread public outrage and a public service strike, prompted by the sense that political élites were taking the country for a ride to the detriment of the average citizen.
This dissatisfaction is nothing new – the Solomon Islands Development Trust has consistently rated government capacity to provide basic services as unsatisfactory over the past two decades. The absence of armed conflict has revitalized local campaigns such as Transparency International and Winds of Change calling for greater accountability from politicians. In addition, women’s groups are pushing for change, the country having elected only one female MP in its 30 years of independence. Civil society is thriving, as church and sports groups in particular pool their energy and resources to promote education, women’s empowerment, and traditional dancing and art.
Notwithstanding the old jokes about ‘Solomon time’ (a long time to get something done) and ‘Solomon stori’ (a roundabout way of telling a tale), there is a lot happening as the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Solomon Islands meet and become the country’s future.
|Leader||Prime Minister Derek Sikua (since December 2007).|
|Economy||GNI per capita $1,180 (Papua New Guinea $1,010, Australia $40,350).|
|Monetary unit||Solomon Islands dollar.|
|Main exports||Timber, fish, copra, palm oil, cocoa. The ethnic violence of 2007 produced an economic collapse but modest growth has now been restored. In any event the subsistence lifestyle of most people to some extent cushioned them from the economic shock. Among the undeveloped mineral resources are lead, zinc, nickel and gold.|
|People||596,000. Annual population growth rate 2.7%. People per square kilometre 21 (UK 253).|
|Health||Infant mortality 30 per 1,000 live births (PNG 53, Australia 5). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 100 (Australia 1 in 13,300).|
|Environment||CO2 emissions per capita 0.4 tonnes (Australia 18.8). Logging has been a particular problem in the Solomon Islands, exacerbated by Asian business interests, local corruption and the lack of government regulation. Protection of fishing has also been held up by lack of community control of marine resources and gaps in national controls over what happens at sea. Refuse and water pollution are common problems in urban areas.|
|Culture||Melanesian 93%, Polynesian 4%, Micronesian 1.5%, with Chinese and European minorities.|
|Religion||All but the 4% following local traditional beliefs identify themselves as Christian, with Anglicans 45%, Catholic 18%, Methodist & Presbyterian 12%, Baptist 9%, Seventh-Day Adventist 7%, other Protestant 5%.|
|Language||English is the official language but is only spoken by 1-2% of the population. Many more speak pidgin, which is derived from English, but there are more than 120 local languages and dialects.
Human Development Index: 0.610 (PNG 0.541, Australia 0.970).
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||The Government’s ability to collect taxes and distribute them is weak and most basic services such as health and education are currently suffering budget cuts.|
|Literacy||The current rate is difficult to ascertain post the conflict which ended in 2003. UNESCAP figures in 1999 indicated 84% of men and 67% of women were literate but these are likely to have been overestimates.|
|Life expectancy||64 years (PNG 57, Australia 81).|
|Freedom||The media lost public support due to their perceived bias towards the various parties to the conflict but they have bounced back, with three newspapers, three radio stations and a TV channel competing for the public interest. The media enjoy as much freedom as the courage of their journalists and editors allows, although access to information and interviews from senior political figures can be difficult to come by.|
|Position of women||A UN-sponsored campaign to get a certain number of seats set aside for women politicians was rejected by Parliament, which currently has no female members despite the significant role of women in the peace process. Domestic violence is common.|
|Sexual minorities||Homosexuality is illegal, and punishable by up to 14 years in prison.|
|New Internationalist assessment||The Solomon Islands is best described as having several systems of governance ranging from customary to national state, the state being the newest and often lacking public legitimacy. The Government still has a long way to go in establishing transparency and accountability, while dissatisfaction with its ability to provide basic health and education services is high. So while there is leadership and accountability in some traditional and community settings, disapproval ratings for MPs are so high that many will not be re-elected this year.|
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